Probation Reform

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:41 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 12:41 pm, 16th May 2019

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

The Government have been forced to face reality and accept that their probation model is irredeemably broken; unfortunately, though, this U-turn comes only after they have put public safety at risk and squandered hundreds of millions of pounds trying to shore up failing private probation firms. The Opposition are clear that today’s announcement is a necessary first step in cleaning up the probation mess, but the question is whether it goes far enough.

Have the Conservatives really learned the lesson about the limitations of the role of the private sector in delivering probation? The Tories did not want to make this U-turn and had been trying desperately to re-tender private probation contracts; in fact, the House may remember that that was the Secretary of State’s big probation announcement last summer. Was it the flood of recent scathing reports from experts such as the chief inspector and the excellent work of the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Committee that forced the Government’s hand? Or was it the collapse of Working Links, one of the largest private probation providers in the country, and the severe financial difficulties faced by another, Interserve? This is an important matter, because I am concerned that if lessons have not been learned, the changes announced today could be a smokescreen to give failing outsourcing giants—the likes of G4S and Sodexo—a route back into probation.

Labour is clear that there is an important role for the voluntary sector and small social enterprises in a future justice system. Voluntary sector organisations have held much of the justice system together in the face of Government cuts. We have heard promises before from the Secretary of State’s Government that the voluntary sector will play a major role, only for that to have been an excuse for big corporations to profit from probation, so what is the overall proportion of all probation budgets that the Secretary of State expects to be delivered by the private sector in future? A figure of £280 million has been suggested; what proportion of that will go to the voluntary sector? Each probation area will be allocated a private company or voluntary body; will private companies be able to act in more than one probation area—which would favour outsourcing giants—or will they be specific local social enterprises? Will any of the major companies that have failed in probation be able to access the contracts?

On oversight and accountability, does the Secretary of State have concerns that the 11 probation areas will remain too distant from local communities? How will they interact with local criminal justice boards and health and policing services?

Privatisation failed to reduce reoffending, with a 22% overall increase in the average number of offences per reoffender. Separate figures suggest that serious further offences such as murder and rape soared by 50%. What is the Secretary of State’s target for reducing reoffending under the new model?

Labour has long called for the Conservatives to drop their dangerous obsession with running probation for profit, but we have also been outlining the alternative, with the well-respected Lord Ramsbotham overseeing Labour’s review of what a publicly-owned probation service would look like under a Labour Government. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the vision outlined in Lord Ramsbotham’s important report?

The new probation model will start from spring 2021. Given the likelihood of a change of Government before then, will the Secretary of State commit today to setting up a special committee to reach a broad consensus on probation reforms? That would rule out the need for a future Labour Government to make further changes.

As a result of chaotic privatisation, many experienced staff left. What action will the Secretary of State take to rehire experienced former probation staff?

In conclusion, the changes announced today should just be a start. The Government must demonstrate a commitment to the true function of probation, properly invest in it and ensure that it can once again be the award-winning public service that it was before the disastrous Conservative privatisation.