My Lords, we are currently conducting a comprehensive review of the probation system to make sure that it is reducing offending and reoffending, cutting crime and preventing there being future victims. We will set out our plans for the probation system, including community rehabilitation companies, after the review concludes in April.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box in answering, I think, her first Question on this brief. She will be aware that the recent joint report from the prison and probation services, on their inspection of through-the-gate resettlement services, was highly critical. It raised some big red flags about the way this new service was rolling out. Can the Minister tell the House what changes the Government are making and whether they want to avoid taking the wrong turn at such an early stage of this new development, by listening to and hearing what those inspectors have said—and by taking action? What steps are being taken?
I thank the noble Lord for his question and for his kind words. Yes, I can say categorially that part of our comprehensive review of the whole probation system is about listening and having conversations with all involved to ensure that we get it right. In connection with the through-the-gate services, we accept that there are pockets of good practice but also that the quality of those services is not as consistent as we want it to be. As the inspection report notes, there is the potential for great change and help for offenders in their transition from custody into the community. We are carrying out this comprehensive review of the probation system, including through-the-gate services, to make sure that our reforms are delivered and delivering improved outcomes for offenders and communities. However, it is of course early days.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord German, in welcoming the Minister to her first Question Time and I look forward to many more exchanges. A report last month by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation on the service stated that,
“services have deteriorated of late, largely due to the poor performance of the London Community Rehabilitation Company”— which is owned by the US company MTCnovo, an organisation we have had some problems with in the Prison Service, and—
“are now well below what people rightly expect”.
The report cited a lack of awareness of domestic violence and child safeguarding issues, unmanageable workloads, with inexperienced staff and lack of contact with offenders. In January, a report on Stafford and Stoke, run by RPP, stated that public safety was an issue, despite having been raised in an earlier report, and caseloads were too high. Another CRC, Working Links, in Wales and the south-west, is failing targets and has already been fined £145,000. Will the Secretary of State use her powers to intervene and take these and any other failing services back into public control?
I thank the noble Lord for his question and for his kind words. In connection with the performance of the London CRC, we have taken steps to make sure that all offenders are being seen by the London CRC and that appropriate enforcement action is taken where offenders have breached the terms of their supervision. Contract management activity had already identified problems in London prior to HMI Probation’s findings, and we were working with the provider to address these. However, we accept that improvements are required, and we are working closely with London CRC to improve their performance. There is a wide range of options within contracts to tackle poor performance and we will take whatever action is required to ensure that offenders are properly supervised and that the public are protected.
My Lords, does the Minister—who I also welcome—accept that concerns about the size of the prison population will go nowhere unless the courts have available to them community service and probation supervision orders, in which they have confidence that people will be seen, supervised and held to account over the basics of work and non-offending?
I agree entirely with the noble Lord. That is why it is important to think about this in context. Transforming Rehabilitation has already radically reformed our probation system; its whole purpose is to improve support to offenders and reduce reoffending. For example, all offenders sentenced to custody now receive at least 12 months statutory supervision and support from probation after release. This includes approximately 45,000 prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months, who previously received no supervision at all. All offenders released from prison receive a through-the-gate resettlement process, helping them to find accommodation and employment and to build a life free of crime.
However, it is important to accept that these are early days. This was introduced only in May 2015. We could have sat back then and looked at how things were progressing. We are not doing that. We are saying we need a comprehensive reform of the whole system, to make sure that it also works seamlessly with the prison system.
My Lords, one of the priorities for CRCs must be to ensure that a low level of offending behaviour in the past should not be an obstacle to securing jobs for those discharged from prisons. Employers often turn down applications because of offences that have no relevance to the jobs for which candidates are applying. What initiatives is the Minister taking to ensure that employers play an important non-discriminatory role here?
My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. Helping prisoners, while they are in prison, to train, retrain and think about how they can get work when they are released, is the most important priority in reducing reoffending. That is why, for example, under this new system, 12 weeks before a prisoner is released, the CRC is contracted and must, as a minimum requirement, spend time with each individual prisoner, thinking about how they can help with their housing—which is also critical—as well as retraining, apprenticeships and jobs. We welcome companies such as Timpson and Halfords, which focus on giving jobs to prisoners, to give them a second or, if necessary, third chance in life and help reduce reoffending.