It is painfully clear to all that former Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling’s Transforming Rehabilitation agenda of selling off two-thirds of the Probation Service to the private and third sector has been a disaster. It has failed to result in better levels of supervision, less reoffending and enhanced delivery of public protection as the Minister believed. And, while it has overseen sharply reduced staff numbers, failed to deliver payment by results, made communities more vulnerable, it has also left the private companies concerned in debt, only to be bailed out from public funds.
From the outset of the 2010-2015 Conservative/LibDem Coalition Government, there was a determination to break up the Probation Service and hand it over to the private sector. It was a compromise between the two coalition partners that led to the unworkable arrangements of limiting the private sector to low and medium risk work, while the state retained supervision of high risk offenders. In exchange for this deal, the Conservatives agreed to introduce supervision after release for offenders sentenced to less than 12 months by the Courts. Thus far yet another failure.
In early 2013, the Minister had an opportunity to rethink the plans, when the Ministry of Justice’s own risk assessment was leaked to the press. It forecast that there would be major problems if the project went ahead as envisaged. A number of risks was identified in the document and rated on their likelihood of happening and the consequences for the future if they did. The risks were scored, with the highest score of 25 as the highest assessment of likelihood of occurrence. Maximum scores were given to the likelihood of failure to keep to the timetable, loss of staff confidence and failure to keep within budget. The risk document said that the scheme could lead to ‘an unacceptable drop in operational performance’ triggering ‘delivery failures and reputational damage’. Several other risks had dangerously high ratings but nevertheless ministers continued with their folly. Fast forward four years later to the summer of 2017 as the problems with the model are becoming more than apparent, and the Justice Minister mendaciously claimed that the difficulties with probation were unforeseen. In a press release, Plaid Cymru reminded them of the existence of their own earlier prescient and damning risk assessment.
In 2016 – just two years into the new arrangements – Plaid Cymru learnt from employees of one of the private probation providers that some CRCs were using on line rather than face to face supervision, requiring offenders to report digitally, and that significant numbers of staff were being reduced for profit-related reasons.
In 2017 Plaid Cymru had a series of meetings with the parents of a 17-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in south Wales by an adult male who was on probation and supervised by the private sector. We were told that the killer had missed eight probation appointments, six without good reason, but was not taken back to court, contrary to normal practice. We learnt that the family were still struggling to discover the truth of the supervision failings, but they are fighting to have the inquest into their son’s death to be resumed in order for all disclosures to be made.
Last year, the Ministry of Justice ordered its own internal review of the three years of the reforms. It was to be delivered to ministers by Easter. They refused to make it public but it is believed to be very critical of the Community Rehabilitation Companies’ performance.
This year the highly-influential Justice Select Committee published their findings after an investigation into the concerns about Transforming Rehabilitation arrangements. They found fault with the constant renegotiation of contracts, the contractors’ performance, the split of probation work in terms of delivery, and called for the Probation Inspectorate to review the way in which probation work was distributed and just how risk was managed.
Throughout the last three years, Plaid Cymru has constantly tabled both written and oral questions about the performance of the Community Rehabilitation Companies, about lack of accountability and dealing with public safety. We have put forward Early Day Motions and have co-ordinated political work with Labour spokespeople through the operations of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group. We have raised concerns about the arrangements with Ministers directly. While it is now clear that change is going to happen, it appears that the same problems associated with the flawed model are to be repeated yet again.
The contracts for the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies come to an end in February 2022. But as our intelligence suggested, the MoJ has now announced that the date for new contracts is to be brought forward to 2020. So the renegotiations of the arrangements will need to commence this autumn to allow time for the tendering process and a hand-over period involving shadowing between the new and old contracts.
The government could have chosen to introduce legislation to create a new body to undertake probation work along similar lines to the Community Justice Agency favoured by the Howard League, or they could use existing Labour legislation from 2007 to let the contracts to, say, Police Commissioners or Local Authorities in England and Wales, or even the National Probation Service itself. Instead, as predicted, it has chosen to reduce the number of contract areas from the current 21 to 10. The Government argues that the problem was the contract size – that they were too small – not that the model itself was flawed from the outset. They do not accept at present that the normal laws of supply and demand do not apply to the supervision of offenders and risk management. For ideological reasons, they cannot accept that the provision of justice is essentially a public good, which cannot be compromised by alignment with the profit motive.
Now is the time for common-sense to prevail. The Justice Unions Group and all opposition parties in the Lords and Commons have a vital role to play in persuading the Government that there is an alternative strategy, a strategy involving the creation of one public agency with effective aims, objectives and monitored outcomes.
Liz Saville Roberts
Leader Westminster Plaid Cymru and
co-chair of the Justice and Family Courts Unions Group