Prisons and Probation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:15 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:15 pm, 14th May 2019

It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Justice Committee, Robert Neill.

This Government’s ideologically driven changes to the probation service have had a catastrophic impact on the justice system in this country. The reports from experts in the industry are damning, the first-hand accounts of those who have experienced the services shocking, and the damage done by this failing service to our communities all too clear to see. The comments we have heard from Members join the growing chorus of condemnation, alongside groups such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Justice Committee and the National Association of Probation Officers, to name but a few.

Perhaps none, however, has been as disparaging as the report on the outsourcing of our probation services undertaken by the National Audit Office. It speaks of significant risks being introduced by a Ministry setting itself up to fail; underinvestment in services by community rehabilitation companies motivated by commercial outcomes over public safety; and, perhaps least surprisingly, given the ministerial architect of the changes, a decision inspired by ideology that has proven a staggering waste of money to the taxpayer—this time, to the tune of nearly half a billion pounds. It is therefore difficult to disagree with the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, that it is

“unacceptable that so many unnecessary risks were taken with taxpayers’
money.”

But for all the talk of decisions taken in Westminster, with the colossal budgets in tow, we must not forget the impact, back in the real world, that these changes have on our constituents, because, more than anything, it is utterly unacceptable that so many risks were taken with taxpayers’ safety. It is residents in our communities, like mine in Barnsley East, who suffer when vital services, such as our probation system, begin to fail. Perhaps nothing demonstrates that more than the case of my constituent Jacqueline Wileman.

Last year, four men stole a HGV lorry and drove it around Barnsley, damaging cars, injuring pedestrians, nearly killing a man and eventually crashing into a house, but not before hitting and killing Jacqueline near her home in Brierley. All four men had existing criminal records, with nearly 100 convictions between them. They had several convictions for driving offences, and one had already been sentenced for causing death by dangerous driving. Two of the men had recently finished probation supervision, and the one who stole the lorry had no driving licence and was, staggeringly, on probation at the time. It can be argued that these men should not have been on the streets and able to commit these tragic crimes in the first place. The lenient sentences handed down to them following Jackie’s death have led to calls being made by her brave family to scrap the maximum sentence for those who cause death by dangerous driving to ensure that they will not be out in a few years to do so again—calls I wholeheartedly support. I have raised this in the House on more than one occasion, and I will continue to press the Government to act to increase the 14-year limit for death caused by dangerous driving as soon as possible.

Questions must be asked of the probation services responsible for supervising these criminals. The Barnsley area is covered by South Yorkshire CRC, which is now the responsibility of Sodexo Justice Services and was recently rated as requiring improvement in the latest inspection by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation. The inspection report noted, among other failings:

“Alarmingly…
the large majority of probation staff here are not qualified, and many are not sufficiently experienced at managing risk of harm to others.”

This is a probation service, the effectiveness of which is crucial to maintaining the safety of my community, explicitly failing to manage risk of harm to others. It is a shocking state of affairs, yet a product of decisions made by this Government. Simply put, the safety of our communities and constituents has been jeopardised.

I await the results of the internal review into what more could have been done by the probation service in the case of Jackie Wileman and what lessons can be learned. For her brother, Johnny, the impact on public safety of the outsourced probation service overseen by this Government is clear enough: “If the probation services had done their job properly,” he told me, “my sister would still be alive.”