Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Probation competition proposals need rethink warns Justice Committee
The Government's proposals for opening up probation services to competition need further thought, MPs on the Justice Committee have warned in a new report released today.
The Chairman of the Justice Select Committee, the Rt. Hon Sir Alan Beith MP said:
"We see a lot of scope for new organisations to come into the provision of probation services. Nevertheless there is an important public duty for accountability to the courts and for offender management strategy which needs to rest with a public body."
The committee believes that the Government's proposals for payment by results and wider competition in the provision of rehabilitative services are limited because they separate the commissioning of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision.
They also criticised the very large and incoherent areas used for the tendering of community payback contracts, which they say should not be a model for future commissioning.
Rt. Hon Sir Alan Beith MP explained
"It makes much more sense to develop a single integrated commissioning model which would, for example, focus on how many prison places, how many community sentence programmes and how many drug treatment places are required in a given area, and enable courts to give the sentence most likely to cut crime in the future. We do not want the Government to set in stone commissioning arrangements that prevent such an approach."
The report also recommends that probation trusts are given greater freedoms -for example, over the buildings and IT systems they use - and calls on them to focus scarce resources on the frontline.
Sir Alan Beith said:
"Probation is an essential part of the criminal justice system and at its best the probation service delivers community sentences which are tough, challenging offenders to change their offending lifestyles
The ability of probation professionals to undertake effective work directly with offenders has been hindered by a tick-box culture imposed by the National Offender Management Service which has focused predominantly on prisons and has micro-managed probation."
MPs were concerned that frontline probation staff spend three-quarters of their time doing administrative tasks rather than meeting directly with offenders. The committee concluded that the creation of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which effectively merged prison and probation services, has not led to an appreciable improvement in the ‘joined-up’ treatment of offenders; its handling of the community payback tendering exercise has not inspired confidence; and it has not proved itself proficient at running effective national contracts. The MPs are calling on the Government to commission an externally-led review of NOMS.
The committee calls for leadership and courage from politicians and sentencers in supporting community sentences and recommends that the Government clarifies to the public what it means by more robust community sentences, and the outcomes they are designed to achieve.
Sir Alan Beith explained:
"People don’t realise that for many offenders probation sentences can represent a much greater challenge than relatively short prison sentences. Probation is demanding for the good reason that it requires them to think again about their way of life and to start to change it. We want to encourage the good work that so many people in the probation service do to reform offenders."