Probation Reform - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:31 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 2:31 pm, 16th May 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords for their contributions. I do not accept the characterisation of these matters advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. Indeed, as I have often observed in the past, the gross overstatement of an argument simply diminishes it in the ears of hearers.

The position is that we have learned lessons over the past few years from the way in which probation was set up and carried through, as between the National Probation Service and the CRCs. Indeed, one of the difficulties that emerged arose not out of money being used to prop up CRCs, or money being taken from the taxpayer for the benefit of CRCs, but because the Government was actually too successful in negotiating the commercial terms of the CRC contracts, with the result that the CRCs made persistent losses on these contracts of such magnitude that they began to withdraw from the quality of service they should have provided in the first place. That created very real difficulties, and we accept that. We actually had to go to the CRCs and try to renegotiate in order to keep them on a reasonable path of provision.

One consequence of that has been that, for example, CRCs have paid out more than £9 million in respect of what are called service credits—which are, for them, service debits; they are credits to the taxpayer but debits to the shareholders of these companies—because of their failure to reach performance targets. So we responded to the very real difficulties that emerged in that context.

We are now developing a system whereby we will have the probation service on a regional basis. These regions will be coterminous with the PCCs, in the hope that, going forward, there will be greater linkage between the PCCs and the probation service. We will have a director-general of probation, which I think accords with a recommendation that has just been made in the interim report issued today by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who was commissioned by the noble Baroness’s honourable friend, who I believe continues to be the shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Richard Burgon MP, who asked the noble Lord to look at this.

On the question of U-turning on nationalisation, I will quote from the interim report of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. He says:

“There is no doubt that the private sector has brought rigour to the oversight of probation. The best of them explained how they had introduced a forward-looking culture of delivering more with less, which must have relevance for the future, plus a better understanding of the relationship between cost and delivery”.

We are seeking to build on those benefits, appreciating that there were also deficits in the way in which CRCs delivered at the end of the day.

To take up the particular point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, we are concerned to ensure that the voluntary sector has access to these contracts going forward. Indeed, one of the difficulties that emerged with CRCs was that, as they fell into greater financial difficulty, they drew back from their engagement with the voluntary sector and we therefore lost the immense benefit of that sector’s involvement in the probation service.

Taking this forward, we hope to re-establish clear, unambiguous faith in—for example—non-custodial sentences so that the courts can have more confidence in putting those forward and thereby, touching again on a point made by the noble Lord, relieve pressure on the prison system itself by virtue of an improved probation service.