Fundamental Flaws Are Impacting Service Delivery - Rehabilitation Programme

Westminster Hall Debate

Westminster Hall Debate

I beg to move, That this House has considered implementation of the transforming rehabilitation programme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. It is now almost 12 months since the formal creation of the 21 community rehabilitation companies and the establishment of the new national probation services. It has since become clear that fundamental flaws in the former Secretary of State’s thinking are beginning to impact on service delivery. The CRCs were initially created to address new work arising from probation supervision being extended to clients leaving prison after serving less than 12 months in custody. The probation service supported extending statutory support to this group with adequate funding. Had a consultation taken place on how that could be best achieved, I have no doubt that genuine alternative methods could have emerged, but it was unfortunately evident from the outset that the Secretary of State’s predecessor was fixed upon the payment-by-results outsourcing model.

Prior to the reorganisation, probation trusts were highly successful, with a good record of reducing reoffending. They had won European-wide awards for public service and all the trusts had been recognised as either good or outstanding by recent inspections. Trusts had established good local partnerships with other agencies, including in the private sector, that had been producing excellent results. In a number of trusts—for example, West Mercia and the Willowdene project—these partnerships have extended into innovative work with the third sector, addressing and supporting the same group of clients whom the transforming rehabilitation reorganisation targeted. Indeed, a major review by the third sector review group indicates that the procurement process was incoherent and meant that third sector providers who were supposed to have opportunities to engage in TR were disfranchised.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): It is not only politicians who have opinions on this subject, but the voluntary organisations themselves. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations sent us a briefing for this debate, which made the point that, despite the warm words of the former Justice Secretary, there is very little voluntary sector involvement.

Stephen Kinnock: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The purpose of a consultation is to listen to the experts. In this case, the experts have described themselves as being used as “bid candy” to dress up the bids, rather than being involved in a truly engaged fashion. I agree entirely with my hon Friend’s point.

Significant challenges were immediately obvious. First, the marketplace was not interested in taking over the management of high-risk offenders for the limited profits associated with managing that target group. Further, the Ministry of Justice had been heavily criticised by both the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office for its poor management of previous contracts in courts, community payback, electronic monitoring and the quality of some provision in private prisons and detention centres. There was therefore limited political support for privatising the whole lot, hence the “split” solution.

Several probation experts argued that splitting the probation service into two distinct groups was a far riskier solution than selling all the service to private providers. The split in the service creates challenges, some of which, with great patience, effort and commitment from all stakeholders, could be managed, but a world full of good will is not going to address the insurmountable structural flaws arising from the split. These include, but are not limited to: local service delivery and management of clients; bureaucracy and inefficiency, with additional processes generated to manage the allocation of cases and accountability; substandard internal communications, especially those founded upon outdated and unstable technology within the National Offender Management Service; and inefficient management of staff due to internal competition, which undermines morale and professional unity.

However, the greatest flaw was rushing the whole programme through to meet a strict political timetable without any adequate testing or piloting. The MOJ also failed to establish workable, sustainable contracts with the CRCs. These are already the subject of significant challenge from the new CRC owners. Equally, in its haste to successfully establish the CRCs, all efforts and energy were focused on the contracts share sale, and very limited evidence emerged of any serious planning or risk assessment of the future management of the newly nationalised National Probation Service.

With no piloting or credible assessment of what the new work meant or involved, the allocation of budgets and staff was largely guesswork. Initially, NOMS stated that 70% of work was expected to be transferred to the CRCs as only around 30% of total clients would be classified as high risk. This was not a scientific experiment, and it quickly became evident that it did not translate. The staffing split soon became 50/50, with ongoing confusion about where some work should sit. Current staffing levels and reliance on expensive agency staff are simply not sustainable, nor value for money for the taxpayer. A case needs to be made to the Treasury for emergency support for the NPS.

Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab):  Does my hon. Friend agree that this sounds all too familiar? As with other privatisations led by the Conservatives in government, they privatise the profits and nationalise the debts, and long-term liabilities to the taxpayer become greater than they were before.

Stephen Kinnock: I do agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to put a system in place that works. The old maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, applies. We absolutely have to be open to new forms of innovation, working in partnership with both the third and private sector, but that was already happening. The new system that has been put in place has unfortunately caused a great deal of confusion. I hope that today we can make some progress on sorting that out.

The contracts allow the CRCs to pass back tough cases and still get paid on a fee-for-service basis. A further problem concerns the additional redundancy costs. The probation unions have recently had cause to lodge formal disputes with the national negotiating council on account of one of the CRC owners—in this case Sodexo—refusing to honour the terms of voluntary redundancy under the national staff transfer and protections agreement. Staff terms and conditions should be honoured, and the MOJ should police this as part of its contract management.

I now want to turn to the report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation. It is expected that Ministers will cite the latest report from Paul Wilson as evidence that it is too early to form a judgment about TR and that it will be another two to three years before the public can see evidence of the effectiveness of the reforms. Although not disputing the valuable work of HMIP, we believe this is a wholly unsatisfactory analysis that will assist the Government in their attempts to gloss over the reality that is the failure of TR. I do not believe we can afford to wait two to three years for the situation to resolve itself when the consequences of a failing probation service are so critical to public safety.

A further vital point is about transparency. In a letter written to the Select Committee on Justice, the Minister claimed he was putting measures in place to improve transparency. We fully support the need for the performance of the probation services and the CRCs to be properly monitored and for the results of that monitoring to be made public. As such, we strongly recommend that private probation providers are made to comply with freedom of information requests so that they, too, can be openly scrutinised by hon. Members and the public. We also call on the Government to place the details of the 21 private contracts in the public domain so that they are open to scrutiny.

Finally, I want to raise serious concerns about service delivery. The MOJ is proposing a reduction in the number of full reports delivered to courts and a greater reliance on oral reports. Oral reports by their very nature do not allow for a full risk assessment to be carried out by probation staff, nor for any information that is held by other agencies to be collected. As such, they should be used on low-level first-time offences only. However, the push to use these types of reports in the majority of cases will see them being used for wholly inappropriate offences.

We are already aware that, because of pressures on staff and staff shortages, oral reports are being used for sexual and domestic violence offences. Such cases are complex, and there are underlying risk issues that must be investigated fully prior to sentencing. Children’s services and the police should be contacted to see whether there are ongoing risks to children and victims. Without that information, it is impossible to manage the case effectively or safely, or to propose to the court the most appropriate sentence.

I will summarise the seven key recommendations that must be implemented urgently. First, there should be open engagement between the unions and senior MOJ and NOMS management and stakeholders to identify ways to resolve some of the urgent performance issues arising in the NPS. Secondly, there should be a full post-implementation review of TR and the contracts and performance of CRC providers since 1 February 2015.

Thirdly, the NPS should be properly funded, sustainable and effective at managing some of the most dangerous offenders, and there should be funding for information and communications technology that is fit for purpose. Fourthly, there should be effective contract management, including a full analysis of CRC operating models, to ensure a safe delivery of service that focuses on public protection and rehabilitation, not just on cost-cutting exercises. Fifthly, all CRC owners should be made subject to freedom of information requests, so that their performance can be scrutinised by MPs and the public.

Sixthly, there must be robust and fully open contract management to ensure that providers are adhering to staff terms and conditions as underwritten by Ministers. Seventhly, a mechanism should be put in place to enable those in CRCs who are made redundant to transfer swiftly to the NPS at the same grade as they were prior to the split. That would not only ensure that skilled staff are not lost, but help to reduce the pressures in the NPS caused by staff shortages.

A wise person once said that what matters is what works. It is crystal clear to all concerned that the transforming rehabilitation programme conceived by the coalition Government is simply not working. We in the Labour party are pragmatists. As such, we urge the Minister and his colleagues to remove ideology and dogmatism from this matter in order to enable common sense to prevail. We call on the Minister to listen to the experts and fix this broken system before it is too late.