Another evidence-free plan from the architect of the Work Programme

The House of Commons today will debate the Government’s Offender Rehabilitation Bill. This Bill, amongst other things, will mean those released from prison after serving short sentences will no longer be left to their own devices, but will get the similar levels of support longer sentence prisoners receive.

And the lack of support for this group of offenders shows in the re-offending statistics – if you receive the support of the Probation Service, the chances of you going on to commit further crimes is less than if you don’t receive their support. Therefore, this is a welcome proposal from the Government.

But our concerns aren’t directly with this piece of legislation. Instead, they are about the organisational side of things, those charged with delivering the provisions in the Bill. Because, at the same time as changing the law around supervising offenders with a short prison sentence, the Government is steamrollering through a wholesale reorganisation of the structures and bodies that are currently in place delivering rehabilitative support to those on longer sentences. These changes are untried and untested, and have been also been widely criticised for putting public safety at risk. It is for this reason that Labour is today forcing a vote in the Commons on Chris Grayling’s reckless and half-baked plans.

The Government’s plans will see the sweeping away of local Probation Trusts and instead services will be commissioned directly from Chris Grayling’s desk in distant Whitehall. Also, 80% of offenders will be handed over to the likes of G4S and Serco – all done at breakneck speed. To cap it all, the Government would like all this done without any parliamentary approval – instead, the Government is going out of its way to sneak through its privatisation of probation without the scrutiny and approval of MPs.

And anxiety at this is building. The Economist magazine called the plans ‘half baked’, three Probation Trust chairs wrote to Chris Grayling warning him the plans risk deaths. The Chief Inspector of Probation warns the plans could “lead to systemic failure and an increased risk to the public” while the Probation Association and Probation Chiefs Association warn the plans “will increase the risk of harm to the public”. Former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, and Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, have also been outspoken in their criticisms.

Concern is exacerbated because the plans have not been subjected to any testing before being rolled out. There is no evidence they’ll reduce reoffending, and won’t put endanger the public. When dealing with public safety, we need to be sure major change of this nature will work. After all, these plans deal with serious and violent offenders including those sentenced for domestic abuse, violence, sexual offences, possession of firearms. They will include offenders who have been in gangs, have serious mental health problems and/or drug and alcohol problems walking the streets and living in our communities up and down the country. Failure by G4S, Serco and the like will put the public at risk. None of these companies have any experience in this area.

One of the biggest untested changes is the splitting of supervision based on the risk level of offenders – low and medium risk handed to private companies, with the very highest risk retained by a new National Probation Service (NPS). But fragmenting of supervision flies in the face of what we know works best in rehabilitation. Constant day-to-day relationships with offender managements deliver results – not chopping and changing between public and private as and when the risk level fluctuates, as it does in a quarter of all those on licence.

In addition, it is wrong to portray low and medium risk offenders as somehow just stealers of chocolate bars as the Justice Secretary has done. Risk level is not directly related to the crime committed – low and medium risk offenders committed domestic violence, burglary, robbery, violence against the person & sexual offences.

And this fragmentation risks public safety. Imagine the bureaucracy involved in transferring over responsibility for an offender from G4S to the NPS when the risk level escalates to high, which more often than not happens over very short timescales. And a high risk level means an offender is a danger to themselves and others – this needs and immediate response. There is no scope for lost paperwork, or people falling between two stools.

Of course, Chris Grayling has form. He was the architect of the failing Work Programme – so bad, you were more likely to be in work after six months if you hadn’t been on it. Yet, he hasn’t learnt. Instead, he’s pushing ahead with his evidence-free plans for probation and ignoring the criticisms of those who know better than him, so convinced he places his own gut instinct ahead of piloting, evaluation and statistics.

To achieve the lower re-offending rates we all want to see, you need to build on strong foundations of what we know works to rehabilitate prisons. Throwing everything we know works in the bin, and replacing it with a totally untried and untested set of methods is a massive gamble – not just with public money, but also with the public’s safety. Labour is not prepared to undermine public confidence in criminal justice in this way.

Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

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