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Probation Service

Volume 787: debated on Thursday 14 December 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the report of the Chief Inspector of Probation on the performance of the probation service.

My Lords, the Government are committed to delivering a probation service that strictly enforces sentences, reduces reoffending and protects the public. It is reassuring that the National Probation Service, which supervises high-risk offenders, is doing a good job overall, and we will use this incisive report to continue improving it. We have changed community rehabilitation companies’ contracts to better reflect their costs and are clear that CRCs must deliver a higher standard of probation services.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord. However, does he agree that this well-researched report, which I commend to the House as of interest to us all, presents a thoroughly dispiriting account of just how great has been the deterioration and the effectiveness of the probation service in the past three years? It is now clear that the so-called innovative programme has resulted in a disjointed and incoherent system despite the hard work of the staff. I hope the Minister will agree that the victims of crime, the courts of this country and local communities deserve better, and I hope urgent action will now be taken to recover what has been lost in these recent changes.

My Lords, we recognise the concerns identified by the inspectorate and are working hard to address these problems. Many of the performance issues with CRCs stem from the financial challenges that providers are facing, which has meant that we have addressed those contractual terms. However, I observe that nearly two-thirds of CRCs have reduced the number of people reoffending.

My Lords, this report is another legacy of the unlamented tenure as Lord Chancellor of Chris Grayling. The chief inspector states:

“Regrettably, none of government’s stated aspirations for Transforming Rehabilitation have been met in any meaningful way … I question whether the current model for probation can deliver sufficiently well”.

She identifies a number of deep-rooted organisational and commercial problems and says:

“We find the quality of CRC work to protect the public is generally poor and needs to improve in many respects”.

She adds that,

“unanticipated changes in sentencing and the nature of work coming to CRCs have seriously affected their … commercial viability, causing them to curtail or change their transformation plans”.

They have reduced staff numbers, some to a worrying extent. Is it not time for the Government to review their ideological commitment to private sector organisations playing a major role in criminal justice, with results often as disastrous as these?

My Lords, this is not an issue of ideology. Many of the CRCs’ performance issues stem, as I say, from the financial changes they have faced because of the limited number of referrals they have received, and that has impacted on their performance. We hold CRCs to account for their performance through robust contract management. Where that performance is not good enough, we require improvement plans to be put in place.

My Lords, one of the important issues that the chief inspector raises in her report is the fact that low-risk people, who are supposed to be supervised by the probation service, can become high-risk. She gave the example of someone convicted of driving while disqualified, who was receiving telephone supervision—one call every six weeks—and who eventually assaulted a previous partner. Does the noble and learned Lord accept that a phone call every six weeks is no way to supervise people who are supposed to be under the supervision of the probation service?

My Lords, supervision of offenders needs to be proportionate to the risk they present. In some cases, remote contact may be appropriate for lower-risk offenders who are complying with their orders. However, we recognise that best practice is for probation officers to work with offenders face to face.

My Lords, can the Minister please tell the House what the case loads are for individuals in the National Probation Service and in the community rehabilitation companies? A case load of 200 is simply unacceptable, and it is unbelievable that anyone can exercise any form of supervision of that number of people.

My Lords, I do not have the current figures in respect of case loads for the service but I undertake to write to the noble Lord and will place a copy of that letter in the Library.

My Lords, the Minister has been meticulous in not thanking or supporting the inspector for her report. I invite him to do so. During my 12 years in government I came across Dame Glenys Stacey, and she is one of the finest public servants I had contact with during my time as a Minister. She deserves incredible support and the thanks of the House for the report, and I should like to hear it from the Minister.

My Lords, I am perfectly happy to endorse the observations made by the noble Lord. Had I been asked about that point earlier, I would have responded in the same way.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the spouse of the founding director-general of the National Probation Service. This is a devastating report and the Minister will find some of the statistics that he is unaware of in it. These reforms were ill framed and speedily and poorly implemented. Does the Minister accept that it is time to go back to the drawing board?

We do not accept that it is necessary to go back to the drawing board. It is, however, necessary to address the shortcomings in the delivery by CRCs. That is what we are in the course of doing.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the CRCs are properly breaching people, given that they are not fulfilling the requirement of their orders? Does he accept that it is extremely important that the judiciary and the magistracy retain their faith in community sentences? If the orders are not properly administered and people are not properly breached, it will undermine faith in those sentences.

My Lords, I endorse entirely the observations made by the noble Lord. It is for the courts to impose programme requirements as part of the community or suspended sentences orders that they make. Clearly, we have to ensure that they continue to have faith in the system when they are making those orders.

My Lords, surely the case is overwhelming for a careful review of what the Government were warned about by the House of Commons Justice Committee and others: not providing the resources for Through the Gate supervision of prisoners, which was the purpose of the reform, would ensure that it would fail. Given that the structure has not worked either because, as the Minister has indicated, far more people have been referred to the National Probation Service because of the level of their offence, it is surely time to review the operation of the scheme.

My Lords, we do not consider that a root-and-branch analysis or going back to the drawing board is required at this time. However, we are taking active steps to address the very point that the noble Lord raises. Indeed, we are paying CRCs significantly more in the way of funding to ensure that they can deliver the services required, including, critically, Through the Gate services.

My Lords, if the whole purpose of prison and the probation service is rehabilitation, which it must be, is it not essential that whether you live in Lincoln or Bootle or Bognor or Bath, you get the same service? Will my noble friend reflect on that and on the wisdom, or lack of it, in farming out responsibilities of the state to private concerns?

My Lords, responsibilities have not been farmed out. Contracts have been entered into and they are properly supervised.

Is the noble and learned Lord really saying that the Government are satisfied with a telephone form of probation, because I do not believe anybody in this House is?

My Lords, we are not satisfied with the telephone form of probation but, as I said, contact with offenders has to be proportionate to the risk they present.

My Lords, I assure the Minister that when these proposals were put through by the coalition Government they were ideologically driven, and some of the flaws that have emerged reveal the kind of compromises that were created in the probation service. Before these reforms, the probation service had an excellent report; we now have this disastrous report. If the Minister is approaching this ideologically, I put it to him that there is now a strong case for handing probation over wholly to the National Probation Service.

My Lords, I am not approaching this matter as an ideologue. I am approaching it as a Minister with responsibility for the implementation of the existing system of probation, in which we continue to have faith.