Prisons and Probation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:56 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn 1:56 pm, 14th May 2019

Listening to the Justice Secretary is always a pleasure. He was calm and reflective and is committed to trying to improve services, but he knows that that calmness and reflectiveness hide the shambles of the past six and a half years since his predecessor, Chris Grayling, took the decision to split the probation service, separating serious offenders and low-level offenders, and to ensure that contracts were given to organisations that evidently—as found by the National Audit Office, HM inspectorate of probation, the Secretary of State’s own Department, the Justice Committee and everybody who has looked at the issue—have not performed to the standards that the Secretary of State would expect or in the way he would expect to protect the public at large.

Let us forget the Secretary of State’s calm demeanour. He knows that his Government have presided over a complete shambles and he will now do his best to make the best of that bad job and to repair the damage.

My points are reflected in what has been said by the National Audit Office and the chief inspector of probation. We know that in 2013 the Ministry of Justice embarked on a reform of probation services and split serious offenders from the national probation service while establishing community rehabilitation companies, which, halfway through their term of office, proved to be costing the taxpayer resources because of their inefficiencies, to be increasing the overall percentage of re-offences per offender by 22%, and to be underperforming. Yes, there was an overall 2.5 percentage point reduction in the proportion of re-offenders compared with 2011; the Government had a target of 3.5%, so the CRCs underperformed against the Government’s own targets.

The National Audit office has had the opportunity to consider this matter and has said quite clearly that there was “patchy” involvement with the third sector, one of the Government’s major objectives. There was

“limited innovation and a lack of progress transforming probation services”,

another of the Government’s key objectives. There were

“significant increases in the number of people being recalled to prison”,

because supervision in the community was failing them. My constituents and others were being impacted by that through higher offences in their area. The NAO found

“ineffective Through the Gate…services to support transition from prison to the community”.

That was a key element for the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, who should really be answering the debate today to be held accountable for the position in which he has put the Justice Secretary. The objectives set by the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell have not been met.

My colleagues from the Justice Committee—including my friend the Chair of the Committee, Robert Neill, and others—are in the Chamber today. We did a full report on the state of affairs with CRCs and probation, and we—not Labour Members of Parliament, not former Ministers such as me, but a cross-party Committee—have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to introduce the transforming rehabilitation reforms without a pilot. We agree that there was a significant overestimation of the ability of CRCs to reduce their costs to match any fall in income when the contracts were agreed. We agreed fully that we were unconvinced that splitting offenders by risk was the right way to split the probation system. We agreed on a cross-party basis that the transforming rehabilitation changes weakened local partnership and local accountability, so there was less joined-up working and collaboration at a local level. These things all matter because it is about preventing crime. It is about turning people’s lives around when they have been in prison and need support in the community.

The Government have not yet accounted for the cost of that failure or for their performance, and they have not explained why bad decisions were made by Ministers, who rushed through proposals without due consideration. The Secretary of State can by all means do a calm, professional job—I tip my professional Member of Parliament hat to him—but he is presiding over his predecessors’ failure, and he has the job of making improvements.

At this morning’s Justice Committee I asked the chief inspector of probation, “Did the changes make the position worse?” She said, having been pressed a couple of times, “Yes, they did.” The Government need to account for that failure. We had 110 years of a probation service that took pride in its staff, with high morale. It delivered an effective service, but within the space of six years, the Government have put people at risk, split the service and reduced competence. We have not had an effective service, which has been shaken up, and it is now having to rebuild.

How does it do that? There is a model in Wales, where the probation service has been brought back together as a public service. I would like to see a justification not for why that has been done but for why it has not been done elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Government are undertaking a consultation—again, in a calm, collected, professional way, the Minister is batting that ball and taking those hits—and the outcome should be clear: the probation service performed better when it was a unified body, working with serious and lower-risk offenders, and when it had good rehabilitation services, including community payback services under its wing. Yes, it can contract out some of those services to the private sector—a drug charity might provide a good drug rehabilitation service; a local workplace scheme might best be provided by a local charity or a voluntary organisation. When I took the Offender Management Bill through the House of Commons in 2007, that was the private and voluntary sector involvement that we sought. It was not about splitting the service.

I simply say to the Minister, because I am coming to the end of my eight minutes, that I want to know who is accountable for this mess. If the Secretary of State stands up and says, “My predecessors”, that will help. I want to know what has been the consistent impact of this mess. There is a whole range of things that he and I know have gone wrong, and there are services that he and I know are not performing. It is his job to come clean and say those things in a professional way.

What happens next? I do not have time to talk about prisons, but I fully support my hon. Friend Richard Burgon in the belief that we should bring the probation service back into the public sector to meet the needs of our constituents, reduce crime, and turn offenders’ lives around. I welcome the new prisons Minister, who will respond to the debate. He should stand up and say, “I have looked at this. I have been in office for two or three days. I have come to the conclusion that my predecessors left an unholy mess, and I commit to bring the service back into the public sector.”