Privatised Probation System - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 6:20 pm on 4 March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:20, 4 March 2019

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given in the other place by my honourable friend the Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice. The Statement is as follows.

“I am pleased to be called to address this Urgent Question, and fully understand why the honourable Member has raised it. As the House will be aware, we have been looking very carefully at the future of probation services, and this gives me the opportunity to briefly set out what the transforming rehabilitation reforms were, some of the challenges, and our response.

As the House will be aware, transforming rehabilitation was strongly influenced by a Labour pilot—the Peterborough pilot—which demonstrated that by bringing in non-state providers, concentrating on a cohort of short-sentence prisoners who had not previously been supervised, and paying providers for reducing reoffending, it was possible to achieve significant improvements. Transforming rehabilitation was a coalition government commitment built on these principles, by contracting the private sector and others—for example in Durham Tees Valley this included the local authority—and undertook to pay the providers significant sums if they were able to reduce reoffending. The contracts were left flexible to encourage innovation. This private model was applied only to low-risk offenders; high-risk offenders continued to be supervised in the usual way by the state. The new model has delivered in some ways. But, as the National Audit Office has pointed out, it has not delivered in others.

There has been a reduction in the binary rate of reoffending, although there has been an increase in the separate frequency measures; 40,000 additional offenders are currently being supervised, who were not previously supervised under the old system. Some innovation has come into the system and it has saved the taxpayer money. So even though the honourable Member opposite would point out that through changes to the contracts, more money has gone in, we are still forecast to spend significantly less than we originally anticipated—perhaps as much as £700 million less. But the programme was challenged by external factors, some of which were difficult to model and predict. For example, societal changes, and different sentencing decisions by judges, meant the case load given to the CRCs—the community rehabilitation companies—shifted and some of the accredited programmes allocated were fewer than expected. This meant that the income streams of these companies were less than anticipated. Broader issues, such as drugs, and issues around housing and treatment programmes, meant that it was difficult for providers to control all the factors in reoffending. This led to some of the companies losing significant sums of money.

We have therefore taken a new approach, which seeks to address all these problems. We have just conducted a consultation and are carefully studying the responses. Our intention is, first, to remove the dependence in the new probation system on unpredictable case loads, and to improve co-ordination with the National Probation Service. We are emphasising overall quality of service, not just the reoffending rate; we will be ending the existing contracts early; we will be setting minimum conditions for offender supervision; and we have invested over £20 million in through-the-gate services.

Our objective—while retaining the benefits of flexibility and innovation—is to create a much higher-quality probation service that focuses on good-quality delivery and protects the public”.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Shadow Attorney General 6:24, 4 March 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating that Answer. I admire her for doing it so well; it is not an easy gig. There has been cross-party authorship and ancestry to privatisation of probation and, indeed, other vital services at the core of the state’s principal duty to protect people. So I do not want to make partisan points but to say what we have learned and what we want to do differently in future. It seems to me that there is a constitutional problem with privatising services at the very core of keeping people safe, whether it is the military, policing, prisons or—if we are serious about reducing offending in the future, as we heard so eloquently from the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove—probation, too.

In that spirit, I ask the Minister, and all noble Lords here, to consider whether it is time to say that probation should not be for profit, so that we can have the greater ministerial accountability that our people deserve and we can put this at the core of everything we are about, in Parliament and in government—not contract it out or do it on the cheap, but take responsibility. Do the Minister and other noble Lords agree that we should do this? I say this to put private contractors, whether they are succeeding or failing, on notice that this is something that we on this side of the House are very concerned about.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, is correct that this is not an easy gig, but I believe that probation can have a positive future. In the past we have opened up probation to a diverse range of providers. This was supported by Labour when it was in government; clearly, no longer. We need to learn lessons from the first generation of these contracts and we certainly have. We believe that public, private and voluntary providers all have an important role to play and we would like to see better integration, under new arrangements, so that they can all work together to protect the public and tackle reoffending.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question, but it does not reflect the shocking indictment of the probation changes in the report of the National Audit Office. During his time as Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling introduced a number of reforms to the probation service that have ultimately resulted in its near decimation. It is estimated that ending private contracts will cost at least £171 million. Reoffending, recall to prison and short sentences have soared. The number of offences has increased by 22%. The National Audit Office chief stated that the Ministry of Justice set itself up to fail in how it approached probation reforms. Will the Minister publish a cross-government strategy to explain how it will work with other bodies to reduce reoffending and develop a plan to manage the winding-up of existing contracts?

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for his comments. The NAO report made a number of very long-standing criticisms, of which we were, of course, already aware. We have taken action to respond to those criticisms, many of which I hope to come to in other answers. The noble Lord asked specifically about reoffending. As I mentioned in my opening statement, it is a very complex and difficult issue to solve; certainly, we are approaching it from a cross-government perspective. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster recently established the cross-government Reducing Reoffending Board, which brings together senior Ministers from all relevant departments to tackle the impact of reoffending on society as a whole. The core member of this group is the MoJ, but it also includes health, education—which is so important—the DWP, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and, of course, the Home Office. By working together we can reduce reoffending. Nobody would suggest that it is easy, but I believe that with a cross-government approach we will be able to do it.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, in both Houses and with Governments of both parties, I have consistently made the point that it is wrong for the state to opt out of crime and punishment. I believe that now even more strongly. Will my noble friend the Minister and her colleagues at least consider this alternative? None of us would advocate a private police force and I do not believe that any of us should advocate or support a private probation service or private prisons. That has been my consistent view throughout. I urge my noble friend to say that this matter will at least be reconsidered.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank my noble friend Lord Cormack for his comments. He will be unsurprised to learn that I disagree with him. I do not see this as an opting-out of crime and punishment. Certainly, people in the private, third and voluntary sectors have lots of experience in this area. It is important for us to use that and work with them. However, at this moment we are looking at the responses to the consultation that closed on 21 September. We will look closely at what people have said and the way that this should be planned going forward. We will bring further plans to Parliament before the end of the year.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the failings listed in the Statement and found by the National Audit Office were foreseen in the 2014 report of the House of Commons Justice Committee, which I chaired at the time. Does this experience not demonstrate that when Ministers and departments receive carefully researched, evidence-based Select Committee reports from either House, they should not move into a defensive posture but look at the risks identified and for ways to ensure that policy changes are made before the policy goes ahead?

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I will take the noble Lord’s comment on the chin. It is important that we look at prepared reports, then compare policy and future policy in putting into effect the recommendations that we feel able to. We have taken action, which I have not been able so far to describe. We have been in touch with the CRCs and ended their contracts early. We are making sure that there are contractual variations to secure performance improvement and operational stability for the whole system, which is important. We have also provided an additional £22 million per year for through-the-gate services, which will add another 500 staff, and all providers must now offer monthly face-to-face meetings in the first 12 months.

Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench

My Lords, I declare an interest. My spouse is the founding director-general of the National Probation Service. I also declare a conviction. I have long supported producer-provider relationships. In the right place and at the right time, they can be highly effective, but they do not provide an answer to every question. In this instance, there is a matter of both principle—as other noble Lords have commented on—and competence. Nobody has said yet that the NAO report is a truly shocking read. This was a botched reform. We will discuss later the £33 million payment to Eurotunnel. Does the Minister accept that this raises a question about basic government competence on procurement?

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I do not accept that. The situation was complex. We set the scheme up and we have learned lessons from the first-generation contracts. It would not be right to prejudge the outcome of the consultation. To go back, noble Lords will recall that prior to setting up the CRCs, which look after three-quarters of offenders, 40,000 offenders had no support whatever when they left prison. We have come some way. Using CRCs to look after these offenders has had its positives and negatives. We are learning and will come back with proposals forthwith.