Local probation services

Andy Sawford - probation

I have spoken in Parliament to raise concerns about the government’s plan to change local Probation Trusts.

Northamptonshire has one of the best performing Probation Trusts – it excels against the Ministry of Justice performance targets, and the county has one of the lowest reoffending rates in the country

I have received letters from local probation officers who tell me the changes risk public protection. I will continue to urge the government to ensure that our probation services protect local communities and help reduce reoffending.

The full text of my speech can be read below, or found here on TheyWorkForYou:

It is a pleasure, Mr Crausby, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Mudie on securing this important debate. I have spoken several times in the Chamber to raise concerns about the Government’s latest reform proposals, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak further about them.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Julie Elliott who made some incredibly important points, and highlighted the performance of her probation trust. We are discussing a high-performing part of the public sector and the criminal justice system. We are not saying that the probation service could not be better, and we all agree with Priti Patel that we want it to be better, but the core of my argument, which my hon. Friends are also making, is that we should build on what is good and successful in the service and not disrupt it as the Government’s proposals will.

I want to talk about how such local organisations are working to good effect in Northamptonshire and about my concern that that will be disrupted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East made clear, our concern is that payment by results in the criminal justice system is untested. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, was responsible for the Work programme, which is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central has said, a contradiction in terms. Will the Minister explain why the Government are rushing headlong into the changes and ignoring the pilots, rather than learning from them and developing reforms from them?

Our probation service does a good job in difficult circumstances and on stretched budgets, and the Government rated the performance of every probation trust as good or exceptional in 2011. After the proposed changes, probation will deal with an extra 60,000 offenders a year. Will there be additional funding or will the current money be spread even more thinly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East suggested? Poorly resourced support for rehabilitation will not effectively help to reform offenders, and that poses a serious risk to our constituents’ safety.

The proposals have been strongly and widely criticised. The National Association of Probation Officers said that they were

“being rushed through without proper thought to the consequences.”

NAPO pointed out:

“Although these offenders are deemed medium and low risk of harm, they include…offenders at high risk of reoffending, such as prolific burglars, chaotic drug users and gang members…who require professional expertise in their management.”

In Northamptonshire, such offenders currently receive that professional expertise. The Howard League for Penal Reform calls the proposals “untested and opaque.

I want to share the views of three of my constituents who are officers in the local probation service. They are “shocked to hear that the Justice Secretary intends to put out to tender the majority of the Service’s core work”.

They are “astonished”, particularly because

“the probation service is currently performing extremely well”.

They also believe there is “no evidence” that the payment-by-results scheme will deliver, and they feel that the decision

“has been made on purely ideological grounds”.

One of the probation officers stated:

“I am fearful that if this plan proceeds it will be chaotic and will compromise public protection”.

The probation service is operating in the context of serious budget cuts, and we have to bear those in mind as we consider the potential additional costs of the reforms. The budget allocated to probation trusts was cut from £820 million in 2011-12 to £814 million in 2012-13. That is part of a 23% cut to the Ministry of Justice over the spending review period. Probation services face serious cuts, and the total number of staff fell from 19,000 in 2010 to 17,800 in 2012. The Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed yesterday that another spending review is looming on the horizon, and we expect staff numbers to be squeezed further.

I am concerned that, as public bodies, trusts will not be allowed to bid on their own or with partners for commercial contracts for the delivery of probation services, because they will not be able to bear the financial risks involved in taking on a payment-by-results contract. The financial objects of trusts specifically forbid them from taking on such a financial risk. I have spoken to the Minister about that, and I look forward to his response. Trusts have worked on the assumption that they could get around that impediment by setting up arm’s-length commercial vehicles to take on the financial risks involved, but now I understand that the National Offender Management Service has told trusts that that is ultra vires. Will the Minister clarify whether that is correct? Under right-to-provide legislation, individual

staff may bid if they can set up an independent mutual, but such a mutual would have to compete alongside other providers. As I understand it, probation trusts may not take the lead in the development of a mutual. Will the Minister tell me whether that is correct?

I have a number of specific questions, on which I will write to the Minister. However, will probation trusts, as public bodies, be permitted to bid, either on their own or with partners, for commercial contracts? Can they set up special-purpose vehicles? Can they set up mutual delivery organisations? Staff, including those in my constituency, are proud of their probation service. They want to know what future they have, and whether they will have opportunities to work around the reforms to sustain the good work that has been done. If probation staff were to set up their own mutual delivery organisation to bid for commercial contracts for the delivery of probation services in the community, would they have to resign from their employment with the probation trusts to take part in the competition?

According to informed estimates from various commentators, the reforms will result in the contracting out of about 70% of the work of a local probation trust. The Ministry of Justice claims that there will be a role for a surviving public probation service, but will that not be a tiny outfit of perhaps 3,000 staff—similar to theChildren and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, for example—which will operate as a courts and public protection service? I am concerned that a rump of 3,000 staff will simply become a national agency of NOMS, and the probation service as we know it will disappear.

Finally, I want to touch on the success story in Northamptonshire. The Minister will be aware of the high performance of Northamptonshire. I do not want to dispute the claims that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central has made about the performance of her probation trust, so let us just say that they are both excellent. The Northamptonshire probation trust is small, and it provides offender management services for the benefit of people across Northamptonshire. It excels against the Ministry of Justice performance targets, and the county has one of the lowest reoffending rates in the country.

The trust has certain features that are worth highlighting. The staff work very effectively in partnership with other local organisations. For example, operational probation and police staff work closely in the Northamptonshire integrated offender management team to monitor the most prolific offenders and to intervene where necessary. The trust’s strong working relationship with the police is reflected in the multi-agency public protection arrangements, and issues relating to the most serious offenders are well managed in Northamptonshire. There is strong strategic partnership working with the local authorities, with health providers and in areas such as housing and education. The offender management approach in Northamptonshire, which is working by reducing reoffending, is about really strong local partnership working, and that points the way to the approach for the future. The hon. Member for Witham mentioned reform, which we all agree is needed, and I believe we need to build on the incredible, strong local success story in Northamptonshire.

My time is running out, but I point the Minister to proposals that I made in a publication called “Primary Justice”, on which I worked with several Members of

Parliament, including Nick Herbert, as well as Lord Ramsbotham and other eminent professionals in the area. That report, which I believe was excellent, proposed a model that would build on a public sector success story. It would be far better to adopt that model than to proceed with the current proposals, and I commend it to the Minister. I look forward to his answers to my specific questions.

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