Justice Committee welcomes extension of rehabilitation to prisoners on short sentences; members of the Committee take different views on the merits and viability of the Government’s plans for contracting out probation services for medium and low risk offenders; the Committee’s report presents and analyses concerns about those plans put to it in evidence
In a report published today, the Justice Committee spells out concerns raised in evidence to it about gaps in information and in implementation plans for the Government’s proposed reform of probation services. The Committee says the Transforming Rehabilitation proposals, which would see probation services opened up to private and third sector providers and the introduction of payment incentives for reducing re-offending, will radically change the probation system. The Report makes clear that members of the Committee take different views on the merits and viability of the Government’s proposals, and that the approach taken by the Committee has been to collect evidence from a range of those with experience or knowledge in the field and to question Ministers and officials in order to clarify how the system might operate and how risks will be mitigated.
The Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
“In our report we clearly recognise that, as well as the risks involved in change, there are risks involved in not taking action to deal with the gaps and weaknesses in the present system, particularly the absence of supervision for short-sentence prisoners who are the most prolific re-offenders. At the same time it is part of our scrutiny role as a select committee to assess the challenges and risks involved in any new system.”
The Committee heard from witnesses that the programme’s aim to use expected savings from the delivery of existing probation services to provide post-release supervision to short-sentenced prisoners was generally welcomed. Up until now the most prolific offenders – who receive repeated, short sentences - have received no statutory support. Nevertheless, the Committee warns any gains made in reducing reoffending must not come at the expense of the supervision of offenders on other sentences, and must not diminish the value of community sentences which are a proven, cost-effective way of dispensing justice for non-violent offenders.
Witnesses to the inquiry, including some supportive of the proposed changes, had major concerns about the scale, architecture, detail and consequences of the reforms— much of which has not been tested—and the pace at which the Government is seeking to implement them. They identified a particular risk in 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. The Committee says Government must recognise the new payment by results mechanism is likely to require modification and must continue to be open to public and parliamentary scrutiny.
Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Committee, concluded:
“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 information both about the risks they might encounter during implementation 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 would have liked 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 the information the Government has provided is too limited for us to do this. This raises the question of whether this important assessment has been adequately carried out. Furthermore, a key question for the Government is how the focus on reducing reoffending will be maintained during the period when the restructuring of the market that is necessary to create the desired efficiencies takes place.
At this stage, with the plans already beginning to come into effect, it is for the Government to look carefully at the areas where we have identified either risk or a need for clarification, and to explain more fully what steps are being taken to mitigate risks and how the new system is intended to work.”