Prisons and Probation Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Prisons and Probation

David Hanson Excerpts
Tuesday 14th May 2019

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Ministry of Justice
The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr David Gauke) Parliament Live - Hansard
14 May 2019, 1:37 p.m.

There is an important debate to be had about the involvement of the private sector and the voluntary sector in our justice system. It is right that we ask ourselves: how do we provide high-quality public services? How do we encourage innovation in order to raise standards? And how do we deliver the best possible value for money for the taxpayer? In answering these questions, there will always be debates about whether the private sector or the voluntary sector does too much or too little: do we make use of these sectors in the right way? Do we have the right incentives? And do we have the right supervision? In reaching a fair-minded conclusion, we should approach the evidence in a fair-minded way, looking at good and bad examples, and acknowledging where things work well and where they do not.

I have to say that such a balanced approach was entirely lacking in the speech we have just heard from the shadow Secretary of State. In a fairly lengthy speech, he had time to address this in a proper, balanced way. Instead, what we heard was simplistic, dogmatic and bombastic. The only thing anyone on this side of the House will remember about his speech is his abiding hostility to the private sector. Mind you, at least we will remember something from his speech, which, given his reputation, is more than he will ever do.

On prisons, the hon. Gentleman repeatedly made reference to the difficulties with HMP Birmingham. There is no doubt—I acknowledge this—that Birmingham was a failing prison and the standards at the time of the inspection were unacceptable. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service had been working closely with G4S to try to resolve the issues, but it became increasingly clear that G4S alone was not able to make the improvements that were so badly needed. That is why we took the decision to step in, doing so at no additional cost to the taxpayer. It was right that we did that. The point I want to make is that where we believe it is right to step in and where we believe the private sector is not the right answer, we will step in.

David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
14 May 2019, 1:37 p.m.

Can the Secretary of State just tell the House why it took an inspection by the prisons inspector to discover that G4S was failing in Birmingham and why this did not come from his own Department?

Mr Gauke Parliament Live - Hansard
14 May 2019, 1:38 p.m.

HMPPS did have concerns about how Birmingham was operating and the way it was working, and HMPPS was working closely with G4S to try to address this. It became clear, when the inspection was undertaken, that we were required to go further and that the level of intervention we had previously put in was insufficient. That is why we took the steps we did. We stepped in, putting one of our best prison service governors in charge, alongside a strong senior management team and 30 additional experienced staff. I would like to thank all of them for their hard work since we took that decision to turn around a complex and challenging establishment.

Break in Debate

Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton) - Parliament Live - Hansard
14 May 2019, 1:55 p.m.

Order. As colleagues can see, we have a good number of contributors to this debate. I do not want to impose a time limit, but I would encourage colleagues to speak for about eight minutes each. In that way, we will be able to get everybody in comfortably.

David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
14 May 2019, 1:55 p.m.

Listening to the Justice Secretary is always a pleasure. He was calm and reflective and is committed to trying to improve services, but he knows that that calmness and reflectiveness hide the shambles of the past six and a half years since his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), took the decision to split the probation service, separating serious offenders and low-level offenders, and to ensure that contracts were given to organisations that evidently—as found by the National Audit Office, HM inspectorate of probation, the Secretary of State’s own Department, the Justice Committee and everybody who has looked at the issue—have not performed to the standards that the Secretary of State would expect or in the way he would expect to protect the public at large.

Let us forget the Secretary of State’s calm demeanour. He knows that his Government have presided over a complete shambles and he will now do his best to make the best of that bad job and to repair the damage.

My points are reflected in what has been said by the National Audit Office and the chief inspector of probation. We know that in 2013 the Ministry of Justice embarked on a reform of probation services and split serious offenders from the national probation service while establishing community rehabilitation companies, which, halfway through their term of office, proved to be costing the taxpayer resources because of their inefficiencies, to be increasing the overall percentage of re-offences per offender by 22%, and to be underperforming. Yes, there was an overall 2.5 percentage point reduction in the proportion of re-offenders compared with 2011; the Government had a target of 3.5%, so the CRCs underperformed against the Government’s own targets.

The National Audit office has had the opportunity to consider this matter and has said quite clearly that there was “patchy” involvement with the third sector, one of the Government’s major objectives. There was

“limited innovation and a lack of progress transforming probation services”,

another of the Government’s key objectives. There were

“significant increases in the number of people being recalled to prison”,

because supervision in the community was failing them. My constituents and others were being impacted by that through higher offences in their area. The NAO found

“ineffective Through the Gate…services to support transition from prison to the community”.

That was a key element for the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell, who should really be answering the debate today to be held accountable for the position in which he has put the Justice Secretary. The objectives set by the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell have not been met.

My colleagues from the Justice Committee—including my friend the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and others—are in the Chamber today. We did a full report on the state of affairs with CRCs and probation, and we—not Labour Members of Parliament, not former Ministers such as me, but a cross-party Committee—have come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to introduce the transforming rehabilitation reforms without a pilot. We agree that there was a significant overestimation of the ability of CRCs to reduce their costs to match any fall in income when the contracts were agreed. We agreed fully that we were unconvinced that splitting offenders by risk was the right way to split the probation system. We agreed on a cross-party basis that the transforming rehabilitation changes weakened local partnership and local accountability, so there was less joined-up working and collaboration at a local level. These things all matter because it is about preventing crime. It is about turning people’s lives around when they have been in prison and need support in the community.

The Government have not yet accounted for the cost of that failure or for their performance, and they have not explained why bad decisions were made by Ministers, who rushed through proposals without due consideration. The Secretary of State can by all means do a calm, professional job—I tip my professional Member of Parliament hat to him—but he is presiding over his predecessors’ failure, and he has the job of making improvements.

At this morning’s Justice Committee I asked the chief inspector of probation, “Did the changes make the position worse?” She said, having been pressed a couple of times, “Yes, they did.” The Government need to account for that failure. We had 110 years of a probation service that took pride in its staff, with high morale. It delivered an effective service, but within the space of six years, the Government have put people at risk, split the service and reduced competence. We have not had an effective service, which has been shaken up, and it is now having to rebuild.

How does it do that? There is a model in Wales, where the probation service has been brought back together as a public service. I would like to see a justification not for why that has been done but for why it has not been done elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The Government are undertaking a consultation—again, in a calm, collected, professional way, the Minister is batting that ball and taking those hits—and the outcome should be clear: the probation service performed better when it was a unified body, working with serious and lower-risk offenders, and when it had good rehabilitation services, including community payback services under its wing. Yes, it can contract out some of those services to the private sector—a drug charity might provide a good drug rehabilitation service; a local workplace scheme might best be provided by a local charity or a voluntary organisation. When I took the Offender Management Bill through the House of Commons in 2007, that was the private and voluntary sector involvement that we sought. It was not about splitting the service.

I simply say to the Minister, because I am coming to the end of my eight minutes, that I want to know who is accountable for this mess. If the Secretary of State stands up and says, “My predecessors”, that will help. I want to know what has been the consistent impact of this mess. There is a whole range of things that he and I know have gone wrong, and there are services that he and I know are not performing. It is his job to come clean and say those things in a professional way.

What happens next? I do not have time to talk about prisons, but I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) in the belief that we should bring the probation service back into the public sector to meet the needs of our constituents, reduce crime, and turn offenders’ lives around. I welcome the new prisons Minister, who will respond to the debate. He should stand up and say, “I have looked at this. I have been in office for two or three days. I have come to the conclusion that my predecessors left an unholy mess, and I commit to bring the service back into the public sector.”

Sir Robert Neill Portrait Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
14 May 2019, 2:04 p.m.

It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), my very well respected colleague on the Justice Committee. I am always immensely grateful for the contribution that he and other Members make to the work of our Committee. There might be the odd difference in nuance and tone, but there is broad agreement between us in the factual conclusions of our Select Committee reports. They are cross-party reports, and they are based on evidence, so I am with him on many of the points that he made.

In fairness, it is right to say that the Secretary of State has struck exactly the right tone. I congratulate him on doing so. It is not the first time in recent weeks that he has made an important speech on prisons policy and on other matters. The tone he struck in looking at the evidence has all too often been missing from the debate on prisons and on justice policy more generally on both sides of the political divide. I therefore welcome his tone and approach, and I broadly agree with where he is coming from.

There is not, to my mind, a need for a rigid, ideological division. There are differences on the evidence on prisons and probation. I think that the evidence of a mixed prisons economy makes it clear that good work is done in a number of private sector prisons. There are failures in those prisons, as there are failures in public sector prisons—the evidence provided by the chief inspector demonstrates that clearly. The issue is not who manages prison contracts—perhaps with the exception of facilities management failures, a specific area—but what we expect prisons and their staff to do on behalf of society and to achieve with the people sent there by the courts on behalf of the state. It is what we do to help them to ensure that prisoners are kept safely and decently, protecting the public, deterring reoffending and turning around the lives of those who go to prison so that they are less likely to reoffend and there are fewer victims of crime as a result.

Under Governments of all parties, we have not managed to achieve that satisfactorily for the past few decades—it is not a short-term thing—and investment is needed in some cases. I welcome the additional prison officers, but greater thought is needed, not just in the House but by society as a whole, about what we expect prison and the justice system to do. Ultimately, we can never make prisons places of rehabilitation and reform unless they are safe—when my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) was prisons Minister he got that absolutely right—but, realistically, we cannot do that unless we continue to put in the number of people that we currently do. To achieve that in a safe fashion that has public confidence, it is critical that we spend much more time and energy in our debate finding robust and viable alternatives that punish people in the community, rather than simply warehousing them in prison institutions, which is counterproductive for everyone. I very much welcome the Government’s willingness to look again at the presumption against shorter sentences, as has happened elsewhere.

There are important things in the prisons debate, but I, too, am not going to dwell on them as much as other matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) is going to speak about prisons in particular, but I want to return, as the right hon. Member for Delyn did, to transforming rehabilitation and the probation system.

This morning, the Justice Committee heard from Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, for the last time, as she is coming the end of her three-year tenure. She has done an excellent job. She has been robust and frank, and she has spoken truth to power, as an inspector should. She has not pulled her punches when necessary. The evidence that she has found is entirely consistent with evidence that the Select Committee found in a number of its reports, particularly one that we have recently published. It is entirely consistent, too, with the findings of the National Audit Office and those of the Public Accounts Committee. When, separately, four bodies produce reports based on essentially the same evidence and come to the same conclusions, the Secretary of the State and the prisons Minister—I warmly welcome him to his post—who have been brought up professionally to work on evidence, know that it is time for change.

I submit urgently to the Secretary of State that, whatever the good intentions behind the transforming rehabilitation programme, partly because of the pace at which it was undertaken, and partly because of the intrinsic nature of the probation service as a social service, which is different from the Prison Service in many ways, it has failed to achieve many of the laudable objectives set for it. It has not created greater diversity of provision and, above all, it has not succeeded in bringing the voluntary sector into probation work in the way that had been hoped. Most importantly, it has—like it or lump it—lost the confidence of many sentencers. If we are to achieve the objective I mentioned of developing robust alternatives to custody so that we do not overcrowd our prisons, it is critical that we have a system of supervision in the community, either as an alternative to custody or on release from custody, that commands the confidence of the sentencer—the judge and the magistrate —as well as of the public. It is very clear that that has not been achieved under the current arrangements.

The point about risk is an important one, as our report stressed. On all the evidence that we heard, the division of risk at the point of sentence and on the basis of the offence is, in reality, arbitrary. It is a snapshot in time that is then frozen for the rest of the offender’s supervision, whereas in reality the evidence is clear that risk will change. If the supervision goes well, it will decrease, but in certain circumstances it may increase. This is not an efficient division of risk to have. It is interesting that a different approach has been taken in Wales. One of the reasons that is worth looking at is that it could enable us not to have that arbitrary division of risk. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friends will look at the practicality of how that works out, because this is a critical issue.

Another significant thing that Dame Glenys stressed to us is the way in which the contracts were written. The problem is that probation work—which is, of its nature, dealing with people with complex circumstances in quite often changing and difficult environments—cannot easily be distilled into a set of contractual requirements, which might be easier to do, in some circumstances, within a closed institution.

The current contractual systems model does not succeed in achieving either innovation or the sharing of good practice, because there is no reward for either of those things. The Secretary of State’s review and consultation now gives us an opportunity to look at that. He was right to terminate the CRC contracts early, because they were simply not delivering what had been sought and intended. It is clear, on the evidence, that just recreating them would not be the answer. It would be more sensible to look at alternatives that, on the evidence, address the systemic problems that we now know are there but were perhaps not foreseen at the time.

There are areas that need to be looked at in relation to people with particular vulnerabilities—for example, the particularly high number of young offenders with black and minority ethnic characteristics going through our probation system, and the particular difficulties of female offenders, many of whom, of course, have themselves been victims of abuse or other types of offence in the past. There is the real problem that we have with through-the-gate services, where clearly not enough is being done to discharge people from prison into circumstances where they will not be tempted to fall back into reoffending. I hope, in particular, that when the Secretary of State looks at new models for dealing with probation services, he will look specifically at the need to secure accommodation for people on release. Indeed, securing accommodation for people who are being supervised in the community as an alternative is central to the probation process. All the evidence clearly says that the best means of keeping out of trouble are a home, a job, and a family or support system relationship.