Prisons and Probation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:29 pm on 14th May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge 2:29 pm, 14th May 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Victoria Prentis.

It is no secret that our prison system is in a state of turmoil, with an outdated Victorian-era system that sees countless prisons inspected and issued with reports that reveal dilapidated conditions, overcrowding, violence, self-harm, drug abuse, low staff confidence and poor support. A decent prison system should deliver meaningful rehabilitation and provide offenders with purposeful activity. It is clear that this is lacking across the board.

The urgent notification issued to HMP Birmingham last August by the chief inspector of prisons was damning in its assessment of a failed prison run by G4S. This was followed by the unprecedented decision taken by the MOJ to bring it back under public control, reinforcing the argument that the privatisation of our prisons has failed. Following an inspection in February 2017, the prison operator at Birmingham was given 70 recommendations and targets. By the time of the inspection that triggered the urgent notification 18 months later, only 14 of the 70 targets had been met. Safety was deemed by the inspector to have been a colossal failure. In a survey of prisoners, 71% responded that they had felt unsafe at some point in their stay at Birmingham.

I visited HMP Birmingham, along with other members of the Justice Committee, in October—shortly after it had been issued with the urgent notification and as the new governor was getting to grips with what he had inherited—and it was clear that the system had failed at multiple levels. As the chief inspector noted, we found the prison to be in a state of disrepair, conditions that were unfit to be lived in and staff morale at crippling levels. While these issues are by no means limited to privately run prisons alone, the case of HMP Birmingham has highlighted the dangers and costs faced because of the distinct lack of accountability in its operation.

As well as ensuring that rehabilitation is provided inside prison, it is vital that our justice system has the means by which to monitor and assist offenders throughout their transition back to society. Nowhere has the failed privatisation of our justice system been so apparent as in that of our probation services. The transforming rehabilitation reforms pushed through at the end of the coalition Government were preceded by stark warnings that splitting the workload between a publicly run national probation service and privately-tendered community rehabilitation companies, with payment by results, would have damaging consequences for the management of offenders. The recent reports on transforming rehabilitation by both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee are deeply critical and prove that these previous cautions were fully warranted.

Last year, I held a Westminster Hall debate on the role of privatised community rehabilitation companies. Data had consistently shown that CRCs had met an average of just eight of the 24 targets set under their contracts, with the worst-performing organisation meeting only four. These reforms have turned probation into a tick-box exercise, rather than something that should be holistic and tailored to individual and specific needs. Since my debate, rather than improve, the situation has stagnated and in some cases has got even worse. It is worth noting that HMIP found that the quality of probation work was noticeably better across the national probation service by comparison with the privatised CRCs.

The role of a probation officer is not just a job, but a vocation. Yet a Unison staff survey of its 3,500 CRC workers has revealed that 25% of staff in CRCs have only occasionally had the equipment, resources or systems they needed to do their jobs properly, while 41 % said they had never experienced a manageable case load, 25% said that their CRC never or only occasionally completed community orders within the required time, and 43% said they never felt valued by their CRC. This fragmented, broken system is having serious consequences for the delivery of meaningful results.

The Public Account Committee report notes that, in 2018 alone, CRCs failed to provide nearly 3,000 prisoners with through-the-gate services. Additionally, there are numerous examples of single phone calls being deemed sufficient when monitoring offenders in the months following release, because that, rather than face-to-face meetings, is the simplest way for understaffed CRCs to meet their targets. The Public Accounts Committee report goes on to conclude that the transforming rehabilitation reforms have failed to reduce reoffending by as much as expected, with the average number of reoffences committed by each reoffender actually increasing. The Justice Committee’s “Transforming Rehabilitation” report has also called for a review of the long-term future of delivering probation services, including how performance might be compared with an alternative system for delivering probation—namely, a community-based approach.

One method to address reoffending rates is to look at abolishing short sentences. This is something that my Justice Committee colleagues and I have been calling for for some time, and I welcome the MOJ’s latest efforts to move to a presumption against their use and towards more of a community sentencing model. However, for a community sentencing model to be effective and for it to get public trust and support, it must ensure that probation services are able to monitor and support offenders in their rehabilitation. On the enforcement of community orders, HM inspectorate of probation found that the publicly run national probation service was reaching levels of good-quality assessment 83% of the time, compared with just 37% among the privatised CRCs.

The privatised approach to rehabilitation has left a system is disarray, and it will ultimately end up costing the Government £467 million more than originally planned, following bail-outs and cancelled contracts. This money could have been put towards better prison conditions and improved community sentencing or, better still, spent on a fully funded, publicly owned and accountable probation service.

In her final annual report, the current chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, concludes that the current model left by the transforming rehabilitation reforms has left us with a probation service that is “irredeemably flawed”. She goes further by saying that the profession as a whole has been diminished with an unhealthy reliance on unqualified staff, a service that has been changed by the impact of commerce and contracts that treat probation as a transactional business. She even says that terminating CRC contracts early and wishing to move to an improved tender process will not solve the issue. In short, her conclusions point to privatisation as the fundamental issue that is failing our justice system. Surely, it is now time to say that the privatisation of our justice system has failed. It is time to bring prisons and the probation service back under public control.