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Probation brought back under public control after part-privatisation ‘disaster’

The Justice Secretary Robert Buckland confirmed the plans on Thursday after the idea was announced in May last year.

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Justice Secretary Robert Buckland speaking in the House of Commons on reforms to probation services in England and Wales (House of Commons/PA)

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland speaking in the House of Commons on reforms to probation services in England and Wales (House of Commons/PA)

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland speaking in the House of Commons on reforms to probation services in England and Wales (House of Commons/PA)

Supervision of all offenders on licence and serving community sentences in England and Wales will be brought back entirely under public control after “fundamental flaws” in part-privatising the probation system.

The public National Probation Service (NPS) will take over management of low and medium-risk cases, which are currently handled by private providers, from June next year.

Under the existing system, high-risk individuals are supervised by the NPS, with all other work assigned to community rehabilitation companies (CRCs).

The Justice Secretary Robert Buckland confirmed the plans on Thursday after the idea was announced in May last year.

He also revealed plans to allow the private firms to bid for contracts to run behaviour programmes and unpaid work schemes for criminals under the new system have been scrapped, meaning the probation service will be completely renationalised.

Speaking in the Commons, he said it was “essential that we continue to deliver changes to how offenders are supervised by June of next year as planned” but that disruption caused by the coronavirus made part of the plans “considerably more complex”.

Mr Buckland said: “Under those revised plans, we will end the competitive process for probation delivery partners.

“The delivery of unpaid-work and behavioural-change programmes will be instead brought under control of the NPS alongside offender supervision when current CRC contracts end in June of next year.

“This will give us a critical measure of control, resilience and flexibility with these services that we would not have had were they delivered under 12 contracts with a number of organisations.

“We can reassure the judiciary and the public that whatever lies ahead, offenders serving community sentences will be punished and make their reparation to society and that programmes to address their behaviour will be delivered.”

Probation services supervise more than a quarter-of-a-million offenders in England and Wales, including inmates preparing to leave jail, ex-prisoners living in the community and people serving community or suspended sentences.

Under a programme known as Transforming Rehabilitation, 35 probation trusts were replaced in 2014 by the NPS and 21 privately-owned CRCs.

The overhaul, introduced by the then justice secretary Chris Grayling, was designed to drive down reoffending.

But the decision was dogged by controversy and heavily criticised by MPs and watchdogs.

Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell said the reforms had “severely tested” the service over the last five years and “fundamental flaws” starved CRCs of “essential funding”.

Although welcoming the announcement, he said it was not a “magic bullet” and called for the service to be properly funded, vacancies for probation officers filled and staff fully trained for the new roles, adding that “positive innovations” coming from CRCs “must not be lost”.

Profit was put before public safety, ethics were compromised and lives were lostDavid Lammy, shadow justice secretary

Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy branded the decision a “U-turn” the party had been calling on for “many, many years”, adding: “The Government wants to frame these reforms as purely down to the coronavirus but we all know the truth.

“The problems are much deeper than that”, adding that the Conservatives had been warned about the “devastation” part-privatisation would cause.

He called on Mr Buckland to apologise for the shortcomings of the reforms, adding: “This Government’s attempts to cut corners through under-investment ultimately have cost so much more in the long run.

“Since the reforms, reoffending rates have climbed up to 32%.

“Profit was put before public safety, ethics were compromised and lives were lost.”

Government officials later disputed the figure, saying the rate was 28.7% and the lowest it had been for 12 years.

Responding, Mr Buckland said he took “no ideological view about what works” and said he would “follow the evidence”, adding: “And when the facts change I will change my mind and I make no apology for doing that today.”

Labour MP Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) branded the part-privatisation an “unmitigated disaster” but Mr Buckland insisted the experience of operations in the last few years had “brought much new learning” which would be incorporated into the latest plans.

Former Conservative minister Damian Green expressed concerns about the plans, telling MPs he had seen probation services improve for his constituents over the last few years, while a previous justice minister and Tory MP Crispin Blunt said the Government was “in many ways back to square one”.

But Mr Buckland said: “This isn’t a return, a back to the future, this is a new departure.”

PA