Probation Services: Privatisation — Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:43 am on 31st October 2013.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 11:43 am, 31st October 2013

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the request of the Chief Executives of Probation Trusts to delay the proposed privatisation of probation services for six months in the interests of public safety.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My Lords, there is a pressing need to drive down reoffending rates, which is why we are reforming the system for the rehabilitation of offenders. Public safety is always our top priority, and the department is working closely with trusts to minimise any disruption to the work that they do to protect the public.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but letters from experienced chief executives of probation trusts directly to a Secretary of State suggest a worrying lack of trust in the system between them. Behind those letters is an understandable concern about the current timetable in which chief executives were required to start work on 28 October, three days ago, on a realignment process for their staff that has to be completed by 31 January 2014, including the confirmation of outcomes for all their staff. However, despite frequent requests, as of yesterday they had not been provided with any details of the number of posts, the workload or the resources on which they can base any assessment, let alone allocation. Apparently, much depends on a risk assessment process that has yet to be resolved. When will these details be available, and why will the Secretary of State not agree to a reasonable and sensible request for delay?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Any transformation programme is difficult, and keeping to a timetable is always challenging, but I do not believe that a six-month delay would promote better or more efficient work than is now being done. Of course we will keep these matters under review and check how progress is being made. There is a campaign in some quarters against the idea of these proposals but, in the main, we are having very constructive discussions with the trusts. I am confident that we will be able to keep to the tight but achievable timetable that we have set.

Photo of Lord Beecham Lord Beecham Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

Does the Minister think that the rushed changes to the probation service, before the House of Commons has even discussed the amendment passed by this House to the Offender Rehabilitation Bill requiring parliamentary approval for such changes, will prove less of an omnishambles than NHS reorganisation, the 111 helpline, universal credit, personal independence payments, legal aid or the sale of Royal Mail?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

As for the idea that this is a rush, we are using 2007 legislation brought in by the last Administration and basing much our approach on the pilots in Peterborough and Doncaster which were brought in by the last Administration, so the idea that involving the private, charitable and voluntary sectors in probation work was thought up on the back of an envelope and is being pushed through in a few weeks is simply not true. We are moving in a direction that the previous Administration had already set in line. Admittedly we are making some radical changes, including bringing in a National Probation Service, which will give probation an authority and status which it has long lacked under previous schemes.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that in the short term there will be a considerable impact on the employment and retention prospects of probation officers? In the light of that, will he ensure that probation services are informed about job opportunities in the private sector and that the private sector gives priority to the employment of people from the probation service so that their experience is not lost to the criminal justice system?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I have great confidence in the human resources work that is being done to make sure that, where work is transferred across to the private and voluntary sector, existing probation officers get good opportunities for employment. My view is that many of the new entrants into this market will want to grab the experience of existing probation officers. I also hope that we can push forward with the idea of a chartered institute of probation, which again would give probation and probation officers the status that they previously lacked in our system.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat

Can my noble friend say what steps the Government are taking to ensure that the new owners of the community rehabilitation companies, when they are sold by the Ministry of Justice in the second stage of this process, will represent the diverse range of providers that he described and which the Government seek, rather than just a handful of large commercial organisations?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

This also is work in progress and where we have learnt, including from some past mistakes. We have put aside money to allow would-be entrants, particularly in the voluntary sector, to prepare for bids. My impression is that we are tapping into a large unused resource. Let us never lose sight of what we are bringing forward. The part of the bargain that really excites me is that we are going to be able to give help, support and rehabilitation measures to those who are sentenced to less than 12 months, the very sector which includes some of the most prolific reoffenders. This is a rehabilitation revolution. Although transfer and change are always difficult, we have this on track. However, in answer to the original Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham—and I know the care with which he takes an interest in this—we will be keeping these matters under constant review and, as always, I am willing to meet him on these matters.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Chair, Draft Deregulation Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Deregulation Bill (Joint Committee)

On the original Question to which the Minister just referred—and I have listened with care to his answers—the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made it specifically clear that the starting gun was to be fired on 28 October. It is now 31 October. We are already three days late at the beginning. So what is the answer? When will that date and that target be met?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The Question implies a kind of sprint race where there is the firing of a gun. Some of these things have been in track for months and indeed years, and will continue in progress after October, after next April and after the October after that. We are managing change in a very important sector, whereas the Question implies that public safety must be paramount. The idea that we are somehow firing a gun and everybody rushes off ignores the reality of some careful preparation which is under way.