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Offender Management and Treatment - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:41 pm on 3rd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers 1:41 pm, 3rd October 2019

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on drawing attention to the issue of arrangements for the management and treatment of offenders. This issue has been dominated in recent years by the transforming rehabilitation changes, which were introduced in 2014 and 2015. The stated aims of transforming rehabilitation were in many ways admirable. They included making the best use of the statutory, voluntary and private sectors in the process of rehabilitating offenders. In practice, however, the results of the changes have in many respects been little short of a disaster. Let me explain why.

The arrangements for enabling the private and voluntary sectors to bid for work with offenders favoured large private sector companies that can take significant financial risks. The arrangements squeezed out most voluntary sector agencies, which had little realistic chance of bidding. There was a heavy emphasis on paying organisations according to the volume of work which they received and, because this volume was uncertain, organisations had to incur expenditure without knowing whether they would receive enough work to reimburse them properly. There was no way that most voluntary organisations could take the financial risk of becoming involved in these arrangements.

As a result, as the House of Commons Justice Committee concluded last year, there is now less voluntary sector involvement in the provision of probation services than before the transforming rehabilitation arrangements began. This is of particular concern because voluntary agencies have expertise in areas such as housing, employment, training, mentoring, addiction and mental health that are key to rehabilitating offenders and reducing reoffending. It has been particularly difficult for small, local voluntary agencies to become involved in providing services. I do not take the view that small, local organisations are necessarily better than large charities. Many of the larger organisations—such as Nacro, of which I am president—provide outstanding services and have strong local links and knowledge in the areas where they work throughout the country. There are also, however, many local voluntary agencies providing excellent rehabilitation services, and the new arrangements have effectively squeezed them out. We need to be making the best use of what both large and small organisations have to offer, and the transforming rehabilitation arrangements have failed to do that.

Even for private sector companies, the financial arrangements have proved daunting. Two of the companies that received contracts—Working Links and Interserve, which between them managed eight of the 21 CRC projects—have gone into administration. This is no way to manage a key public service. It cannot be acceptable that major service-providers that are supervising offenders in the community are liable to go under at any moment, leaving the Government to scramble around to find other organisations to take over their contracts.

The split between the National Probation Service, which manages high-risk offenders, and the community rehabilitation companies, which manage medium- and low-risk offenders, was never likely to work well. It was an artificial split because many offenders who start out as low-level petty offenders move on, over time, to become high-risk offenders. The National Probation Service has largely done a good job in managing high-risk offenders, including those released on parole, less than 1% of whom go on to commit further serious offences.

The same is not true of the community rehabilitation companies. Most inspections of CRCs by the probation inspectorate have found their performance inadequate. The overall picture is one of high probation case loads, staff shortages—11% nationally and around 20% in London—a high use of agency staff and frequent transfers of offenders from one officer to another in the course of their supervision. There has been a catastrophic fall in the number of offenders given community sentences; their number has more than halved in the past decade, even though community sentences have lower reconviction rates than prison sentences for similar offenders. There has been a sharp fall in the number of offenders taking part in accredited offending behaviour programmes, which have been shown to reduce reoffending—by 56% between 2009 and 2017.

If the new arrangements are to work well, they must also include a series of other changes to improve the prospects for offenders’ rehabilitation. Planning for prisoners’ resettlement needs to begin as soon as they are received into custody, and it should continue throughout their sentence. It should not be left—as it has been under transforming rehabilitation—until 12 weeks before release, when it is often too late to make realistic applications for suitable housing on release or for enrolment on training courses. Prisoners should be able to claim universal credit before they are released, so that they can start receiving benefits as soon as they step outside the prison gate.

I wanted to identify a number of other issues but, since my time is up, I shall follow up with written questions.