In June 2018, the Committee’s major report found that the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) reforms to probation, which set up Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), had created many serious problems.
It doubted that the TR model could ever deliver an effective or viable probation service.
Despite further damning criticism from the Chief Inspector of Probation, National Audit Office and others, the Government acted slowly to correct what was increasingly obviously a mistaken reform.
In May 2019, the Government announced changes to the model for delivering probation, including ending contracts with CRCs and moving all offender management to the National Probation Service.
The Committee supports the changes, which it says are well over due, but has pressing concerns about the next few months.
The risk of provider disinvestment will inevitably increase with the news that there will be no new CRC tenders in the pipeline.
MPs voice deep concern about the value for money for the taxpayer of any future bail-out of CRC contracts.
Today’s report also voices concerns about the lack of a workforce strategy, and seeks more information about how the Government will recruit and retain more probation officers.
The Committee supports the principle of an independent statutory register for probation professionals, as announced in May 2019, to raise the status of the probation profession.
MPs raise serious concerns about the transparency of funding of the existing probation system, and urge the Government to be more transparent in the future so that public spend can be clearly scrutinised.
The report also calls for measures to ensure that the involvement of the voluntary sector, which has been pushed out, is protected and encouraged.
Chair of the Justice Committee, Bob Neill MP, said:
“Last year I described the probation system as a ‘mess’. Our conclusions were echoed by other reports from the Chief Inspector of Probation, NAO and Public Accounts Committee: they found that the system was irredeemably flawed, underfunded, fragile, and lacking the confidence of the courts. Yet the Government took almost a year to respond.
“The Government has acknowledged its failure and finally done the right thing by making changes to the probation system.
But the transition to the new model will be costly and risky.
“Greater transparency of funding should be a priority, so we can see where it is going and the impact it is having. Staff, offenders and others have suffered enough – it’s time we had a probation system that is fit for purpose and one to be proud of.”
Key conclusions and recommendations
- Today’s report pays tribute to the dedicated hard work of the probation profession over the past few years. The Committee is disappointed that the Government has rejected its recommendation to produce a probation workforce strategy. The responsible Minister, Robert Buckland QC MP, should write to explain his plans to recruit and retain more probation officers, including current, planned and achieved numbers. This should include information about grade, development, training and caseload allocation. Members support the principle of an independent statutory register for probation professionals, as announced in May 2019, since it is important to raise the status of the probation profession.
- The Committee has continued to receive worrying evidence on the state of resettlement services, including from prison governors. The Government has put an additional £43m into Through the Gate resettlement services. The Committee wants to see that this additional funding makes a real difference. The MOJ should provide an evaluation of Through the Gate by the end of 2020, setting out how the funding has delivered improved support and better outcomes for offenders leaving custody and returning to the community.
- MPs were particularly shocked by homelessness figures: the Committee heard that one in five people leaving custody do not have somewhere to sleep on the night they leave prison, rising to one in three people released from short sentences. There is a close relationship between reoffending and homelessness. The MOJ should update the Committee by December 2019 on their work to address the accommodation needs of prisoners on release.
- The Transforming Rehabilitation reforms introduced 12 months of compulsory post-sentence supervision for offenders who had served short custodial sentences, adding around 40,000 more offenders to be supported by probation services. The Government rejected the Committee’s June 2018 recommendation that they should consider repealing this requirement. This is regrettable. The MOJ should tell the Committee how it is improving post-sentencing supervision in order to meet its concerns, and those of the previous HM Inspector of Probation, that it is insufficiently flexible to meet the individual needs of offenders.
- Members very much welcome the Government’s stated intention to move away from short custodial sentences and look forward to scrutinising their proposals when these are brought forward. Proposals on short custodial sentences should set out the intensive rehabilitative approaches which will be put in place as an alternative to deal with prolific offenders, as well as how sentencer confidence will be increased.
- The report expresses serious concerns about the transparency of funding of the existing system, and urges the Government to be clearer about costs in the future. The MOJ Permanent Secretary told the Committee that he could not, at this time, release the MOJ’s initial assessment of exit costs for current CRC contracts, stating that releasing these figures may compromise negotiations with providers. The Government also said that it could not release information about funding flowing to CRC subcontractors, citing commercial confidentiality. In future, it is vital that the new system should be organised and funded in such way that the involvement of the voluntary sector is protected and encouraged. The Committee should be able to measure this.
- MPs were not reassured to hear that the MOJ has spent £800 million less than planned: rather, it points to an underfunded probation service. The MOJ should consider publishing per-head costs of offender probation support, as it publishes a cost per prisoner per year. When the period with the current CRCs has been finalised and completed, the MOJ should publish a cost analysis, setting out the spend on CRCs and the changes for the lifetime of the CRC contracts.
Image: Parliamentary Copyright