The ideologically driven nature of the government’s plans to reform the probation service were laid bare in the House of Lords last week as peers accused the government of concealing information and undermining parliamentary scrutiny.
The Ministry of Justice is currently attempting to secure the legislative reforms needed (via the Offender Rehabilitation Bill) to implement its ambitious ‘Transforming Rehabilitation' agenda which aims simultaneously to expand, improve, privatise and reduce the cost of the probation service, all before the next general election.
It might seem surprising that some of the House of Lords’ most vocal advocates for reform of the criminal justice system are opposing the government’s plans to introduce probation support to those released from short term sentences – a longstanding aim of many penal reformers. But many are concerned about the way the Ministry of Justice is planning to implement the reforms, replacing an experienced, localised and broadly successful public probation service with a large centralised system of corporations paid on the basis of payment by results. They find themselves baffled by the lack of detail available to determine whether or not the plans stand a chance of actually working.
There is no available evidence to support the government’s claims that privatisation of the probation service will reduce reoffending. Both of the planned payment by results pilot projects in the probation service were dismantled before they had a chance to get started. Two payment by results pilots in private prisons were allowed to go ahead, but the nature of these pilots is so different from that which the government intends to introduce that the results are meaningless.
In addition to a lack of evidence there is no meaningful risk assessment of the proposals - surely a crucial component of any reforms which aim to alter fundamentally the inherently risky work of how people who commit crime are managed and supervised in the community?
Also missing is any indication of how much the proposals will cost. The Ministry of Justice claims to possess a detailed assessment of how much will be spent on these reforms, but is refusing to disclose as this
"could put contractual negotiations at risk and prejudice the effectiveness of the competition".
Unsurprisingly, several members of the House of Lords reacted angrily at being kept in the dark about the detail of such important and risky reforms.
Labour peer Lord Beecham described the impact assessment produced by the Ministry of Justice as a ‘farce’ and accused justice minister Chris Grayling, of deliberately attempting to minimise parliamentary debate:
"When the Government drove through their controversial, some of us would say disastrous, reorganisation of the National Health Service, they at least observed the proprieties and made the changes the subject of a Bill that was itself subject to scrutiny," he said.
"The future of this service, so vital a part of our system of criminal justice and so important in maintaining the safety of the public, would not be being debated at all were it not for amendments emanating from the Opposition and Cross Benches in your Lordships’ House."
Summing up Chris Grayling's approach, Beecham said:
"The Lord Chancellor is promoting this agenda in the spirit of the promoters of the South Sea bubble, one of whom, it will be recalled, advertised a project 'for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage but nobody to know what it is'."
Lord Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, went further, saying: "To expect this House, denied a veto, to rubber-stamp the Bill at this stage is to treat it with contempt."
He went on:
"I wonder whether the real reason why the Secretary of State is unwilling to reveal an objective assessment of the impact of his proposals is that he dare not, because they are so undermined by the sheer scale of the risks as assessed by his own officials in the Ministry of Justice?"
The risk assessment Ramsbotham mentioned refers to a document leaked to The Times and The Guardian which revealed that if the proposals go ahead there is an 80 per cent chance that the quality of probation services will decline, leading to service delivery failures and reputational damage, and a 51 per cent to 80 per cent likelihood that the hoped for savings won’t be achieved.
Rather than acknowledge the Lords’ legitimate grievances, Lord McNally, a justice minister and Lib Dem peer, responded by treating those demanding more information as spoiled children out to cause trouble, noting that "the noble Lord (Ramsbotham) gets upset when he is attacked, yet when one rereads his speech one sees that he is very willing to dish it out" and telling his colleagues off for paying attention to leaked reports claiming it "not worthy of them".
McNally was rattled further when the House of Lords passed an amendment requiring that both Houses of Parliament debate and approve any changes to the structure of the probation service, which could potentially delay the Ministry of Justice’s ambitious implementation timetable.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the government's Transforming Rehabilitation reforms are not really about reducing reoffending and helping those sentenced to short periods in prison turn their lives away from crime. Indeed, the most detailed part of the Ministry of Justice’s impact assessment notes that it expects to see 13,000 people sentenced to further short term prison sentences under the proposals – hardly rehabilitative. It is highly doubtful that the plans will generate the intended cost savings and with all the extra prison places that will now be required. Indeed, it is very likely that much more public money will need to be spent as a result of this bill.
These reforms are driven not by evidence, but by a clear political timetable. The current ministerial team has political ambitions to make sweeping, irreversible reforms before the next election regardless of whether its plans will improve services or save money. The lack of detail, absence of evidence and hostility to those who support the aim but are concerned about the detail leads to no other explanation.