Probation reforms questioned by Public Accounts Committee

The Public Accounts Committee’s latest report: Probation – Landscape Review has evaluated the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation proposals and identified “significant risks” to the probation service.

The report, which was published today, drew attention to the “very short period of time” in which the Government’s reforms will be carried out, with up to 70% of the service contracted out to a mixture of private and voluntary sector providers:

“We recognise that the reform programme is still developing, but the scale, complexity and pace of the changes are very challenging, and the MoJ’s extremely poor track record of contracting out – such as the recent high-profile failures on its electronic tagging contracts – gives rise to particular concern.
The Ministry intends to pay Community Rehabilitation Companies by a combination of payment by results and fee for service. This is complex, untested and remains subject to agreement with providers.”

The Committee urged the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the NAO would have “full access to contractual information” to protect the system from potential “gaming” by contractors.

The report also raised significant concerns about the increase in caseloads for the probation service with the inclusion of the estimated 50,000 offenders serving short sentences who currently receive no probation support, which would represent a 22% increase on the offenders managed under the current system.  The Committee were concerned that the Ministry had not as of yet revealed plans about how this additional caseload would be managed.

The report was critical of the Ministry’s “poor track record of managing procurements and contracts,” citing both the electronic monitoring contracts and the plans to provide interpreters to courts, particularly given the “scale and ambition” of the reforms. The report urged a full professional evaluation of the bids entered by potential providers, and clear regulations to prevent the Community Rehabilitation Companies changing providers without the Ministry’s involvement, together with contingency plans through the procurement process to protect continuity of service.

Margaret Hodge, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, welcomed the MoJ’s commitment to only progress plans once it was assured that these were safe, and recommended that the Ministry “should set out the key review points it will use to assess whether it is safe to progress to the next stage of the programme and report the basis on which, should it decide to do so, it considers it safe to proceed.”

Sir Alan Beith, Chair of the Justice Select Committee, told the Journal that the issues highlighted by the report reflect many of the concerns raised in his own Committee’s Interim report on Crime Reduction Policies:

“These changes are intended for a good purpose, which is to bring supervision to prisoners who leave jail and are just left without supervision at the moment.

“But there are also a lot of risks with it, and those risks must be dealt with.

The PCA has warned that the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, which entail abolishing probation trusts and outsourcing 80% of their work to private companies, risk the deterioration of current high levels of performance of probation services. The latest Public Accounts Committee report identifies increased risks to operational performance during the upheaval, and raises the issue over how risk would be managed in the event of market or supplier failure.

Such a dip in performance would present unacceptable risks to public safety, taxpayers’ money and the effectiveness of community rehabilitation. As the Government proceeds to implement its reforms, the PCA believes it vital for the Government to ensure all systems are fully tested and safe before ‘going live,’ and that careful consideration is given to how the quality, skills and ethos of the profession are sustained in the future.

For all PCA media enquiries please call 020 3657 7844

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