There is a real danger the Ministry of Justice has bitten off more than it can chew. It set out with some fervour a programme of reforms not just to rehabilitation but also to the courts and prison systems. Ambition is one thing but, as our Committee continues to document across government, delivering positive results for taxpayers and society in general is quite another.
Those are the words of the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier MP (@Meg_HillierMP), to accompany the launch of yesterday’s (23 September 2016) Committee report on the probation reforms known as Transforming Rehabilitation.
No-one who works in or with probation will be surprised at the Committee’s conclusion that TR is “far from complete”. A series of recent probation inspectorate reports have documented the fact that most of the new private providers of Community Rehabilitation Companies are still in the process of restructuring in an attempt to do more with reduced budgets and, as a consequence, are not currently providing a service of adequate quality.
The headline findings of the report are set out below.
The Committee concludes that the Ministry of Justice has yet to bring about the promised ‘rehabilitation revolution’, which it must deliver at the same time as implementing other far-reaching reforms.
The Committee questions the effectiveness of changes to the system, for example the impact on reoffending of extending supervision to offenders sentenced for less than 12 months.
It also highlights the wide variation in the quality of arrangements to provide continuity between rehabilitation within prison and the community.
Community rehabilitation companies
The Committee concludes that community rehabilitation companies (CRCs), which supervise offenders presenting low- and medium-risk of harm, “will need to work with and influence local and health authorities, police forces and other crucial providers” to enable offenders to better access services such as housing, education and employment.
It also finds that delays in resolving commercial negotiations are hindering the ability of CRCs to transform their businesses, and there are “significant barriers” to encouraging innovative practice in rehabilitation.
The report states:
The Ministry was deliberately unprescriptive about how CRCs would deliver services to different groups. This allows space for innovation but can pose risks to maintaining services, in particular for specific minority groups such as female offenders.
The Committee urges the Ministry to update it on progress by the end of 2017:
to provide confidence that performance data on rehabilitation services is reliable and complete and show whether the overarching aim of reducing reoffending is being met.
Among its other recommendations, the Committee calls on the Ministry to complete commercial negotiations with CRCs as a matter of urgency; to create stronger incentives for CRCs to provide innovative services that meet the needs of all groups, and together with the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) sustain a diverse market of rehabilitation providers.
As a priority NOMS must also improve the usability of “fragile and precarious” ICT systems used by probation staff.
One of the main conclusions of the Committee is that there is insufficient data to make a proper judgement on the extent to which progress in implementing TR has, or hasn’t, happened. A point highlighted by the National Audit Office report on TR earlier this year.
Using the same sort of combative language which made her predecessor Margaret Hodge one of parliament’s most influential back benchers, Meg Hillier concludes the Committee’s press release:
‘Revolution’ is a potent word the Government may regret using to describe its reforms to rehabilitation. After two years these are far from complete and there remain serious risks to achieving the performance levels expected by the end of 2017.
We are disappointed that, given the human and economic costs of reoffending, gaps in data mean the overall effectiveness of the reforms cannot be properly assessed. But even without this information there are grounds for concern over the restructuring of the probation system. Evidence suggests new commercial arrangements could threaten the provision of rehabilitation services for minority groups, including women; we received testimony of excessive caseloads, and of the neglect of services focused on individuals.
Reintegrating offenders with the community is vitally important yet the quality of arrangements to support this is patchy. There is also a continued failure to provide hard-pressed probation staff with adequate computer systems. None of this paints a picture of probation working effectively towards the goal of reduced reoffending.
The Ministry must not allow other projects to distract it from the task at hand during what is a critical stage of rehabilitation reform and we urge it to act on the recommendations set out in our report.