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Probation Services

Volume 803: debated on Monday 15 June 2020


The following Statement was made on Thursday 11 June in the House of Commons.

“With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the Government’s plans for the future of probation services in England and Wales. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the commitment and hard work of staff in both the National Probation Service and the community rehabilitation companies who have jointly risen to the challenge of Covid-19 in swiftly adapting to the new restrictions, and who have continued to deliver critical front-line services during this difficult time.

Beyond the immediate changes to our ways of working, however, Covid-19 also presents an ongoing challenge to the implementation of our ambitious programme of probation reform. Probation services are currently split between the NPS, supervising high-risk offenders, and private sector CRCs, supervising low and medium-risk offenders. Those changes were made as a result of a 2010 manifesto commitment to end the situation where short-term offenders received no support after their release from custody. That commitment was the right one to make and, of course, it still stands. The current CRC contracts will come to an end in June next year, and last year my predecessor announced plans in this House to replace the current CRC contracts by moving to a unified model. This will see responsibility for the supervision of all offenders transfer to the NPS, while each NPS region will have a private sector partner—a probation delivery partner—responsible for providing unpaid work placements and behavioural change programmes.

Covid-19 does not change our ambition to cut crime, to keep the public safe and to tackle reoffending so that fewer people become victims of crime. Strong and reliable probation services are essential in realising that ambition. However, given the significant operational impact that Covid-19 has already had and the uncertainty it brings for the future, it is right that we should reassess our plans. Protecting the public is my and the Government’s absolute priority. For that reason, I believe it is essential that we continue to deliver changes to how offenders are supervised by June next year as planned. However, the disruption caused by Covid-19 makes delivery of other parts of our plans considerably more complex, and looking ahead, it is vital for public and judicial confidence that we have the flexibility to deliver a national response to any future challenges that Covid-19 presents. For these reasons, I am today setting out changes to streamline the reforms, giving priority to unifying the management of offenders under a single organisation by June next year as planned, while giving us greater flexibility to respond to an uncertain picture across the criminal justice system and beyond.

Under those revised plans, we will end the competitive process for probation delivery partners. The delivery of unpaid work and behavioural change programmes will instead be brought under the control of the NPS alongside offender supervision when the current CRC contracts end in June next year. This will give us a critical measure of control, resilience and flexibility with the services that we would not have had were they delivered under 12 contracts with a number of organisations. We can reassure the judiciary and the public that, whatever lies ahead, offenders serving community sentences will be punished and make their reparation to society, and that programmes to address their behaviour will be delivered.

In making these changes, we cannot forget the role of specialist and voluntary organisations, which are vital in providing rehabilitation and resettlement support to more vulnerable individuals, such as women being released from prison or serving community sentences. They have also shown great innovation in continuing to deliver critical services during this challenging time, for which I commend them and express my deep gratitude. I am determined to preserve a role for these types of organisations, as well as the private sector, in the delivery of probation services. In the future system, we will, therefore, retain a dynamic framework for specialist rehabilitative services, but we must take account of the pressures that the market is currently facing. We will therefore prioritise the delivery of those specialist resettlement and rehabilitative services that are most needed in order to build a solid foundation that can be delivered within this timeframe and later built upon. We will be opening the dynamic framework for eligible organisations to register their interest in the coming days, and I encourage all organisations with an interest in providing rehabilitative services to register.

The unified model for probation delivery will ensure that we make the best use of the talents and skills in the public, private and voluntary sectors. For staff currently employed by the CRCs, the arrangements will mean that they will be in scope to transfer into the National Probation Service or to dynamic framework providers once CRC contracts expire in June 2021, depending on the work that they do. As we adopt a whole-system approach to criminal justice reform, it is vital that we continue to work together in partnership.

The Government remain fully committed to a mixed market in delivering custodial services, including our private sector partners, who run a high number of high-performing prisons in our estate. We are currently running a competition to operate the new prison that we are building at Wellingborough, which is due to end shortly, followed by a further competition to operate another new prison at Glen Parva. Our private sector prison partners will thus continue to play an important role in the custodial services sector, including as we deliver our ambitious programme of prison reforms, investing up to £2.5 billion to transform our prison estate and to create an additional 10,000 prison places.

I am confident that the changes I have set out represent the most sustainable approach for probation to deliver justice and to cut crime in the face of an unprecedented crisis. This approach will allow us to gain a critical measure of control over their recovery from Covid-19 and to ensure that we are best placed to respond to any future disruption. I believe that these changes will also support our proposals to reform the sentencing framework, as I set out to the House last October. We have already made significant progress as a Government in delivering that agenda, including longer prison sentences for serious, violent and sexual offenders, but there is much more work to do if we are even better to protect the public and restore fuller confidence in the justice system. As part of this package of reforms, I want to deliver robust community penalties that offer an appropriate level of punishment while tackling the underlying drivers of offending.

These changes to the probation structures will help us to realise that ambition by giving us greater control over the levers necessary to strengthen community sentences. My officials will work closely with current providers, stakeholders and staff to ensure a smooth transition during this challenging time, ready for the new unified model to come into effect in June next year. I commend the Statement to the House.”

My Lords, we now come to the repeat of the Statement on reforms to probation services in England and Wales. For Members participating remotely, microphones will unmute shortly before they are to speak. Please accept any on-screen prompt to unmute. I remind Members that our normal courtesies in debate still apply in this new hybrid way of working. It has been agreed in the usual channels to dispense with the reading of the Statement itself, and we will proceed immediately to questions from the Opposition Front Bench on a Statement made yesterday in the House of Commons on the wider opening of education and early years settings.

My Lords, I am speaking to reforms to the probation service in England and Wales—that is the Statement I am responding to. I thank the Deputy Speaker and the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other place. We welcome the U-turn announced by the Government, which is something that the Labour Party and the trade unions have been pressing for over many years. The probation service is a Cinderella service. It is forgotten by most members of the public who never come into contact with its services, but offenders, sometimes victims and those involved in the criminal justice system know how vital it is to keeping us safe, making community-based sentences effective and proportionate and attempting to reduce reoffending.

As a London-based magistrate, over the years, I have read hundreds of probation reports, so I am well aware of the practicalities and difficulties of managing offenders in the community. However, since 2015, there has been a sorry tale of ideologically driven reform and failure. Cost-cutting measures were dressed up as reform and reoffending rates have since climbed by up to 32%. The stated principal objective of the reforms was to reduce reoffending, and against that simple, fair and objective measure, they have been an abject failure.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is taking part in today’s short debate. He was of course the Minister responsible in this House for introducing the original reforms by the coalition Government. I do not want to rehash the many debates we had both at the time and since about the state of the probation service. I want to make a positive comment about what the noble Lord said at the time. If I remember correctly, he said that he was proud of introducing a National Probation Service. But with these further reforms, we are now moving towards a unified model for probation services and a whole-system national model to run the services, although elements of the delivery will still be done by voluntary sector charities and some private sector companies. I hope that the Minister, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will agree that this unified model is more likely to deliver the primary objective of reducing reoffending. Does the Minister also agree that if the new national whole-system model is to work to best effect, it needs to be properly funded and have well-established working relationships with local authorities, the NHS and support services?

The key to reducing reoffending for a very large proportion of offenders is the same today as it has always been—namely, stable housing, work or education opportunities and stable personal relationships. Very often, those three elements need to be fulfilled to encourage people not to offend. You need a network of services for the probation service to work constructively and to reduce reoffending.

The trade unions—that is, the National Association of Probation Officers and UNISON—have been at the forefront of leading the opposition to the 2015 reforms. As noble Lords will know, there has been industrial action and a judicial review. It is clearly the trade unions’ role to protect the interests of their members. What can the Minister say about encouraging the probation staff who are currently in the private sector to continue their work and enhance their training when they move to the new unified model? There is an opportunity here to properly recognise the work of all probation staff and to give them the career opportunities and training that they deserve. I urge the Government to seize this opportunity.

The Government might want to say that these reforms are due to coronavirus, but we all know that the problems go much deeper than that. As my right honourable friend David Lammy said in the other place when responding to this Statement,

“probation is founded on the idea of second chances”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/6/20; col. 428.]

As he also said, we want to give the Government a second chance. Therefore, I support this reform and I hope that the Government succeed in their original objective of reducing reoffending, but they can do that only by properly supporting the probation service.

My Lords, we, too, welcome the thrust of the Government’s change of direction in abandoning the failed community rehabilitation companies and moving back towards provision by a National Probation Service.

I am grateful to the Minister for writing to me last Thursday explaining the Government’s thinking behind the changes, particularly those rowing back on the involvement of the charitable, voluntary and private organisations in probation provision. However, those changes still come as a disappointment, and I regret that his explanation does not justify them.

Many in this House have called for significant reform of the probation service to co-ordinate the services for offenders in custody and for those serving community sentences, all to secure the best possible outcomes—improving rehabilitation, cutting reoffending and turning lives around. The failed CRC arrangements were memorably criticised by Dame Glenys Stacey when she was Chief Inspector of Probation—in no small part because they failed to involve the voluntary sector in supplementing that work and in providing effective through-the-gate services at the end of prison sentences.

Dame Glenys’s report reflected the reality that the system failed to harness the skills and enthusiasm of small and committed private and voluntary sector organisations. Therefore, when the decision was, rightly, made to end the CRC contracts, we were promised more specialist resettlement and rehabilitative support from independent probation delivery partners, as they were to be called, in each region. The new proposals planned in May last year were structured so as to encourage charities and other small voluntary and private sector bodies, many of them with specialist expertise, to get fully involved in providing rehabilitation services, whether in addressing addiction and mental health issues or in providing education, training and employment opportunities.

Sadly, today’s Statement sucks the life out of many of those proposals. The noble and learned Lord has suggested that that is all because of the disruption caused by Covid-19. No one wants to downplay that, but will he explain how the coronavirus crisis demands this retrograde structural retreat? How do the Government think that bringing delivery of all unpaid work and behavioural programmes back within the National Probation Service will work? Dame Glenys’s successor as Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell, has constantly pointed out how understaffed the service is. Now, he has had to stall recruitment, and that has been as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

We all know that morale among probation officers, as their union leaders remind us, is at an all-time low because officers are overloaded with work and have no time to give a proper service. Will the Minister please explain how the Government intend to maintain the present level of service, let alone improve it, by abandoning the commitment to bring in probation delivery partners? Contracts worth £100 million, organised and run by the National Probation Service for the voluntary sector and others, will hardly provide the innovative and morale-boosting changes that probation delivery partners were going to inject into the process. Can the noble and learned Lord explain how much autonomy organisations from within the voluntary and private sectors will have in delivering services under today’s proposals? Will he say how much money these new proposals will save?

Finally, does the Minister share my concern that this change of plan is not really about responding to the coronavirus crisis, nor about improving rehabilitation, but more about delivering on the Government’s commitment to make community sentences tougher and to punish offenders more firmly, just as his letter to me stated?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his observations, but I say this: I do not consider that we are engaging in a U-turn. We are engaging in a further development of the probation service, prompted by a catalyst—namely Covid-19—that has underlined the need for us to take perhaps greater direct control of the service.

The noble Lord referred to the reforms of 2015 as a failure. I do not accept that. It was part of a journey, and we have now come to a point where we believe that it is appropriate to take direct control, through the National Probation Service, of all matters except rehabilitation and resettlement, and to encourage the engagement of the voluntary and charitable sector in the provision of those rehabilitation and resettlement services, which the noble Lord himself acknowledged were so important. In developing this, we have engaged with the voluntary sector and with Clinks, the organisation for the voluntary and charitable sector.

I am asked what we intend to do to engage with funding for this. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, referred to the idea of savings, but that is not what we are concerned with. Here, we are determined that, through the dynamic framework for the provision of rehabilitation and resettlement services, the National Probation Service should engage with the voluntary and charitable sector. We anticipate that, eventually, we will be expending something in the region of £100 million per annum in the engagement of those services.

We have the highest regard for probation service staff, both at the national level and at CRC level. We are encouraged by the idea that many of those who are engaged in CRC probation delivery will move over to the National Probation Service and bring with them their experience and depth of knowledge. We will be encouraging that as we go forward.

On funding, for the 2019 spending round, we have already increased the annual funding for probation by some £155 million above the current spending levels. There is, of course, a case for maintaining that increase.

While I understand that some would regard this as a move away from the existing model, I suggest that it is a proper development of the model and of the way in which we set out the proposals for dealing with CRCs going forward. We believe that the voluntary and charitable sector will continue to have a major part to play in the delivery of probation services.

My Lords, we now come to the 20 minutes allocated for Back-Bench questions. I ask that questions and answers be brief so that I can call as many noble Lords as possible.

I am pleased that I am able to join in the general welcome given to the Statement. We want to focus on the future and not the past, but I must take issue with the Minister talking about a journey, because the journey that took place was in the wrong direction and has damaged a very well-established service in the most unfortunate way. In future, it will be critical that the probation service is given a substantial period of time during which it can be allowed, without interference, to rebuild its confidence and morale so that it is once more capable of playing the central and positive role in the criminal justice system that it did in the past, as I remember well when I was primarily a criminal practitioner on the then Oxford circuit—which I accept was not recently.

The noble and learned Lord and I differ on the journey taken by the probation service, but we both acknowledge its central importance in our criminal justice system. I am pleased and relieved that he believes we are, if only now, travelling in the correct direction. We plan to bring these reforms into place by June 2021, by which time we hope we will be in a position to ensure that the model we have now refined will deliver the sort of probation service our criminal justice system requires and very properly demands.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this discussion. Like others, whatever nuances of language there are, I welcome what I see as a general change of direction. Predictably, my question focuses on the charitable sector, which others have mentioned, not least the faith-based sector. One of the privileges and joys of my time as bishop to Her Majesty’s prisons has been to see the work of faith-based and community-based organisations all over the country, not least in work through the gate and in seeking to rehabilitate and resettle people into local communities. Many of these organisations are very small, but their fruitfulness and effectiveness has been attested to by research from, for example, the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. My question is about these smaller organisations, such as those encompassed by the community chaplaincy network. Can the Minister assure me that, in work with the voluntary and community sectors, these smaller organisations—they were almost completely squeezed out of the previous arrangements—will have their place alongside some of the larger, stronger charitable organisations? I am thinking particularly of those small organisations rooted in local communities, which work really effectively.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes an extremely good point. We are concerned to ensure that these smaller organisations will be in a position to deliver the sort of rehabilitation and resettlement services in which they have excelled in the past and in which we are confident they will excel in the future. We have endeavoured to make the bidding process under the dynamic framework as light-touch as possible and have engaged Clinks, the umbrella organisation, to try to ensure that the whole process will be open to the sort of charitable and voluntary organisations that the right reverend Prelate has referred to.

I congratulate my noble and learned friend and the Government on the decision to reunify probation services, which clearly has widespread support. Does he agree that probation is an often-unsung service, in which probation officers work hard to improve life chances for those stuck in the cycle of reoffending? These reforms will help them to deliver probation services that can improve offender rehabilitation and enhance protection for the public.

My Lords, we consider that these reforms will enhance the delivery of probation services; indeed, there would be little point in undertaking them unless that was a deep-rooted belief. I hope that the probation service is not an underestimated or unsung part of the justice system. I believe that, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, observed, it is acknowledged to be a critical part of our justice system. We certainly hope that these reforms will lead to a strengthened and more effective probation service, but we acknowledge the work that it has already done.

My Lords, can the Minister explain a little more about his “dynamic framework”, which features in the Statement? I want to know precisely how the third sector will be able to contribute to reinstating the rehabilitation regime. Many charities and third sector groups do incredible work to stop reoffending and turn lives around, but they are often local to communities across the country. Did I understand clearly from the Minister that the dynamic framework will imply some national form of bidding to get work? Small organisations need to be able to contribute locally; this needs local decision-making. Will the probation service, the Prison Service, local government and everybody else be able to come together with some form of local determination so that third sector providers can take on both through-the-gate work and rehabilitation work afterwards? I fear that the £100 million per annum will not be sufficient to engage fully the third sector, which can provide services much more cheaply because it does so on a voluntary basis.

My Lords, we will seek to ensure by way of the dynamic framework that directors of probation services can engage with the smaller voluntary and charitable organisations to which the noble Lord, Lord German, refers. We appreciate the important contribution that they can make to the delivery of rehabilitation and resettlement services; of that there is no doubt. Certainly, we hope also to reach out at a local level, for example to police and crime commissioners, to ensure that there is an element of locality to the way in which we engage and secure services. I believe that our intent to spend some £100 million per annum on these services will filter down and embrace the smaller parts of the voluntary and charitable sector; indeed, we are assisted in that by Clinks.

Can the Minister assure me that there will be much greater use of women’s centres, which provide an important alternative to custody for vulnerable female offenders? These centres have suffered during the experiment of part-privatisation. What can be done to ensure that they are returned to full capacity and that their number is increased?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. We are conscious of the particular needs of female offenders in the prison system. Going forward, we will seek to ensure that those needs are addressed. As I said, we are conscious that that is a particular demand on the service; it is one that we are anxious to address.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Minister for his kind letter last Thursday. I would like to ask him whether the competition process for the delivery of unpaid work and behavioural change programmes will be open to all voluntary and private sector organisations, or whether the National Probation Service will be required to buy a statutory amount from the private sector.

The dynamic framework anticipates that we will be seeking the provision of rehabilitation and resettlement services from the voluntary and charitable sector, with the other services brought within the National Probation Service.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister would agree that one man’s U-turn is another’s development of policy. I welcome the proposals from the Government. I am very proud that I was part of helping to create the National Probation Service, but, going forward, we have to give the service parity of esteem with other parts of the criminal justice system; it has never had that parity. Along with that, I would press the Minister, particularly at the present time, to consider a strong recruitment drive for the probation service among black and ethnic minorities to deal with the overrepresentation we have in the criminal justice and prison system, particularly among young people; they badly need mentors whom they can recognise and work with.

The noble Lord makes a very good point. We are certainly intending to move as many experienced personnel from the CRCs into the National Probation Service as are willing to make that move. As regards the recruitment of those from a BAME background, that is an important point and one that I would like to take away and consider. It may take—or require—some very positive steps to ensure that we can achieve that sort of goal, but I acknowledge the importance of such a goal in this context. As regards the standing of the National Probation Service, we regard it as being held in high esteem within the criminal justice system and we certainly hope that its profile will be enhanced by these developments.

My Lords, I welcome the unification and co-ordination of the National Probation Service. I did not think the current system involving private CRCs could work well. I worked for NACRO, the social justice charity, some 26 years ago, so I support the role of the voluntary sector in delivering support services to ex-offenders and other vulnerable people; it is a role that they perform very well. I do not think that introducing the profit motive in dealing with ex-offenders is a good idea. However, I welcome the commitment to spend £2.5 billion on the Prison Service, providing an extra 10,000 prison places.

We need more space in prisons, less crowding, more staff—including probation staff—and more care. Can the Minister confirm that this is indeed the aim of Her Majesty’s Government?

My Lords, we have on previous occasions explained our policy with regard to prison building and the capital expenditure that we are prepared to engage in for that purpose. That continues unabated. Going forward, we hope that with these reforms, assisted as they are by additional funding, the probation service will produce very positive results. We certainly hope to see a National Probation Service emerging in June 2021 that can engage with the demands for rehabilitation of our prison population.

My Lords, as an ex-trustee of the Koestler Trust I am very interested in rehabilitation too, so I warmly endorse the Statement’s tributes to the voluntary and charitable sectors. They do an extraordinary job. However, does the track record of the for-profit companies really justify their continued use in the Prison and Probation Service at all? Surely these services would be better kept in-house, where they would not be at the mercy of shareholders. If I may ask one supplementary question, do the noble and learned Lord and his department know anything about what happens in Sweden? Have they studied the Swedish way of dealing with these things? I am sure that this comes down to money, but it has been extremely successful.

My Lords, the CRCs’ contracts will terminate in June 2021 and will not be extended. In so far as we are putting out to tender matters of rehabilitation and resettlement, they are going out not to the CRCs but, essentially, to the voluntary and charitable sector, albeit with others coming forward to provide those services if they feel they are in a position to do so. I cannot comment on the Swedish model to which the noble Lord referred, but I will endeavour to take instruction on it and to discover just what analysis, if any, the Ministry of Justice has made of that system. I am confident that we will have looked at comparable systems. I will give it consideration.

I call the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Hussain: I will call the noble Baroness first and we will come back to the noble Lord if there is time.

My Lords, black, Asian and minority ethnic-led charities working in the criminal justice system have an important role to play in the new model for probation because they are trusted voices in their communities. However, they are in the main small scale and therefore less equipped than larger organisations to bid successfully for available funding. Can the Minister say what the Government are doing to build capacity in this specific part of the voluntary sector? How do they plan to strengthen communications between the probation service and BAME charities so that they do not continue to feel, in their own words, overused and undervalued?

My Lords, we have endeavoured to ensure that the process of seeking these contracts for rehabilitation and resettlement will be as light-touch as possible, so that it should be accessible to smaller organisations without expertise in bidding for such contracts. In the light of earlier observations, I am conscious that we should look in particular at the ability of voluntary organisations and charities that represent the BAME communities, so that we can ensure they are properly represented in this process.

I am sorry—I had problems before. Short prison sentences do not work to prevent crime. The Ministry of Justice’s own analysis shows that they lead to higher rates of reoffending than community sentences. The president of the Prison Governors Association has said that 12-month sentences do not work and are pointless. Will the Minister finally bring forward legislation to end pointless short-term prison sentences and invest that money in preventing crime?

We have no present intention to engage in such a policy change. It has to be understood that there are circumstances in which relatively short prison sentences are considered appropriate for disposal of criminal conduct. Therefore, we have to look across the board at how we will deal with those who, for example, persist in criminal activity time after time. We of course understand the potential of community sentences; nevertheless, that has to be balanced against the demands of the criminal justice system as a whole, which, in some instances, will require prison sentences, albeit of relatively short length.

House adjourned at 10.25 pm.