The Ministry of Justice has embarked on a radical and controversial programme to change the scope and structure of community and prison-based probation and rehabilitative services, including opening up the provision of such services to a greater diversity of providers and the introduction of an element of payment for results achieved in reducing reoffending. The Transforming Rehabilitation reforms involve a substantial recasting of the way probation services are provided, and engender sharply differing views both among our witnesses and members of this Committee: some see them as the only means of extending support to short-sentenced prisoners and facilitating innovation through the involvement of private and voluntary sector providers in rehabilitative provision; others believe that the resulting transfer of functions away from the public sector, which will retain responsibility for high risk offenders, is either undesirable in principle, or too risky. We do not seek to resolve this difference in our report but to clarify how the system might operate and how risks will be managed.
We encountered broad support for the programme's aim to use efficiencies in the delivery of existing probation services to provide post-release supervision to short-sentenced prisoners, rectifying a long-standing anomaly in the system whereby those who tend to be the most prolific offenders currently receive no statutory support. We welcome the introduction of services for this group, but consider that care will need to be taken to ensure that any gains made in reducing reoffending by them do not come at the expense of the supervision of offenders on other sentences, and do not diminish the value of community sentences which are proven to be a cost-effective way of dispensing justice for non-violent offenders.
Witnesses in our inquiry, including some supportive of the proposed changes, had significant apprehensions about the scale, architecture, detail and consequences of the reformssome of which are still to be determined and much of which has not been testedand the pace at which the Government is seeking to implement them. In particular, our witnesses with professional experience of probation saw potential risks to the effective management of offenders arising from the Government's decision to split the delivery of probation services between a public National Probation Service dealing with the highest-risk offenders and the new providers who will be dealing with low and medium risk offenders. While there is some evidence base for aspects of the reforms, there is a question about how much they are indicative of the potential of the entire programme. The absence of piloting means that some witnesses lack confidence that the particular commissioning model and the novel payment by results mechanism proposed will work better than the existing system. The Government must recognise that any model introduced at the beginning of the new system is likely to require modification in the light of experience and must continue to be open to public and parliamentary scrutiny.
We recognise that, as well as the risks involved in change, there are also risks involved in not taking action to deal with the gaps and weaknesses in the present system. While the Government has undertaken to test the model with shadow state-run companies before contracting the new arrangements out to new providers, there is a lack of systematic information about the risks they might encounter during implementation and full operational conditions and the steps that they will take to mitigate those risks. They also do not appear to have devised clear contingency plans in the event that the competition fails to yield a viable new provider for a particular area, or that a new provider subsequently fails. In such circumstances, it is not clear whether the Government will be able to implement or retain the supervision of short-sentenced prisoners, or whether this element of the programme is contingent on having a complete system in place.
The Ministry has high expectations of what can be achieved in the way of efficiency savings and extension of services through contracting out the management of low and medium risk offenders within existing resources. We wished to examine the affordability of the reforms, the initial costs of which are likely to be considerable but which might, over the longer-term, lessen as demand on the system falls, but we have been unable to determine whether sufficient funding is in place on the limited information that the Government has provided. Furthermore, a key question for the Government is how the focus on reducing reoffending will be maintained while the restructuring of the market that is necessary to create the desired efficiencies takes place.