Offender Rehabilitation Bill [Lords]
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
David Slater, Kate Emms, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
The Chair: Before we begin, I have a few preliminary announcements. Members may, if they wish, remove their jackets in Committee sittings. I remind Members to switch off their phones or to put them on silent.
As a general rule, my fellow Chair and I do not intend to call starred amendments that have not been tabled with adequate notice, which is three working days for Public Bill Committees. Therefore, amendments should be tabled by the rise of the House on Monday for consideration on Thursday, and by the rise of the House on Thursday for consideration on Tuesday.
Before we begin our line-by-line consideration of the Bill, some brief explanations may be useful for Members who are relatively new to Public Bill Committees. The selection list for today’s sitting is available in the room. It shows the amendments that have been selected for debate and how they have been grouped. Those that have been grouped are generally on the same or a similar issue.
The Member who has put their name to the leading amendment in a group will be called first. Other Members are free to catch my eye to speak to all amendments in the group. A Member may speak more than once in a single debate.
At the end of the debate on a group of the amendments, I will call the Member who moved the leading amendment again. Before they sit down, they will need to indicate whether they wish to seek to withdraw the amendment or to seek a Division. If a Member wishes to press any other amendment in the group to a vote, they will need to let me know.
I work on the assumption that the Government wish the Committee to reach a decision on all Government amendments. Please note that decisions on amendments do not take place in the order they are debated, but in the order they appear on the amendment paper.
I will use my discretion on whether to allow a separate stand part debate on individual clauses and schedules following the debates on the relevant amendments. In other words, if we spend a long time on one group of amendments, I will allow it to veer into other areas of the clause, and there will be no stand part debate. Someone may want to ask me whether I intend to allow a stand part debate.
The Committee will automatically adjourn at 11.25 am this morning. This afternoon’s adjournment is in the hands of the Whips, but I will prompt them to let them know that it is conventional for it to be at round about 5 o’clock.
(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 3; Schedule 1; Clause 4; Schedule 2; Clauses 5 to 8; Schedule 3; Clauses 9 to 14; Schedule 4; Clause 15; Schedule 5; Clauses 16 to 19; Schedule 6; Clauses 20 and 21; Schedule 7; Clauses 22 to 24; new Clauses; new Schedules; remaining proceedings on the Bill;
First, may I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Robertson? I look forward to your wise guidance to us all in our deliberations on the Bill. I also look forward to the chairmanship of your co-Chair, Ms Dorries. I also welcome all members of the Committee. I know that we will have a good and informed debate. I recognise that the Committee has a range of experience and understanding, from which I am sure we will benefit as the Committee progresses.
I believe that the programme motion provides for more than adequate time to scrutinise the Bill in detail. As the Committee will readily appreciate, it provides for three days of debate over six sittings—today, this Thursday and next Tuesday. As I hope is apparent from the motion, we propose to consider the Bill in order, with schedules taken along with relevant clauses, as you have explained, Mr Robertson.
It is with some regret that we have agreed to three days for the Bill. Although there is a huge amount of agreement and not that much controversy with the Bill, clause 1 is hugely contentious, as the Minister will have gathered from the debate on Second Reading. Not one hon. Member referred to the rest of the Bill; every contribution was about clause 1, which was not inserted by the Government, so we find ourselves in an unusual situation. We hope to be able to spend a great deal of the time allocated to our consideration of the Bill on clause 1.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am sympathetic to both my hon. Friend and the Minister. If the Government were to agree to clause 1 now, the debate could be a lot shorter, and the Committee could be much more productive as well.
Jenny Chapman: There is a disadvantage in the Minister’s suggestion. We would not be able to do that, because we profoundly disagree with the removal of the clause. I do not want to labour the point too much, because I want to get on to debating the clause. We would have liked more time to discuss clause 1 and to go into the issues in a lot more depth, but I will leave it there for now.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I rise not to challenge the programme motion, but to seek the Minister’s assurance on an important point. However long we take to debate the clause, it is undeniable that we will deal with it first. Once we have moved beyond the clause and we are on to more detailed issues, I am mindful—I am sure the whole Committee is mindful—that there are events taking place that are relevant to the Bill seemingly on a daily basis at the moment. I am thinking particularly of G4S admitting last week that it had overcharged the Ministry of Justice—the Minister will understand the relevance—by £24 million, and offering to pay it back.
On Friday, the Justice Secretary announced the decision not to award a contract for the South Yorkshire prisons to Serco, because of the delay associated with the investigation, which rightly had been carried out by the Government. Will the Minister assure us that if events take place that are relevant to the Bill, whether in clause 1 or any other part of the Bill, he will seek to inform the Committee as soon as possible?
I agree with the hon. Member for Darlington and the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East about the gravity of the proceedings we are discussing today. The clause is important; it was supported by people from all sides in the other place, reflecting the will of that House. Merely wiping it off the face of the Bill seems to be not unconstitutional, but something that we should not proceed to do in this way. That would be a matter for the whole House to decide, not the Committee.
Other things in the Bill are of critical importance, not least the points mentioned about the shysters who will be involved if the Government have their way. There are risks in proceeding without any pilots; we are kicking a ball into the air without any knowledge of where the ball will land. That analogy is perhaps not serious enough, but there are risks being posed. We all know from the Government’s internal risk assessment that we are treading on very thin ice. If things go wrong, it is not simply a matter of saying, “Oh, dear. We’ll do something else.” If things go wrong, people will be in danger; there is no doubt about that. If we dismantle the probation service, as is intended, it will be extremely difficult to put it back together again.
I fail to understand—other than pure dogma—why much of the Bill is before us today. However, we will have plenty of time to debate it in the coming days. I am sure that, as usual, the Minister will engage with us as
Jeremy Wright: I am grateful for comments made by members of the Committee. The hon. Member for Darlington is right that there is a broad measure of agreement on a large part of the Bill. I certainly recognise that there will be extensive debate on clause 1, but the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd is right that there are important other parts of the Bill to consider. It is important to strike that balance.
In response to the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, I will try to keep the Committee as updated as I can. He will recognise that there are limits on the comments I am able to make about the particular companies he referred to, because of ongoing investigations. I will be hamstrung to some degree in what I am able to say to the Committee and the way in which I am able to respond to some amendments. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise and appreciate that.
‘No national tendering for any probation service shall commence before any proposed restructuring of such services has been the subject of a pilot scheme which is subsequently independently monitored and the results of such monitoring laid before both Houses of Parliament.’.
‘Any proposed restructuring of the Probation Service must first be the subject of an independently evaluated pilot scheme and the proposals should be laid before Parliament and be approved by resolution of both Houses.’.
Jenny Chapman: My remarks will address all of clause 1 and proposed new clauses 1 and 2. The Minister finds himself in an unusual situation. I have been in the House only three years and other colleagues have far more experience, but it is not often that a Minister comes to Committee to remove a clause. Clause 1 is very important and was inserted in the other place by a Cross Bench vote, where every Cross Bencher present voted in favour of insertion.
The clause means that the Government cannot alter or reform the structure of the probation service unless their plans have first been laid before and approved by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament. That clause was inserted by peers against the wishes of the Government. It provides the reasonable safeguard that the Government allow parliamentary scrutiny before they press ahead with proposals to change the probation service.
As Government plans include a massive irreversible sell-off of the service, there is a chance that public safety will be put at risk. I am interested to hear why the Government believe that parliamentary oversight is not appropriate in this case. There is oversight of far less consequential matters where we do have a vote. Not long ago, on the subject of Criminal Records Bureau checks, we were invited to vote on the types of offence to be included. Those were quite detailed decisions. However, Parliament is not to be asked for any opinion on something as fundamental as this matter, which is quite disturbing.
Amendment 51 is technical because the probation service is not defined in statute. A probation trust exists only by virtue of its contract with the Ministry of Justice, and because the probation service is not defined in statute we thought that it might be more helpful to refer to contracts with probation trusts. This was the subject of a great deal of debate in the other place, and we would be very happy to see the clause amended in this way because we understand that the Government may find it deficient in some way or another; I am sure that we are about to hear why that might be.
New clauses 1 and 2 were tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and they deal with the piloting of reforms. We strongly support these new clauses and I will come back to the issue of piloting later.
I will just recap the main points of the Government’s proposals, since they are noticeably absent from the Bill. The Government plan to abolish local probation trusts. They will be selling off 70% of the work load to private providers and we are not clear who those providers will be. We have heard them described quite colourfully already this morning, and I think that we are all aware of some of the concerns about the potential providers that have been suggested already. However, the national probation service will retain supervision of the remaining 30% of the work load.
Consequently, these plans will see the vast majority of offenders—including dangerous, violent and sexual offenders—handed over to companies that have no experience of probation services. That is a very important point to note, because although there are several large successful businesses that provide security services or that even run prisons, they do not have any experience whatsoever of providing this kind of supervision in the community. We will see the service being fragmented and the management of offenders being artificially
A reference to these proposals had to be forcibly added to the Bill by peers because the Government did not want to allow any proper scrutiny of their proposals. The only reason that we have had these proposals outlined is because we have had an Opposition day debate, and because the insertion of clause 1 in the Bill enabled us to discuss these issues on Second Reading and indeed to discuss them today. If that clause had not been inserted, we would not be able to discuss any of these wider issues about the reform of the probation service. All of the things that I have described would be happening without any parliamentary scrutiny whatsoever. Although we have been waiting for a while for this Bill to come back to this House, the Government have chosen to ignore the will of one House of Parliament and they have continued with the reorganisation of the service anyway.
Colleagues will know, because I am sure that they have been lobbied vigorously by probation officers in their constituency, about the very high level of concern among those officers, who are currently working with offenders in the community. They are very worried about these proposals. They know that they are being asked to make decisions about their jobs right now, before we have even had a chance to have any debates on these proposals.
Mr Slaughter: My hon. Friend is making a very good point, namely that it is increasingly the trend of this Government and this Secretary of State not to bring before the House crucial and central matters. I hope that the Minister will address seriously the central issue that my hon. Friend has highlighted, because it is really at the heart of the Bill. It is only because of what the Opposition and the other place have done that we are talking at all about what is the central issue. Other parts of this Bill are important, but the issue that my hon. Friend has highlighted is the central issue and it is for the Government to explain why they have chosen not to debate it properly before the House.
Jenny Chapman: That is completely right. The concerns that we have are not so much about the proposals, for example, to allow supervision of offenders who have served short prison sentences; we very much support those proposals. We also very much support all efforts to reduce reoffending. We will be talking about changes to the way that drug use, for instance, is monitored. We are very keen to engage with that and to support the Government in those measures. However, these changes are fundamental to the introduction of the further changes, and we think there are many other ways the Government could have gone about introducing these welcome new measures. It is a shame that we have not had a chance to put those to the test and to debate and improve them, and perhaps arrive at something we could all support.
Jenny Chapman: We perhaps should have started with a full debate on the reform of the probation service more generally. We would like probation trusts, through their contract with the MOJ, to be responsible for delivering services in whatever locality is deemed fit, and for them to be measured and managed far more robustly than in the past. Perhaps there would be fewer of them, they would be larger and there would be some reorganisation. I know the Minister will rely on the Offender Management Act 2007 to justify his decision not to lay any plans before the House, but at the very heart of that Act was the establishment of trusts. To use it to abolish trusts seems to us—
Jenny Chapman: The Minister knows that that was not the intention behind the Act, and that its intention is significant and will be subject to judicial review, as taken up by Unison and the National Association of Probation Officers. I look forward to that, because I think the Minister is wrong.
The Government are determined to paint the Labour party and any other critics of these reforms, of which there are many, as supporting the status quo and standing in the way of rehabilitation. I want to make it very clear at the outset that this is not a debate about the ends the Government claim to have. We all want to see improved reoffending outcomes and fewer victims of crime.
I was interested in what she said about a judicial review, but I am not entirely clear what she means. Is she suggesting that she would support a judicial review of legislation that her party passed while in government?
Jenny Chapman: As I have made clear, not just this morning but during an Opposition day debate and on Second Reading, the intention behind section 5 was to deal with a failing trust, so that the Secretary of State
Paul Goggins: I know that the Minister and the Justice Secretary have made much of the ability to abolish as well as to create trusts, and my hon. Friend has given a clear explanation of why. May I draw her and the Committee’s attention to remarks made by my right hon. Friend Baroness Scotland of Asthal in Committee during consideration of the Offender Management Bill? She said:
“In practice, although some services will be commissioned at a national and regional level, where it makes sense to do so, the great majority will be commissioned from lead providers at the local level, who in most cases will be the public sector probation trusts.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 May 2007; Vol. 692, c.183.]
Jenny Chapman: That explains fully the contrast between what was intended and what we are faced with today. I want to remind the Committee that this is not an Opposition clause. The Labour party did not dream it up to be awkward. It was tabled by the Cross-Bench peer and former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham, and was supported by every Cross-Bench peer present for that vote. I do not know when else that has happened.
Serious concerns about the Government’s reforms have been raised from many quarters, and the Government should take them more seriously than they have done so far. It was disappointing that the Justice Secretary did not stay for the debate in the Chamber. It would have been helpful if he had stayed, and it would have given a better impression of him, because many people are extremely concerned about what he is attempting to do. When Lord Ramsbotham introduced the amendment, he said:
I will come back to the timeframe in a minute. He said that he was concerned because the Government’s impact assessments are inadequate, and listed a few of the risks that appear in the Ministry’s risk assessment.
I have not seen the document myself, so I want to know what that means. My local probation service does a very good job of keeping the public safe, preventing reoffending, monitoring offenders and recalling them to prison. An 80% drop in operational performance in that kind of work would be quite frightening.
I think that does not mean that they are not going to achieve their savings, but that they cannot afford it and they do not know how much it is going to cost. Perhaps the Minister can explain exactly what a 51% to 80% risk that the affordability objectives of the exercise cannot be demonstrated or met means. The Government are not able to assure us of the affordability of the proposals, and they cannot tell us how much the contracts will cost. It is reasonable to expect to be furnished with that information before we decide to agree with the proposals.
“are far too many doubts about the viability and affordability of the method the Government have chosen to achieve the proposals”. —[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 June 2013; Vol. 746, c. 659-662.]
Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I have repeatedly heard the Opposition say that they support us in working with short-term prisoners, but they have failed to say how they will do that. They oppose our tendering out proposals, but they have not said what they would put in place to enable them to work with 50,000 extra clients in the probation service.
Jenny Chapman: Had the hon. Gentleman been there for Second Reading, he might have heard us talk about some of the things we would put in place. Perhaps he was with the Secretary of State. If these proposals had been laid before Parliament properly, we might have had more opportunity to provide those answers. However, I will concede that my party in Government established probation trusts, and I do not believe—I say this while there are former Ministers here—that they were as actively managed as they could have been. The situation now is that all trusts are performing to “good” and “excellent” standards, and they are all achieving the targets in a context of falling budgets, but we decide that now is the time to abolish them and not to ask more of them. There are trusts already providing such services to offenders serving short sentences. They are doing it now. They are not funded to do it, they are not required to do it, but they are doing it now because they believe that it is the right thing to do. If we were in government, we would be asking a lot more of probation trusts. That answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): South Yorkshire probation trust is consistently judged to be “outstanding”. It has questioned why it could not have been asked to tender or come up with proposals for these short-term contracts. It seems to make sense, when the trust is doing a very good job already, that it be asked to extend its terms.
Jeremy Wright: The proposal that the hon. Lady makes, which is that we pay for the additional 50,000 out of existing probation budgets is very similar to the custody-plus proposals that Labour was making throughout the mid-2000s, but by 2010 had concluded was unaffordable. Can she explain how what she is proposing now would be afforded?
Jenny Chapman: Trusts were a new thing and had not been established. They are now well established, they are probably one of the best managed parts of the public sector, they are achieving everything that they are being asked to do despite falling budgets and they are saying that they want to do this work. I take that seriously. I also take it seriously when I ask them, “How can you afford it?” and they say, “Look around you. I am in a very expensive office in the centre of Birmingham, I want to co-locate with local government, with the police, but I am not able to make those decisions because I am controlled from Whitehall. I am not able to make decisions about my IT contracts or maintenance to my buildings. I am not able to take out contracts with providers of longer than a year and I am not able to carry forward a budget surplus”. All these issues have prevented trusts from being able to perform at an even better level than they have done so far. The Minister is really missing a trick.
Mr Llwyd: To introduce one other factor into the mix, later in the proceedings we will discuss amendments to do with discretionary application of the supervision. In other words, when an offender has come to a reasonable position, it will be possible to go back to the court and have that order determined early. That will save a lot of money and will be necessary and entirely appropriate in many cases. Therefore, the simple assertion that these 50,000 will do the whole term seems to me to be pumping up the bill just to make it unaffordable.
Jenny Chapman: It would be nice to find out. It would be a really good idea for the Government to lay their plans before both Houses of Parliament so that we can give these issues the consideration they deserve. We think that they are viable. The Government clearly disagree but we will never have the opportunity to find out.
Mr Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): The hon. Lady says that she would achieve affordability through these organisations being able to reduce their costs. Will she therefore confirm that and put it clearly on record so that they can understand that a future Labour Government would make no additional financial contribution?
Jenny Chapman: We inserted this clause into the Government’s Bill to enable us to debate the sell-off of the probation service. That is why we are here. Should I ever be a Justice Minister, it would be highly unlikely that I would be able to go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and ask for lots of money to spend on probation services, given the context we are about to inherit. It falls to the Government to defend what they are trying to do, which we think is wholly unnecessary, dangerous and damaging. It is absurd to suggest that we can have a meaningful debate on this service without discussing who, how, where and when, and at what cost the service will be provided, but that is exactly the situation the Government are putting us in.
The Government have been trying not to have a debate with us on this issue, but their plan is to introduce completely inexperienced providers. We have no objection to new providers coming into the market, but we object to a 10-year—or 10-year-plus— contract, as experience shows us that it will not be especially well managed by the Ministry of Justice. The programme will be rolled out at a completely unrealistic speed, but perhaps the Secretary of State is hoping that if he moves fast enough, no one will notice. That is probably the way he looks at it, but I am afraid we have noticed.
Paul Goggins: Before my hon. Friend zooms off at the speed at which Ministers are pursuing their reforms of the probation service, may I bring her back to the important issue of cost? Government Members are quite right to challenge the fact that although custody plus was our policy when we were in government, we never delivered it, but we did not deliver it because it would have cost £194 million a year. At least that was an honest position, but the Minister is asking us to believe that for the same price that he is currently paying for 150,000 offenders who are supervised by the probation service, he can add on the extra 50,000 offenders whom the Bill will cover. Does not suggesting that that can be done at no additional cost strike my hon. Friend as a rather disingenuous position?
Jenny Chapman: Far be it from me to say that the Government are being disingenuous, but it just does not make any sense to us. We do not see how this process will work, and we really regret the fact that we are being asked to agree to it without proper scrutiny. My right hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience. He clearly shared the Minister’s aims when custody plus was devised, and it was hugely regrettable that the Government removed custody plus from the statute book through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which I remember voting against. The Government are now trying to introduce something similar, but in a very odd way.
The Government appear to have made this up as they have gone along. They have introduced various models, layers and rules. They have been thinking on their feet, because the Secretary of State made a conference speech in which he said that this process was going to be carried out and civil servants have been furiously trying to backfill to meet that commitment. Hon. Members described the risks of the policy on Second Reading. The Chair of the Justice Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), summed the position up well when he said:
Mr Llwyd: In fact, so great is the concern of the Justice Committee that the Minister and a colleague will be giving evidence to it tomorrow about the proposals, about which even that Committee has been left in the dark.
Jenny Chapman: It is a real shame that the Justice Committee has not been able to make a contribution regarding the reform of such an important service before it begins. The Government are losing out on the benefit of a huge amount of expertise from that Committee.
I turn now to the details of our concerns. One of the reasons I am extremely concerned is that this is untested—it is that simple. The Secretary of State does not know that his plans will work because he has not seen fit to test them. The Government might just roll their eyes as they listen to us going on about evidence-based policy, but some of us are not happy just to believe in the Secretary of State’s hopes, fancies and ambitions. The Government say that their policy will reduce reoffending, but that claim is not backed up by any analysis of how, by whom or by how much, because there is no evidence for it. We do not know how well it will work, or if it will actually make the situation worse. We are told that success is guaranteed because providers will be paid only by results. That sounds great, but we know that the majority of the service fee will be paid up front with no link to performance whatsoever.
I am sure that the Minister is bored by this, but I have repeatedly pushed him to explain exactly how much of a contract will be paid by results, and how much will be paid anyway, yet we have never had an answer. I think that when we all started looking at PBR in this sector, we anticipated that perhaps a third of the value of the contract would be held back and paid only if an organisation met its targets. Although there would still be queries about cherry-picking and how performance would be measured, that approach would be difficult to disagree with. Given where we are now, it looks as though that amount could be as little as 10%, 8% or 3%—who knows? My faith in PBR is rapidly declining.
Mr Slaughter: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. The Bill links a good idea—the supervision of short-term offenders—with the bad idea of destroying a public service. The linking factor is payment by results. Of course, we know the notorious companies that tend to acquire such contracts, so it would be interesting to know how much discussion there was between the Government and those providers before the proposals were devised. Has the totality of the proposal been put together to please the G4Ss and Sercos of this world?
Jenny Chapman: My gut instinct is that it probably has. I meet the private providers on occasions—at round table events and so on—and they are not a bad lot. I do not claim that the public sector has a monopoly on values or impeccable performance, and I am happy to say that some good work is being delivered by private providers. However, they were clear with me that they would not be happy to take part in a process whereby the PBR part of the contract represented a large element
Jeremy Wright: I am sure that the hon. Lady will have spent time at round tables with the voluntary sector. Will she confirm that they say to her what they say to me: they are concerned about substantial percentages for payment by results, as opposed to fee for service, because they worry that it may exclude them from this kind of activity?
Jenny Chapman: The other thing that voluntary sector organisations have been busy doing is, quite sensibly, developing partnerships with the large private sector companies such as G4S and Serco. However, those partnerships are very uneven, and I wonder what might become of some of those projects should the Ministry of Justice prevent G4S and Serco from taking part in providing these services, as has been the case with prisons.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I am intrigued by what the hon. Lady is saying. I would certainly be concerned if the Government contracted with any organisation that was under investigation for allegations of fraud. What is the Opposition’s position on that? She rightly says that voluntary organisations are looking at partnering possibilities, but is she saying that perhaps we should not go ahead with any prosecutions to enable those partnerships to take place?
Jenny Chapman: That was a helpful intervention, and I should make it clear that we would not be at all happy with the services being provided by any organisation, from whatever sector, that was under criminal investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. The Minister has given assurances in the past that no organisation that is under investigation will be awarded these contracts.
I think that at least two investigations are taking place, and the one that concerns me—and, I think, the hon. Lady—is the criminal investigation that the SFO is conducting. I understand that SFO investigations can run into many months, if not years, but I have not had an assurance from the Minister that a SFO investigation must be completed before any such organisation can be awarded a contract. That is at the core of our concerns about this measure. We do not want organisations that could have a criminal record to be delivering services when a probation officer with a criminal record would not be able to do so.
Sarah Champion: Surely one concern is about the situation if the big players under investigation are taken out and the probation trusts are not allowed to tender. A colleague at a provider meeting told me that the companies left would be those such as Eddie Stobart and McDonalds, which makes a mockery of the contracts. Who is available to take them on?
Jenny Chapman: My hon. Friend gets to the heart of the matter. The Minister could find himself in a sticky situation, because it may not be possible—for good reasons—to award the contracts to the people he really wanted to take them. The big unanswered question is: who else can take them? I would be happy to take an intervention from the Minister if he could help to shed some light on that. Obviously he cannot.
Mr Llwyd: We have hit on an important subject. I am sure that new clause 8—it is starred today, but it will become unstarred later this week—will avail us of a good opportunity to look into it in great detail and allow the Minister to explain his exact thinking.
Jenny Chapman: I look forward to that. Perhaps the Committee will hear more detail than we have been able to get in our debates so far. The key point is that there has been no testing or piloting, so we do not know what might go wrong. Things will go wrong but, through testing and piloting, one can learn how to fix as one goes.
The Minister not only was uninterested in starting pilots, but actually scrapped the two that had been commissioned. I visited those pilots as they were being established and I was quite impressed. The people leading them were dynamic, enthusiastic and entrepreneurial, and they wanted to do things differently. I felt sad for them when they were told that they could not continue with that.
“will for the first time test how real freedom to innovate, alongside strong public, private and voluntary sector partnerships, could drive significant reductions in reoffending by those serving community sentences.”
Those were important words; the ones that really counted were “test” and “could drive significant reductions”. He was not so arrogant as to believe that he knew the answer. He was happy to test, and we were happy to support those tests. I had looked forward to seeing the results of the pilots. I was happy for the results not to be fantastic straight away, but to support them anyway, because I know how difficult it is to deliver such things and how mistakes need to be made so that we can learn from them. However, we will not have that opportunity now, because the pilots were cancelled.
The Secretary of State keeps referring to the Peterborough pilot commissioned by the Labour Government and to the Doncaster pilot to cover up the fact that he has not tested these plans at all. Peterborough and Doncaster are not pilots of probation services; Peterborough’s is voluntary; both are prison based, rather than community based; and neither has concluded. When the earliest reports came out, both were failing to meet their targets, but even so, we support them because we understand that mistakes will be made along the way. It is fortunate that Peterborough and Doncaster are just pilots—when we speak to the people delivering them, they tell us how glad they are about that. They tell us that partnerships have developed and that things have gone wrong and been put right. They are pleased
The Committee does not need to take my word for it. The Government saw the need to set up separate pilots to test their ideas on probation, but they have since decided to cancel them. We really do not understand why they made that decision. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said on Second Reading, the only thing that has changed since the introduction of the pilots is the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has not explained why he decided to plough on regardless and not to continue with the important learning process he could have benefited from as part of the pilots.
Mr Slaughter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Secretary of State rushes ahead like a bull at a gate, with the consequence that he has to make embarrassing U-turns. I can think of three issues on which he has made a U-turn in the past three months: raising small claims limits; price competitive tendering in legal aid; and, most relevant to today’s debate, the privatisation of prisons. Is the Minister, who is a much more considerate individual, not perhaps thinking that this is another terrible error of judgment in the making and pull back before another terrible mistake is made?
Jenny Chapman: We live in hope. Reasonable though the Minister is, he is doing a job of work for the Secretary of State. We wish him well in his career, but it is a shame that he has been given this task.
Without piloting, and in the time scale proposed by the Justice Secretary, this untested model will be rolled out at breakneck speed into every region—everywhere will have to deal with this at the same time. There will be teething problems—when are there not? There will be IT glitches. Any serious failures in communication in the new risk model will have to be dealt with on a national scale. There is no opportunity to refine or improve, and no guarantee that the system will operate to a high standard when it is rolled out.
There are plenty of precedents for mistakes being made when initiatives are rolled out quickly. Universal credit had to be slowed down to walking pace to deal with serious management issues and IT failures. So as not to be partisan, I should say that the Labour Government had their fair share of blunders—policies that sounded great and had fantastic aims everyone agreed with, but that did not quite work out as planned. Individual learning accounts are an example: the aim behind them was great, but they did not quite work out as planned and they were subject to a high degree of fraud. That happened because they were introduced at breakneck speed, without enough scrutiny or sufficient piloting. The Minister should learn not just from his own mistakes, but perhaps from some of ours as well. We are happy to learn from them.
Mr Slaughter: I agree with my hon. Friend up to a point. She mentioned universal credit, which my local authority is piloting in London. The pilot is in such chaos, and the roll-out is going at such a pace, that just seven benefit recipients have been affected in the first
Jenny Chapman: What my hon. Friend says about the experience of universal credit in his constituency should alarm the Government. He is in good company when he agrees with the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. The PAC Chair said,
There is clearly a parallel here—we do not want that to happen to our probation services. Universal credit messed up, the Work programme not working properly, pensions mis-sold—those are the results of the Government running at breakneck speed. Those are serious consequences, though not usually as serious as can be expected from a probation service not working as it should. What will an 80% drop in performance mean? Will it affect public safety and lives? What is it? We do not understand what that means.
Sarah Champion: In the examples given by my hon. Friend, there was a back-up plan—there was a system still in place, in the example of universal credit. In this situation the probation trust will be gone and we will have nothing in its place. That is obviously much more dangerous.
Jenny Chapman: That is a fair point. The Government have not said how they would deal with failure of a provider. I am thinking of Southern Cross, whose head office was in my constituency, so I followed that case closely. No one had anticipated the failure of a large provider of adult social care services. Members will recall the huge panic about how it would be dealt with, who would step in, how much it would cost and what it would mean, most importantly for residents of the care homes. What plans does the Ministry of Justice have for dealing with financial or any kind of failure of one of the providers, perhaps resulting from a criminal investigation? Those are important questions and we have had no assurances from the Government. There are no clear plans about how they would deal with that kind of situation.
I think he must have been a bit mixed up, because that is not what the Department is doing at all. It is a pity that he has not had a chance to sign the Justice Secretary up to his view about learning as we go. The speed at which the upheaval is being pushed through is a serious concern. The clause is designed to build time into the process for evidence gathering and scrutiny, and to extend the time available to make the changes safely. If the Government are hellbent on proceeding in this way, at least let it be to a responsible, considered timetable.
The Minister has said that he will not apologise for moving quickly and the Justice Secretary has suggested that opposition to the pace of change is irresponsible to victims of crime, but it is not responsible to sign on the dotted line for an uncertain programme to be rolled out at unrealistic speed. Rushed change is not the same as effective reform. If the Government get it wrong, the risk is unacceptably high. We can all name half a dozen projects that have gone wrong. In the light of that experience, we think the Government should consider more carefully the argument about the rushed timetable.
Gareth Johnson: Will the hon. Lady not accept that the proposal enables us for the first time to work with short-term prisoners? No other Government have achieved that. The Opposition, who say that they support working with short-term prisoners, are trying to find any opportunity to frustrate it. Is that not irresponsible opposition?
Jenny Chapman: No, it is irresponsible government to push it through. We support supervision of short-term prisoners, which is why we brought in provisions to allow it to happen, but trusts are already doing it off their own bat. That is our point: we want trusts to do more and we would be more demanding of trusts in getting them to do the work that some, to their credit, are already doing.
Mr Slaughter: I am sure that my hon. Friend and other Members can enlighten me: did we just hear a Government Member say that the probation trusts are being offered as a sweetener to private companies, to induce them to take on the short-term prisoners? That seems to be what is being said. If the hon. Gentleman was not saying that, I am sure that he will correct us, but that is what I heard.
On the question of the timetable, the operating model was published only in September and today is our first proper opportunity to debate it. The trusts are supposed to be abolished by April, but as of a couple of weeks ago, probation officers that I have spoken to—I speak to them almost daily at the moment—had still not seen the new IT systems and did not have a huge amount of confidence in the IT that will be provided for the project. They say of the recently introduced system that if, for example, they enter an offender’s new address on a Friday, the information has not been retained when they come back on a Monday. That is worrying enough when one organisation deals with an offender, but when many organisations potentially deal with the same offender, sharing information and reliability of those systems are crucial. It is not for me to have confidence in that, but I can assure members that practitioners in the field have very little confidence that it will work.
Ministers’ own officials have described the timetable as aggressive. In the past couple of months, three probation trust chairs have taken the bold step of writing to the Secretary of State to advise him to delay his plans or risk inevitable public probation failures—a euphemism for more crime and more victims of crime. The chairs of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire probation trusts have, in turn, warned that the time frame is risky, unrealistic and has serious implications for service delivery. They are prepared to stick their heads above the parapet; privately, many more express exactly the same concerns.
If the Justice Secretary is convinced by the quality of his Government’s performance and their chances of being returned to office, he should not be so concerned about the 2015 deadline and binding the hands of the next Government. Although the Secretary of State apparently believes that one does not pilot a revolution—that is what he said—Members of both Houses are not alone in recommending intelligent piloting and a phased roll-out. That is what we would like to see and what we were happy to give our support to.
Members of the Committee will be aware of the “inglorious saga”, as it was memorably christened by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, of the Ministry of Justice’s language service contract. Following the train wreck that was the Department’s procurement process, the PAC reported that:
It really is quite straightforward. The NAO reported that the Ministry had underestimated the risks when it switched to a national roll-out. It allowed the contract to become operational before it was ready. A steady regional roll-out
When performance is poor, as it has been after the roll-out of the Work programme, the outcome is serious. If the performance of a provider is poor while it is responsible for managing dangerous offenders in the community, the risk is unacceptable. It is disappointing, to say the least, that the Government seem not to have learned recent lessons, and that they are not doing all they can to ensure a safe, smooth continuation of the service as they implement the change.
Mr Prisk: On a point of order, Mr Robertson. The hon. Lady has spoken for an hour. The amendment is important, and is quite a tight one, but we seem to have got to universal credit, adult care services and other things. Can you guide me: are we in effect having a stand part debate?
Jenny Chapman: That is a huge shame. Debate on the clause could allow proper consideration of the Government’s measures to abolish a key part of our public services that protects the public. It is hugely regrettable that hon. Members will not be able to consider it as fully as they should. I shall continue. I apologise to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford if he finds the debate a little dull, but I could speak for far longer than an hour on the issue, as we are not being given the opportunity for debate that we should be able to expect. What the Government propose is very risky.
There are more pressing areas of concern. The Government would like to dismiss talk of risk as scaremongering, but the service we are talking about manages risk to the public. The Government’s plans begin by inviting inexperienced providers to participate and by splitting provision in two. I want to discuss how the Government intend to apportion offenders according to their risk category. Risk will be established using a new risk-assessment tool, but—this is also worrying—we have not seen it, and practitioners do not yet know how it will work.
“Risk” is a term that gets used a lot in debates, and not always in a well-informed way. Risk is a combination of factors: it is an indication of how imminent the risk of harm is, and how serious the consequences of reoffending might be. It is not simply a measure of the seriousness of a person’s offence. It is possible for someone to be a medium-risk offender when they have committed very serious offences.
Most importantly for the purposes of the debate, risk is not static: it fluctuates according to an offender’s circumstances. Low risk can become high risk the instant a person consumes alcohol, for example, or when a relationship breaks down. The Ministry of Justice does not really have figures on that, but at least 25% of offenders change their risk category during the period of their order. In addition, they do not change just once. An offender can change risk category many times because of unpredictable circumstances.
That could mean that responsibility for monitoring an offender would switch many times during the order period. Each time that happened, there would be a likelihood of something being missed, or of some information not being passed on. We know from problems that occur in safeguarding children that lapses in good communication can have catastrophic results.
Jeremy Wright: The hon. Lady is right that this is an important issue. I would like to help the Committee on the specific question of whether there will be multiple transfers backwards and forwards, which was also raised on Second Reading. The position of our reforms is that, if somebody moves from being a medium-risk offender to a high-risk offender, the management of that offender will move from the CRC to the national probation service. I know the hon. Lady appreciates that, but I would like to reassure her and the Committee that, if that person’s risk profile changes back to medium risk, they will not move back to the CRC but remain with the national probation service, so there will not be the multiple changes she is worried about.
Jenny Chapman: The Minister may have said it on Second Reading, but it was not clear, and probation officers are certainly not clear that that is the case. He is again doing himself a disservice in not taking his time with the proposals. Such an important piece of information is not out there and well understood by probation officers. The switch of responsibility will still occur. I am pleased to hear that it may not happen repeatedly, but it will still happen when something in an offender’s life has escalated their risk level. That is the point at which they are very vulnerable to committing a further offence, and the exact point at which their supervisor and the organisation responsible for them will change. That is a major weakness in the Government’s proposals.
After years of evidence that joined-up working is most efficient, the Government plan to split the high and low-risk services, which we see as institutionalising a gap in the system. The chief inspector of probation has warned:
That is the point that most concerns anybody working in probation. They know how important it is to have excellent communication with colleagues and sharing of information with other agencies such as the police. It has taken a long time to make partnerships with the police and other organisations good, although, as things stand, such partnerships are not good everywhere, every time. How much harder will it be when an unknown organisation—possibly G4S or Serco—pitches up, with all the surrounding anxiety for probation officers? In that context, how much more difficult will it be to build a relationship of trust between practitioners? That is the nub of the issue for most people working with offenders. They are deeply concerned about the transition and want to know what the Government are going to do to ensure that there are no difficulties at that point. Again, because of the lack of scrutiny and the lack of an opportunity for debate, the Government are not giving themselves the opportunity to reassure not just the Committee, but people out there working with offenders.
Sarah Champion: My hon. Friend mentions collaborative working. In Rotherham, we have a very successful impact team that is co-locating the police, the probation service, the drugs team and the housing team. They are clear that that dynamic will, if privatisation goes ahead, be completely blown apart, not least because a private organisation will suddenly be present. They do not believe that the sharing of information or the trust and support they are able to give to an individual will be able to continue.
Jenny Chapman: I thank my hon. Friend. I have heard exactly the same comments from trusts all over the country. The Minister should know just how anxious probation officers and the chief executives of trusts are about that. We have not had any reassurance from the Government that the new arrangements will run smoothly.
Another cause of huge concern—Members have expressed displeasure in previous debates—is the record of the Ministry of Justice in procuring the kinds of services we are discussing. The procurement process for the language services contract, to which I briefly referred earlier, was described by the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice as follows:
“It might almost have been constructed as a cautionary tale of what a Department should avoid in undertaking a procurement and contract management process.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 300WH.]
The Justice Committee found that the Department’s handling of the contract was nothing short of shambolic. The Department did not have an adequate understanding of the service it was tendering, it failed to heed warnings from professionals and it did not introduce sufficient safeguards to prevent interruptions in the quality of service. The Public Accounts Committee summed it up:
The Department has far from proved that it has the capacity to undertake and ably manage a procurement process on that scale. The Minister, to his credit, has taken some steps to improve the situation. I know he has introduced a new crack squad to manage contracts, but we do not yet know how well that will work. It is very early days, and I do not think the provision should be the first test of that new team.
In a Commons debate on the subject, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed assumed that he did not need to spell out that, if things go wrong in probation and in other contracted services, we would
As we face a tendering process for an untested model rolled out at breakneck speed with a risk management model that probation professionals have vehemently warned against, I am not so sure of his assumption.
Although the Government claim to champion localism, the Secretary of State is being granted free rein to abolish local trusts and to choose how his Department buys services from huge multinational organisations. We will come back to that again and again, but the same usual players are developing a monopoly in public service provision. We have deep concerns about that.
The Government’s plans promise that expertise will be added into the mix by smaller voluntary and third sector organisations, but we have heard all that before. I accept that some probation trusts have not been as proactive as we would like in working with third sector organisations and voluntary groups, and I would support measures that require them to do so, but the measure is completely the wrong way to go about it. After billing the Work programme as an opportunity for small, specialist organisations, the majority of contracts were given to large corporations. Charities found themselves squeezed out and underpaid. It has become a common phrase, but the charities were used as bid candy. The Opposition and the charities are mindful of that.
At the first report stage of the Work programme, every single provider was failing to meet its targets. That was a disaster for the Work programme, but how big a disaster might it be in respect of the supervision of offenders in the community?
In the criminal justice sector, two companies are between them contracted to provide tagging, community payback, prison operations and prisoner escort services. The two companies are failing ably to deliver all their contracts and have admitted to overcharging the taxpayer. The companies have even offered to pay back millions of pounds—in a credit note, of course—and are being investigated for fraud.
At a PAC hearing last week, the chief executive of G4S said that he did not think the company had known the difference between right and wrong, which is extraordinary for a company that wants to supervise offenders. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government will prevent G4S and Serco from bidding for the contracts—I bet he will not—until the Serious Fraud Office has completed its investigation? That would go a huge way to allay some of the fears out there in the sector.
Will the Minister update the Committee on what effect—hypothetically—the withdrawal of the companies would have on the ability of the Government to deliver the plans? They seem to depend heavily on the involvement of these large companies. I am not sure that the plans could go ahead in the timetable envisaged were those lead organisations not to take part. As I mentioned earlier, partnerships have been developed with the voluntary sector, which has assumed, like everyone else, that G4S and Serco will be well placed to take on the contracts.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that Government Ms and their probation trusts will see the transfer of some 75,000 low and medium-risk offenders—sex offenders, domestic violence offenders, robbers, burglars and all manner of offenders—into the private sector, without any expertise to run services that are untried and untested. Is that not a concern for Government Members?
Jenny Chapman: If it is not, it should be. My fear is that it is not. We do not know whether G4S and Serco will be involved or who will be conducting the supervision of offenders. We do not know how or even whether they will be trained, or how they will be supervised. We do not know what qualifications or experience they would be expected to have, or what level of decision-making responsibility they would have. That is causing a huge amount of anxiety in a profession that is supervising people in the community right now.
The Government could benefit from slowing down and having a proper pilot. Crucially, they should allow proper parliamentary scrutiny of the proposal. I have been an MP for only three years, but I do not remember a time when a Government have got away with such upheaval without bringing anything before Parliament. It is extraordinary that they have attempted to do that. I am grateful to the other place for inserting the clause, without which we would quite rightly be ruled out of
Mr Llwyd: I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Darlington has said. It was quite a performance and she took her time, but she was right to do so, because the clause is clearly a crucial part of the Bill. At the conclusion of her remarks, she referred to things said in the other place, and it is right that we should have a flavour of the debate there.
“many of us are deeply alarmed at the absence of detail about their cost and how and whether they can be implemented in the timeframe depicted on page 34 of the so far undiscussed Transforming Rehabilitation White Paper.”
“Last Thursday, the Minister was kind enough to e-mail me a copy of the revised impact assessment, which I have to admit I find as disappointing as its predecessor, because it is...so thin on analysis of impact, cost or risk. I note that, yet again, the Government’s justification for not releasing more details is that to publish estimates would put contractual negotiations at risk and so prejudice the effectiveness of the competition for delivery of offender services.
“But we do not want to see any programme with that end fall flat on its face because understandable concerns about the viability of untried theories, in the uncertain world in which many offenders live what can only be described as chaotic and dysfunctional lives, have been ridden over roughshod in the desire to satisfy a party politically directed timetable that pays no attention to practical reality.”
“There is also the importance of taking people with you, particularly those whom you employ. Loyalty, like responsibility and accountability, is a two-way process. You cannot expect people to be loyal to you unless they know that they can rely on your loyalty to them.”
Lord Ramsbotham also referred to the Chairman of the Justice Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who the previous week had said that the MOJ was “responsible for carrying out” these “ambitious plans” and had
I know the right hon. Gentleman, I have sat with him on the Justice Committee for some years and I know that he does not make those kind of remarks very often, unless he is driven by necessity to do so. Those are pretty heavy and cutting remarks.
“It is stated that insufficient support for the reforms by probation management, staff and staff associations leads to failure to progress design and implementation to time and quality; that it is not possible to design the programme to a timescale that meets ministerial expectations and/or the coalition’s commitment to roll out payment by results by 2015; that insufficient participation by the market in competition leads to failure to secure value-for-money bids or at-risk elements of reforms; that new service and market models implemented as a result of the programme are ineffective and/or inefficient, leading to operational, financial and reputational impacts and failure to realise the planned benefits”.
“To expect this House, denied a veto, to rubber-stamp the Bill at this stage is to treat it with contempt because there are far too many doubts about the viability and affordability of the method the Government have chosen to achieve the proposals to which it is related, and the impact of destroying what is in place before proper evaluation of the ability of what is proposed in its stead to do better. I therefore ask the Minister to suspend further discussion”.
“I do not blame officials for this, nor do I blame the Minister in this House. The blame lies with the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State Mr Grayling, whose only reaction so far, I understand, is to have ordered a leaks inquiry.”
“Lord Randolph Churchill famously described Gladstone as an old man in a hurry. The Lord Chancellor is a relatively young man in a hurry, but he, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would agree, is no Gladstone.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 June 2013; Vol. 746, c. 659-663]
Those are the few remarks that I have to make in relation to amendment 51. I agree with everything that the hon. Lady has said and I will not retread the ground that she has very ably set out. However, in the time allowed to me, I would like to speak to new clauses 1 and 2, which I have tabled.
“No national tendering for any probation service shall commence before any proposed restructuring of such services has been the subject of a pilot scheme which is subsequently independently monitored and the results of such monitoring laid before both Houses of Parliament.’.”
“Any proposed restructuring of the Probation Service must first be the subject of an independently evaluated pilot scheme and the proposals should be laid before Parliament and be approved by resolution of both Houses.’.”
Governments of all persuasions have a recent history of sensibly piloting new measures in the justice system before considering any national roll-out. We have seen pilots for payment by results at HMP Peterborough and
Proposals to restructure the probation service are complex, challenging, totally untried and untested. Transforming rehabilitation, probably more so than any other new initiative in the justice system, strongly suggests piloting before any national implementation. The time scale alone is so tight that it invites mistakes, miscalculations and risks to the public. The Government’s unpublished risk assessment states:
I remind the Committee that such restructuring requires staff to be allocated into roles in the new organisations, the reallocation of up to 250,000 offender cases, the implementation and testing of the new operating model, the establishment of 21 new Government companies, the appointment of a new senior management team for the yet-to-be established new national probation service, the transfer of 18,000 staff to new employers, the allocation of 500 premises in whole or part to the national probation service or Government companies, and the re-engineering of ICT provision to enable the operation of the new entities.
There will be an operational split, so that, by April 2014, the new operating model will have been implemented within each trust, with clearly delineated operational units responsible for the public sector functions. That will be followed by a structural split to be completed by autumn 2014, when all staff will have been transferred to either the new public sector probation service or the new private companies. The probation trusts would cease to be responsible for delivering services and would start to be wound down. The timetable and programme must surely be fraught with problems. To give but one example:
“On the corporate services side the arrangements are as varied as the number of trusts and include a range from complete reliance on the Local Authority for all support services to comparatively newly purchased, stand-alone contracted services, for example for payroll and HR systems”.
The risk assessment, on which I have a slightly different take, gives ratings known as a BRAG score—brown, red, amber, green. A score of 20 indicates significant detrimental effect and has roughly an 80% chance of occurring. A number of risks, disturbingly, hit the 20 mark. One states:
“There is a risk that the affordability objectives for the reforms cannot be demonstrated or met, leading to failure to secure approvals during the programme or financial and operational risk and reputational damage to the department after implementation”.
We should not forget that the bottom-line risk is to the public. Such risks represent real warnings that should be heeded. At the very least, we should slow down the process, because it seems as though we are rushing to meet some political or dogmatic target that leaves everybody open to question and risk.
Paul Goggins: My right hon. Friend is an expert on these issues and always well worth listening to. Is not the point the fundamental risk to public safety that he mentions? Probation officers are managing the risk that is posed by offenders and those who have been offenders every day in our constituencies. The Government should be looking for innovative ways to try to reduce reoffending rates, but they should not be reckless with public safety.
Mr Llwyd: I agree entirely. I think everybody on both sides of the room would agree that we need to look at innovation, and the 2007 Act did that. It effectively said that probation trusts would commission various bits of work from the third sector and the private sector—from wherever the expertise lay at the time. That was absolutely appropriate. All of us believe that something should be done about the 12-month cohort—it is common ground between us—but the question is about how to do that while minimising the risk. We are currently maximising the risk, because if one or two of the elements fall down, there is no doubt that we are in deep trouble. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to the probation service. The National Association of Probation Officers has helped me in preparing this speech. The association was led to understand that the risk of insufficient market participation has significantly increased and that, in certain areas to be contracted, there is currently no expression of interest. I do not know whether the Minister wishes to respond to that point, but that in itself should be sufficient reason for piloting rather than rolling this out.
However, there are many other problems as well. The process for assigning staff to the new organisations is highly complex. There seem to be two methods: automatic assignment and expressions of interest. Certain staff who work in discrete operational functions will be automatically assigned to the new organisations, but how can staff be expected to accept transfer when they do not know who their employer will be, what the terms of employment will be, where they will be located, what size of case load they will have, what their job description will be, whether they will lose the rights to advise the courts and parole boards, what the equality impact assessment will be, what the financial or personal health risk will be, and what will be the personal risk assessment for such a transfer? All those matters are currently up in the air which, again, bolsters the notion that we need to pause and pilot.
Jenny Chapman: The right hon. Gentleman hits on the point of professionals in the service. Is he as concerned as I am that there will be a group of professionals working only with high-risk offenders? Does he agree that the pressures that puts on individuals, who might not get the supervision that is needed to work in that kind of context, will lead to risks?
Mr Llwyd: I agree entirely with the hon. Lady’s important point. It is also the case that risk varies, as she rightly pointed out in her speech. It could vary due to numerous things, such as falling back into alcoholism, domestic violence or the break-up of a relationship. That risk could change almost immediately, but I am worried that the professional probation service will not be on hand immediately to deal with it.
Lorely Burt: The right hon. Gentleman talks about probation officers working solely with high-risk ex-offenders. I have been informed that approximately 40% of the work of the probation service surrounds the assessment of risk in the courts, rather than in direct contact with high-risk offenders. Are there not programmes running under the probation trusts in which probation officers work solely with high-risk offenders?
Mr Llwyd: Yes, there are, but the hon. Lady might be interested to know that in her area there are no fewer than 20,988 low and medium-risk offenders, which is by any account a huge number. Are we going to entrust those offenders to people who do not have adequate training and would have to call people in to determine a change of risk? I think that there are huge problems here.
From my early years in the legal profession I have been a supporter of the probation service, which I have seen change people around and turn youngsters away from crime. I am proud to see that some of the people I defended when I was a young man are now leaders of their communities in civic offices. They would not have achieved that without the professional probation service, which spent time with them, understood them, helped them and turned them around. If we lose the professional probation service, I am afraid that we will lose a heck of a lot for the future.
The second method of assigning staff, if automatic assignment would not be appropriate, involves an expression of interest. Staff spread across certain functions will express an interest in being on either side of the divide. Such roles might include operational assistant chiefs, operational manager roles, operational offender management roles, programme tutors—for example, for sex offender treatment—and other operational staff. It might include staff involved in court duty who can be on either side of the divide. The Department will introduce sifting criteria, which have not yet been fully disclosed.
and public protection. How can that happen when most staff are effectively being given no choice about where they work in the future? Will the police negotiate information-sharing protocols with the private sector providers? What guarantee will there be of confidentiality?
The Ministry of Justice admits that if, as a result of the expression of interest exercise, the job posts available are oversubscribed in either the new companies or the probation service, further sifting will take place to achieve the necessary balance of staffing in both organisations. Will that mean redundancies? Again, it removes choice, and I suggest that the best way forward is a pilot.
Alex Cunningham: The right hon. Gentleman is outlining clearly the risks that are associated with the proposals of the Secretary of State—that young man in a hurry with an aggressive time scale. How would the Secretary of State lose out if he decided to have a pilot or two?
Mr Llwyd: That is the point; I do not see that he would lose out on anything. In fact, he would gain the credence of all the justice organisations, which are desperately concerned. The Magistrates Association, the probation service and the police are worried. The courts are worried and the Crown court judges are worried—everybody is worried. Holding a pilot would mean that the Secretary of State would be seen as somebody who is prepared to listen, ameliorate people’s concerns and take a bit of time.
All the points I have made could be ironed out with a better time scale and further discussion. What grieves me about this process is that there is unanimous support for dealing with the problem of the under 12-month cohort, which needs supervision. We are ad idem on that point. However, I am concerned, as I am sure all Opposition Members are, because we have not had a consensual approach. Why do we not put the brake on things and sit down to ensure that this is done correctly? It might take a month, or two or three—I do not know—but at this moment in time, all the points I have raised are up in the air, and there has been no clear indication of any kind of answer. That is grossly unfair on the professionals in the field. It will impact on their performance. Although they are thoroughgoing professionals, I would be concerned if I did not know where I would be in a month or two, if I would be relocated to another part of the UK, if I would be on one side or t’other, what kind of work I would be doing and whether my expertise would be completely wasted. That would affect my morale as well. Probation officers are remarkably resilient people—I have known many of them over many years—but this is taking them to breaking point.
It is uncertain what will happen to staff who are on secondment. Will they be able to return to their post when the secondment is over? What will happen to an individual if their substantive post no longer exists? It looks as though reception staff will automatically be given to the private sector unless the building in which they are located is predominantly run by the public sector, in which case they will stay put. I acknowledge that the reallocation of staff is a massive task and so a bit longer is needed to do it properly. Clearly there will be appeal procedures if staff think that the relevant method was not applied, that the process was inconsistent, that the information used to make the decision was incorrect or incomplete, or that there was any discrimination.
It is understood that everyone in the probation service has been asked to fill in a form asking them what they were doing on 11 November 2013, which will then determine which side of the divide they are likely to be
Complex sifting criteria are being introduced to determine what happens when the automatic assignment does not apply, such as when dealing with the case management and supervision of high and very high risk of serious harm cases, with multi-agency public protection arrangements work, with middle managers, with court probation officers, with probation service officers and with administrators. In those cases, decisions will be based on what individuals have been doing in the previous six-month period. That, again, is a highly complex process that must not be rushed. It is so dangerous that it cries out for a pilot scheme.
Further to complicate matters, consultation is occurring with staff on the measures that trusts or the Ministry envisage will be taken in relation to staff due to the transfer to either side of the divide. There is no formal definition of those measures, but they are generally considered to cover any changes in working practices, job functions or work location, and redundancies that the existing or new employer expects to make as a result of the transfer. All staff have to be given the right to be consulted about these so-called measures, and a number have been identified so far in the consultation: the implementation of a national agreement on staff transfer; reorganisation; shadow running; the transfer out of pension schemes; handing in of security passes and IT equipment; handover of case load, information and documentation; and the transfer of electronic data.
Things are complicated even further by the case split of the 240,000 offenders currently looked after by probation trusts. The Ministry has come up with a risk allocation tool, which is a mix of the offender group reconviction scheme and OASys, the offender assessment system. A number of factors are taken into account: the age and gender of the offender, and their previous and current offences. The offender is then given a score predicting the likelihood of reconviction. The tool will assess behaviour likely to lead to a sexual offence, but psychologists who have been consulted by staff say that that is beyond a probation officer’s knowledge base. Before the case split, information will be needed about the likelihood of the offender having contact with vulnerable adults, and there are many other questions that staff have to answer before a case is allocated.
On the basis of an individual’s score, there will be an allocation of risk. Staff will be able to expand on their answers, but that does not appear to have any impact on the score. At this point, no information is available about what will be put in place to allow information sharing, about whether bidding organisations will have proper safeguarding policies, and about how sensitive information will be stored and whether it will be secure.
To make matters even worse, there is confusion about what constitutes medium risk. NAPO estimates that half of the 150,000 cases that are likely to be privatised
The medium risk group includes people who have been convicted of violence, sexual matters, burglary, and domestic violence, and some known gang members. There are two types of risk that the service assesses and monitors: risk of offending and risk of serious harm. In the Ministry of Justice's definition of risk, someone is only placed in the high risk category if it is assessed that an offence could happen at any time. If they appear to be stable they are classed as medium risk, but risk levels change on a daily basis. Risk of harm assessment in particular is much more dependent on what can appear to be small changes in behaviour. For example, if someone convicted of domestic abuse enters into a new relationship, there are issues over contact with children, increasing alcohol use and financial problems. All of these could have an impact and act as triggers causing risk levels to rise rapidly.
Sarah Champion: The right hon. Gentleman talks about the handover of offenders and the triggers for people going from medium risk to high risk. Does he agree that one of the key trigger points is the loss of or change in a key relationship? For a number of these offenders the key relationship is with the probation officer, and in some instances that handover process could take up to six months, or at least is a planned and informed process at the moment, for example if a staff member is leaving or retiring. One of the concerns is that this handover is not planned, that the probation officer does not know who they are handing over to, and that it could really trigger a transition from medium to high risk in a number of offenders.
Mr Llwyd: I agree with the hon. Lady and I could further say that in days gone by, part of the function of the probation service was to befriend and advise. Although those are not words normally used nowadays, the purpose of a probation officer’s assistance is to back somebody up, give them a role model and give them assistance where they require it. The chemistry between the individual and the probation officer is key. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is a further possible flashpoint there which could implode. I certainly hope that it does not, but she is right to say that it could.
Probation staff are trained to monitor and assess changes and intervene quickly if required. Once again the complexities around risk suggest that a pilot would be the best way forward. Under the proposals, offenders will potentially be passed back and forth between agencies at the worst possible time—when they are in crisis with increasing risk. Information of a highly confidential nature will be open to huge numbers of different agencies. The scope for information being misused or lost is therefore large. Local accountability and immensely important local partnerships risk being lost. In summary, this is a highly complex, controversial, potentially dangerous reorganisation. The proposals are completely untested.
Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend made a very powerful and well informed speech, and his amendments are important. I put it to him—and hopefully also to the Minister—that although he is at the very least sceptical about these changes, and he has warned us about the risks and the scale of them, he would be prepared to support a pilot to properly evaluate the approach taken by the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington has said the same. Surely it would be sensible for the Minister to unite this Committee and unite the House by running a pilot, with the support of the Opposition, to prove whether or not he is right. If the Justice Secretary is right, and the result is that the pilot works, we would all have to hold up our hands and accept that.
Mr Llwyd: Absolutely. That goes back to the point I made earlier, that there is consensus across this Committee. When there is consensus the Government really should get involved and try to find a way that is sensible and which takes into account the views of everybody across the Committee. All we are talking about in this case is piloting, and a slight delay to what the Ministry has termed an “aggressive timetable”.
We all want to get it right, and there is no dogmatic divide between the two sides of the Committee. We really want to get this right, and one way would hopefully be by having a pilot. If I were wrong in six months’ time, I hope I would be man enough to say so. I am sure other Members and right hon. Members would do the same. To steamroll on with such an important matter of policy—such a potentially dangerous area of policy—is unwise, even cavalier.
The element of payment by results also causes concern. There is no information available on how payment by results will work, or indeed any evidence that it will work. The proposals do not appear to have been costed. Before the Minister asks me to cost something, let me say that I will have some figures for him by the end of this Committee. The Government’s own risk assessment acknowledged that financial risk cannot even be assessed because of the lack of baseline information. There we are: we are taking financial risks as well as risking a danger to the public.
The evidence for piloting these measures before a national roll-out appears to be overwhelming. It is absolutely unarguable that it would be sensible to do so. Rushing through changes risks compromising public safety, and has the potential for a massive negative impact on public protection.
Alex Cunningham: Given my Scottish name, Mr Robertson referred to me as Alec rather than Alex. I adopted the name of Alex so that people realised that I am really called Alexander. However, it is still a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
I rise to support the retention of new clause 1 and the amendments in the names of my hon. Friends. Like Members across the House, I share the frustrations that are so frequently aired around the high levels of reoffending experienced by our communities, because it is the communities that actually experience it. I am sure we all agree that action must be taken to break the cycle. Whatever we discuss in Committee, it is critical that we do not lose sight of the need for a probation service that is fit for purpose and able to deal with the wide range of offenders referred to it, including the many new ones under the Government’s welcome proposals on people who serve less than 12 months. We need a reformed probation service that also has the confidence of the people who work in it, and of course the highest possible public approval.
For that reason, I support the retention of new clause 1, which was introduced in the other place. It simply requires the Government to seek the approval of both Houses of Parliament for any proposals for the alteration or reform of the service. Parliament must decide whether or not Ministers can hive off the bulk of the work to profit-making organisations such as Serco and G4S, determine whether any such organisations can provide the service that is required, and above all ensure that the victims and the public at large are protected from the offenders they supervise.
The Bill will introduce post-release supervision for offenders serving less than 12 months in custody, as well as making various changes to community orders and drug testing. I support those steps; in fact the broad intentions of the Bill are to be welcomed from the perspective of addressing the scourge of reoffending that blights our communities.
Jenny Chapman: Is it not slightly ironic that the lowest reoffending rates are found among the offender population that is supervised by probation trusts, which are clearly very good at what they do? We do not know whether it is supervision per se or supervision by probation trusts, which is clearly excellent, that is having that dramatically beneficial effect on cutting reoffending.
I am concerned about the fact that the scourge of reoffending blights our communities and ruins the lives of many people. I welcome actions that will better reform and reshape people’s lives in that context. That is not to say that the specific proposals in the Bill pass muster in their current form. Although we all agree that steps must be taken to tackle reoffending, we should not contemplate taking action simply for action’s sake. Additional savings to the public purse, although embraced with open arms when properly achieved, should not take precedence over improvements to the services delivered. We do not want to implement any programme or measure that risks making matters worse because it is built on unstable foundations, yet that is the position that we find ourselves in. Uncertainty about how the Government will have the probation service enact the requirements of the Bill is the central reason for supporting new clause 1.
There is widespread and understandable concern at the absence of detail surrounding the proposed reforms to the probation service. I for one have received numerous
Under the proposals for the probation service, supervision will be extended to offenders sentenced to less than 12 months, and up to 70% of probation work will be contracted out to new private and voluntary providers. By definition, those providers will have no prior experience of offender management in that setting. Only those offenders deemed to be high risk and those assigned to the multi-agency public protection arrangements will continue to be managed by the public sector; even then, that will be under the guise of a new national probation service rather than the current model of local probation trusts introduced under Labour—a model that allows the service to adapt to specific local needs by commissioning the services they see fit to tackle the problems they actually face.
Meanwhile, under the plans, all offenders deemed to be of low or medium risk will be contracted out to non-public providers on a payment-by-results model that has not been tested in the UK or anywhere else in the world. If the Government have their way they will hand over those multi-million pound contracts to the lowest bidder, without even consulting those of us who represent the very people the proposals could put at risk. New clause 1 would provide protection against a serious gamble that puts public safety at risk by planning to roll out reforms that have not been adequately tested and are supported by no evidence. Parliament should decide who is best suited to deal with offenders, be they low, medium or high risk.
We should remember the fine work that our probation services carry out around the clock, working with offenders in prison and on the outside, whether they have been recently released or were given community sentences. That work is so often overlooked yet is integral to the well-being of safe communities. On the whole, our probation service does a first-class job of rehabilitating offenders and reintegrating them into a life away from crime.
The latest probation trust annual performance ratings, released in July this year by the National Offender Management Service, support that view: 31 of the 35 trusts were adjudged to be performing well and the remaining four trusts were classed as performing exceptionally well. Two are in the north-east, including the Durham Tees Valley probation trust. That the probation service was awarded the British Quality Foundation gold medal for excellence in 2011 highlights the fantastic job that it does. Such high-quality performance, however, is rarely recognised, in part because the probation service is the quiet man of the justice system in this country, receiving much less media attention than cuts to front-line policing or a Prison Service bursting at the seams. The probation service is no less important, and the figures provide proof—were any needed—that probation works, albeit with room for improvement.
In one area it is true that the probation service does not work as well as we would like it to—reoffending. As I said, we all agree that more needs to be done to reduce reoffending rates, which remain far too high, but the evidence shows that offenders discharged into the responsibility of the probation service are less likely to reoffend than those who remain unsupervised and left to tread their own path. Probation contributes a huge amount to making our communities safer, which is one reason why I support moves to introduce supervision for those receiving a prison sentence of less than 12 months and supervision to aid rehabilitation that extends into prisons as well.
Probation is a front-line service that deals with public safety. In the realm of offender rehabilitation, a delicate balance must be struck between public protection and the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into mainstream society. The role of the probation service is to maintain that balance. The proposals to restructure the service, fragmenting the support and services provided, while adding layers of unnecessary bureaucracy, will without doubt upset the applecart and flies in the face of what we know works best in offender rehabilitation: to establish stable and consistent contact with probation officers and to build the important day-to-day relationships. New clause 1 would build in a level of protection to ensure that any future service is fit for purpose.
Jeremy Wright: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making about the importance of personal relationships between those who are supervised and those doing the supervising. To be clear, is his view that that relationship can work only if it is between an offender and someone who works directly for the state?
Alex Cunningham: My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington, on opening the debate, made it clear that that was the case, and I agree with her position. We cannot simply have an easy fix to drive down costs and to pay for the new level of service proposed in the Government’s legislation. Anyone watching BBC’s “Newsnight” last Thursday, 21 November, must have been as horrified as I was to hear stories of failure and incompetence on an unimaginable scale by Serco, which successfully tendered to be the delivery partner of the London probation trust for community payback services throughout the capital from October 2012.
The community payback contract, which cost in the region of £35 million at tender, gives Serco responsibility for community service throughout London, but the “Newsnight” investigation found evidence of serious mismanagement. So 1,362 time-sensitive offender records were not updated between 1 September and 6 October—a period of only five weeks—and during that time, information was taking as long as five days to filter through the relevant channels, meaning that warning letters and breach letters could not be issued with sufficient time to allow probation officers to take the necessary actions within the eight-day time frame and to enforce the appropriate sanctions. The updating of Delius to nDelius, a national records database, was without doubt a significant factor in the delays; manual paper records were forced to be kept for a week in August during the update.
Staff confirmed to the “Newsnight” investigation that the backlog existed before the changes took place. That assertion, along with the size of the backlog, appears to be confirmed by the Ministry’s own statistics, which estimate that 960 new offenders start on the community payback programme each month. It is also worth noting that the investigation reported that a backlog of 362 remained at the end of October, after staff from the London probation trust had been called in to work additional overtime to help clear the decks.
Mr Slaughter: Is my hon. Friend saying to the Minister that the issue is not the definition of public or private sector, but the way in which those particular private sector operators conduct their business, to provide consistently poor and inadequate standards in whichever field they are working? Whether for prison escort, the Olympics or whatever, for a variety of reasons these organisations tend not to perform to the high standards that we have to expect and we have expected from the probation service.
Alex Cunningham: My hon. Friend is correct. Is it not ridiculous that we have a situation in which an organisation has a £35 million contract but has to turn back to the probation service and ask probation service officers to work overtime in order to clear up the organisation’s mess and help it out of a very difficult situation? If we had such a situation in the proposed new service and we had to rely on more and more work being passed back to the probation service, we would see a system that would quickly grind to a halt. That would lead to more offenders on the streets, possibly not having any sanctions imposed upon them and, of course, that would put our communities at risk as well.
In addition to the shambles in London with that contract, “Newsnight” collected evidence to show incorrect information on attendance being recorded by Serco, with the corresponding cases being thrown out of court as a result of evidence that was either incomplete, late or of dubious quality. It is no wonder that probation officers have said that they lack any confidence in the data provided by Serco, and that the former Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation, Rod Morgan, described the scenario as displaying a
The upshot of these failings is that justice ultimately becomes difficult if not impossible to dispense. It is timely to remember that the community payback contracts were supposed to be part of the Government’s blueprint for reform of the probation services. If similar failings were to occur in probation, public confidence in the entire criminal justice system would be catastrophically undermined and the consequences would be dire, yet the Government’s plans lay the groundwork for precisely this eventuality, and without new clause 1 Parliament would not even have a say on the detail of the changes.
The proposals envisage a system in which offenders sentenced to less than 12 months will be given that supervision. The probation service will, however, be excluded from providing this supervision to low and medium risk offenders, as entities bidding for such contracts are required to be able to bear financial risk
Jenny Chapman: On the issue of probation trusts not being able to bid, does it not strike my hon. Friend as absurd that those who have a good track record will not be able to take part, even though the payment-by-results contracts will not be putting money at risk at all, because the reward element, which is all it is going to end up being, will be in excess of the fee element that they need to spend to deliver the service?
Alex Cunningham: It beggars belief. The fact that these companies will cream off their profit first before they do anything else is important. They will not be concentrating on delivering the service; they will be concentrating on their shareholders. The important thing is that we have a professional service working with offenders because if we do not have those, as well as professional people supervising the professionals who are working with offenders, things can only go very badly wrong.
As I mentioned briefly, and as has been pointed out by hon. and right hon. Members, this step change is proposed to take place without being properly piloted and without approval of Parliament. We must guard against that. Imposing a payment-by-results model on probation services, as is the Justice Secretary’s plan, is untried and untested anywhere in the world. I have no doubt that this is a huge risk. Pilots were set up in the Wales, Staffordshire and West Midlands probation trusts with the intention of uncovering any shortcomings that may have needed to be identified and corrected before a future nationwide roll-out. Indeed, the Ministry’s own press release of 25 January 2012 waxed lyrical under the headline:
“These ground-breaking pilots will for the first time test how real freedom to innovate, alongside strong public, private and voluntary sector partnerships, could drive significant reductions in reoffending by those serving community sentences.”
The pilots were designed to be an opportunity to trial the model, learn from any mistakes on a small scale, and make improvements where necessary to ensure that any changes are correctly designed before the model is rolled out nationally.
None the less, in his first week in the job, the Secretary of State cancelled the pilots and chose instead to pursue a full national roll-out based on a hunch that the policy would work. His assurance, however, arrives at the
The Secretary of State has chosen to play the role of both judge and jury in deciding that the plans for probation trusts will reduce reoffending. At the same time, he has managed to prioritise an ideological bent over confronting the long-term problems, preferring to focus on driving towards a small state and cost savings instead of putting the rehabilitation of offenders and the protection of public safety at the front and centre of his policy.
The teething problems that are inevitable in any such trial period, ranging from inexperienced providers and failures in communication to glitches in untested IT systems, as outlined earlier by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, will now have to be contended with all at once and on a national scale. In case we are in any doubt, the Government have repeatedly referred to pilots in Doncaster and Peterborough. It is true that there were pilots in both locations, but the crucial factor is that they were prison pilots and therefore neither suitable nor comparable in the current context.
Coincidentally, whereas the pilots in Doncaster and Peterborough were decidedly not intended to pilot changes for probation, it is interesting to recognise that, while both pilots show some reasons for cautious optimism, both missed their targets. That is precisely why it was useful to have pilots. Mistakes were made, but they will help to form the crucial learning curve that will become the basis of future improvements. That is what pilots are for.
We should also bear in mind that such confident self-assurance comes from the same Secretary of State who introduced the Work programme, another payment-by-results programme that has proven itself less effective in helping the long-term unemployed back into work than could have been expected from the absence of any intervention at all—it was quite literally doing worse than doing nothing at all.
“If the Work programme fails, the cost is higher unemployment; if rehabilitation of offenders fails, the cost is worse: more crime. Which is why those now-disregarded pilots were set up in the first place.”
Put another way, if the Work programme fails, the unemployed fail to get jobs, or the jobs prove not to be sustainable. That outcome is far from desirable, with consequences extending far beyond the confines of any cursory, one-dimensional overview referencing production output or welfare bills. They are, however, in many ways, more palatable than the impact of similar failings with the proposals to overhaul the probation service.
We have only recently seen that the roll-out of universal credit, already much delayed, is having to be done even more slowly than originally planned, as a result of serious management and IT difficulties.
Mr Slaughter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the risk to the public. Does he agree that we have seen such conduct in ending indeterminate sentences for public protection and the liberalisation of remand and other restrictions in tribunals in relation to remand? The Government talk a lot about the protection of the public, but when there is a choice between that and saving money and meeting financial targets, the latter always seems to take precedence.
Alex Cunningham: My hon. Friend has a long list that he could have quoted to the Committee, although he may well do that in a speech at some stage. It is lamentable that the Government tend to mention money before public protection.
Paul Goggins: My hon. Friend is right to reflect on the experience of the Work programme. Has he seen the figures from September this year, which reflect what happened to the 19,800 offenders who were released from prison in 2012? Of them, only 360 had been found a job by June this year.
Alex Cunningham: I accept your ruling, Mr Robertson, but I am being educated by my right hon. Friend. I was not aware of the issue he raised. Part of the probation service working in partnership with other organisations is to help offenders into work. If partners that the service will have to work with are having such an abysmal success rate, that is something for us to worry about.
I referred to the need of the Secretary of State for Justice to learn from his Department’s failures, and that relates to the language services contract, to which others have alluded. The contract started in 2012 and was branded “shambolic” by the Justice Committee. Coincidentally, the Committee also identified that the Ministry did not have a sufficient understanding of the complexity of court interpreting and translation work before it decided to put those services out to tender.
Mr Slaughter: I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend again, but this subject is dear to my heart. When the language contract was originally let—it was a chaos and a farce and it was not performing—we were told by successive Ministers that it was teething troubles. The
Alex Cunningham: My hon. Friend asks a question, and the next sentence of my speech answers it. The ultimate outcome is translators failing to turn up for trials, causing cancellations. Those that did appear on time frequently mistranslated the evidence. The circumstances around the language services contract led the National Audit Office to recommend that the Ministry of Justice
That is sound advice and applicable beyond the bounds of the Ministry, yet the Ministry is running the risk of delivering a parallel scenario of failures with the reform of the probation service, only the consequences pose a more direct threat to public safety.
I emphasise that new clause 1 would require the same Secretary of State to outline his plans for the probation service before both Houses of Parliament, to demonstrate why he believed that they were for the best, and for them to be fully and properly scrutinised before being approved. As Lord Ramsbotham highlighted when making the case in the other place for inserting the new clause, Ministry of Justice officials have painted in tremendous detail the extent and complexity that the programme of change entails.
The need for piloting should be obvious, although in case there was any doubt, the former chief inspector of prisons made it abundantly clear that we cannot become complacent in the management of such an important service. On top of the intricacy of the proposed changes—not to mention their untested nature—Lord Ramsbotham pointed to the need for awareness of the enormous time pressures that will be added into the mix. According to the White Paper timetable, changes would have to be completed in a year’s time. That is no mean feat given the sheer depth of reorganisation. A new operational model has to be implemented and tested. The new national probation service must be established, along with 21 community rehabilitation companies. New senior management teams for the national probation service and the Government companies must be recruited and appointed. Staff must be allocated into roles in the new organisations, while 18,000 staff will have to be transferred to new employers. That will all happen, currently, without the scrutiny of Parliament.
If that process was not confusing enough, probation trusts are to have agreed the national and completely functional split and identified the proportion of staff and assets to be allocated to the public sector or government companies. They are also required to implement the new operating model at the same time as remaining contractually responsible for delivery by public sector and competing functions, all the while serviced by a single corporate support. In real terms, officials will have to allocate about 500 premises in whole or part to the national probation service or government companies. They will have to establish corporate support functions
There can be no doubt that that is a colossal task; indeed, I would call it a recipe for disaster. The challenges highlight the fact that the Government are looking to create an artificial split between public and private providers. They are adding unnecessary layers of bureaucracy that are likely to detract from the efficiency and effectiveness of probation services delivered by local probation trusts. As a result, the boundaries of responsibility between the national probation service and the private providers that will take over the government companies become blurred. That brings with it the likelihood of crossover and confusion. It is almost inevitable that information will fall through the cracks and vital warning signs will be missed as a result of that unnecessary divide.
That is before we consider the risks of losing accountability. For instance, those responsible for supervising court orders are accountable to the courts for the manner in which they fulfil their duties. However, if a judge has concerns about the supervision of a contracted-out court order commissioned by the Ministry of Justice but delivered by a private provider, whom do they ask to appear before them? In a similar vein, splitting responsibility for offenders between public and private sector providers based on their assessed risk level completely overlooks the 25% of offenders whose risk level will fluctuate during their period of supervision. Those fluctuations are a major concern, and service providers will need to react swiftly in such circumstances, particularly in instances of risk elevation. According to the Government’s proposals, that would entail a change in responsibility from the private sector to the public sector, but it remains unclear who is responsible for pulling the triggers for that transfer process. Delays simply cannot be tolerated because of the obvious risks involved.
As we have seen with the community payback scheme that Serco is delivering in London, however, the extra fat in the form of additional bureaucracy will make the process cumbersome. If information is similarly mismanaged in probation services, the risks to the public will be unthinkable. The Secretary of State for Justice has said that he can continue to deliver existing services and his proposed new ones within current budgets, but I cannot see how he can pay for all the extra bureaucracy and let his allies in the private sector cream off a substantial profit. It is the service that will suffer. Offenders will go unchecked and even unpunished, and the public will be put at greater risk. The Secretary of State wants to dodge laying his policies before Parliament and press ahead with his great private sector experiment, an experiment that has the potential to create a monster that will wreak havoc with our criminal justice system.
If the prospects of increased risk were not daunting enough already, the Minister told the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), in response to his concerns about risk and the movement of offenders between different categories and potentially service providers, that
“when someone is categorised by the national probation service as moving from medium risk to high risk, they will stay with that service. There will be no passing to and fro when that allocation process has taken place.”—[Official Report, 30 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 1016.]
Is that really what the Minister meant? Would medium risk offenders who were subsequently categorised as high risk remain with their private sector provider? I hope that he will address that point specifically, as his statement has simply added to the confusion about the Government’s intentions and raised the stakes in relation to risk, and how and by whom offenders are managed.