Plans to break up the probation service and bring in private and voluntary-sector organisations to manage offenders have been condemned by a North East police commissioner.
Vera Baird, Police and Crime Commissioner for the Northumbria force, warned: “In Northumbria we have one of the best probation services in the country and despite the efforts of many, we are watching the Government dismantle it piece by piece.”
She was speaking after a cross-party committee of MPs criticised plans to axe the nation’s 35 probation trusts and replace them with one national probation service, responsible for managing high risk offenders, and 21 privately-managed “community rehabilitation companies”, which will manage medium and low risk offenders.
The Minister of Justice is currently considering tenders from firms and organisations hoping to run the new rehabilitation companies.
But the Commons Public Accounts Committee warned that previous attempts by the Ministry of Justice to contract out services to the private sector had run into difficulties.
It said: “The Ministry’s poor track record of managing procurements and contracts raises particular concerns given the scale and ambition of this programme.”
The MPs also warned that “the scale, complexity and pace of the reforms give rise to risks around value for money”.
And they highlighted plans to pay the new rehabilitation companies based on their success in preventing further re-offending, saying: “The proposed mechanism for paying Community Rehabilitation Companies by results is quite complex, untested and remains subject to agreement with suppliers.”
Ms Baird urged the Government to rethink the plan.
She warned: “I have said for months that the Ministry of Justice plans for probation are wrong. Payment by results is not acceptable.”
The Government’s plans have been widely criticised by Labour politicians, with Newcastle East MP Nick Brown last year handing a petition with 2,000 signatures opposing the move to Parliament.
But the Government insists that the changes are needed because too many offenders currently go on to commit fresh crimes.
Justice minister Jeremy Wright said: “Each year there are more than half a million crimes committed by those who have broken the law before, and 50,000 of the most prolific offenders are released on to the streets, totally unsupervised and free to go back to their criminal ways.”
Sir Alan Beith, Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick, said the new Commons report echoed concerns expressed previoulsy by the Commons Justice Committee, which he chairs.
But he said changes to the probation service were needed. Sir Alan said: “These changes are intended for a good purpose, which is to bring supervision to prisoners who leave jail and are just left without supervision at the moment.
“But there are also a lot of risks with it, and those risks must be dealt with.”
Last night Mr Brown welcomed the Public Accounts Committee’s report, adding: “The changes are being implemented too fast, without testing the privatisation proposal and without testing the payment by results idea, risking killing off a public service.
“The existing Probation Service is described as ‘good’ across all regions, or in the case of Northumbria, ‘exceptional’.”