Sadiq's speech at Opposition Day Debate - Probation Reforms

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Speech by Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan MP



Mr Speaker, I beg to move the motion in my name, and the name of others.

Our probation services work tirelessly below the radar with offenders in prison, released from prison or given community sentences doing their best to rehabilitate them back into lawful life as good citizens in society.

And, Mr Speaker, probation by and large works.

128 MPs agreed when they signed EDM 622 last year praising the Probation Service for its award winning performance.

Including the former Probation Minister, the Hon Member for Reigate.

It might not work as well as we would all like it to do, and we need to do more to reduce the reoffending rates which are still too high.

And that’s one of the reasons why we support the Government’s moves to introduce supervision to those who receive a prison sentence for less than twelve months and through the prison gate supervision.

This isn’t about status quo versus change – this is about good evidenced-based tested change versus ideologically driven, untested, reckless change.

The Government, like we, know probation works because those supervised have lower re-offending rates than those not supervised.


But we don’t believe what the Government are proposing is the right way to go about this.

Abolishing local probation trusts.

Commissioning services direct from Whitehall.

Imposing a payment by results model on the system.

Fragmenting supervision on the basis of risk levels.


Mr Speaker, implementing half-baked plans in a rushed manner is a gamble with public safety.

If something goes terribly, or god forbid, tragically wrong then public confidence in our criminal justice system is undermined.


Don’t just take my word for it.

According to the front page of yesterday’s Guardian in the past few weeks chairs of the Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire Probation Trusts have written letters to the Justice Secretary warning him to delay probation privatisation or risk deaths.


And I’d remind the House that they don’t have twelve months experience in the job as this Justice Secretary does, they have more than 12 years experience.


That’s why we should be cautious about changes to probation.

Neither the Probation Service nor I have anything against change.

But new ways of working should be tested first – to see what works, what doesn’t work.


And the Ministry of Justice agree with this.

Pilots were set up in the Wales and the Staffordshire and West Midlands Probation Trust.

The MoJ’s own press release from 25 January 2012 trumpeted:

World leading probation pilots announced

And quotes the Probation Minister, the HM for Reigate as saying:

These groundbreaking pilots will for the first time test how real freedom to innovate, alongside strong public, private and voluntary sector partnerships, could drive significant reductions in reoffending by those serving community sentences”.


The key word of course is “could” because this was a test, a “groundbreaking pilot”.

But what did this Justice Secretary do in his first week in the job, just 9 months later?

He pulled the plug on the pilots, opting for full national roll-out, declaring war on evidence in the process.

As both judge and jury, he decided the plans “will” reduce re-offending without bothering to wait for any evidence.

The headlines generated in his view worth the gamble with public safety.


The Justice Secretary seems to come out in a rash at the mere suggestion he should pilot his plans.

Back in January, when I challenged him on this, he put his gut before hard facts and statistical evidence when he said:

“sometimes we just have to believe something is right and do it”.

This from the man who brought us the Work Programme!


Mr Speaker, you’ll forgive me if I don’t base my opinions of what we should do to a probation service employing thousands, supervising hundreds of thousands, serving millions on the Justice Secretary’s hunch.

Because of the Justice Secretary’s hunch, billions went on a Work Programme scheme that performed so badly that you’d have a better chance of still being in work after 6 months if you hadn’t been on it.

The Public Accounts Committee’s verdict on the Work Programme – “the providers involved in the programme had seriously underperformed against their contracts and their success rates were worse than Job Centre Plus”!


Fast forward two years, and the same model has resurfaced in probation.

But this time the fall-out from failure is of an altogether different level of magnitude.

The Economist magazine hit the nail on the head:

“If the Work Programme fails, the cost is higher unemployment; if rehabilitation of offenders fails, the cost is worse: more crime. Which is why those now-disregarded pilots were set up in the first place”.

If that wasn’t criticism enough, they go on to refer to the Justice Secretary’s plans as “half baked”.

For a laissez faire free marketer to be criticised in that way by the Economist magazine must really sting.


And over the last few days the Justice Secretary has tried to claim that the pilots in Peterborough and Doncaster prisons show his plans will work.

This is nonsense.

Not only are these completely different from his plans for probation, the pilots are nowhere near finishing, let alone being evaluated – and, by the way, the interim results are far from a huge success.


And don’t let the Justice Secretary pull the wool over your eyes by saying only low and medium risk offenders will be in the hands of G4S and Serco, as if this will only be those caught stealing chocolate bars.

Risk level is not directly related to the original crime committed.

Those rated low and medium committed crimes such as domestic violence, burglary, robbery, violence against the person & sexual offences.


I asked the Ministry of Justice how many offenders would this cover and how many would be transferred over.

They couldn’t tell me how many of the 260,000 offenders supervised by the Probation Service are high, medium or low risk.

You couldn’t make it up!

However, the Freedom of Information act is a wonderful thing.

Using FOI we have uncovered that the numbers of medium and low risk offenders that will be handed over to the likes of G4S, Serco and the like is 218,000.


But compounding this is the unnatural carving up of responsibility for offenders based on risk.

The public sector will keep the very highest risk offenders – the Justice Secretary clearly doesn’t trust G4S and Serco with them – and the private sector with the rest.

But he doesn’t get it.

Risk isn’t static.

In 1 in 4 cases risk level fluctuates.

Each time someone’s risk level fluctuates, there’s bureaucracy and paperwork involved.

But we can’t afford this to be a slow or cumbersome process.

Because in the cases of those whose risk level escalates, it tends to do so rapidly.

They might have stopped taking their medication, or a relationship has broken down.

And they can, overnight, become a danger to themselves and others.

So this process needs to be swift if the appropriate measures and support are to be put in place.

Can we really see the police working as closely with private companies as they do with Probation Trusts?

Probation Trusts often have on-site access to police record computers – crucial in assessing, monitoring and supervising offenders.


And who decides on the risk level?

The Government claims this decision is taken by the new National Probation Service.

But he doesn’t get it.

The National Probation Service won’t be the people having the day-to-day personal relationship with offenders, so how will they know?

His plans will be clunky, cumbersome and prone to errors with cases falling between two stools.


The idea that the National Probation Service and the private companies will work anything like as closely together in the new system as offender management teams do now is laughable.

The Chief Inspector of Probation agrees. They said:

“Any lack of contractual or operational clarity between the public and private sector will, in our view, lead to systemic failure and an increased risk to the public”

The Chief Executive of Hertfordshire Probation Trust, Tessa Webb, said:

We’re very concerned about separating offenders out between low and high risk. Things don’t work like that. We think there should be a coherent, single organisation”


And do members really think G4S and Serco will hold their hands up if something goes wrong?

They didn’t with electronic tagging!

If anything, they will point the finger of blame at the National Probation Service.

No risk for the big private companies, no taking responsibility, just a nice little earner.

But there is a risk to the public.

According to the press, the MoJ’s own risk register raises serious questions about these plans.


You would think the Justice Secretary would want to reassure the public by releasing the risk register.

However, he is refusing to do so.


And that in itself begs a number of questions.

Another concern is the way big multinationals will end up dominating, just as they did in the Work Programme, because they’re the only ones who have the financial clout.

Smaller companies and charities will simply be used as bid candy – sweetening the less palatable bids of big corporations.

Ben Kernoghan, deputy chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has said:

“under its most significant public service reform so far, the work programme, many charities have found themselves squeezed out by large commercial providers. In the interests of helping ex-offenders who could benefit from charities’ expertise, the government must ensure the mistakes of the work programme are not repeated.”

Nothing so far has persuaded me that this won’t be repeated.


We have further concerns about the Government’s plans.

Another £600million a year of the Ministry’s budget will go to companies who gave us electronic tagging, Olympic security, prisoner transfers and the Work Programme and will put them beyond the scope of the Freedom of Information Act doing nothing to lessen the chances of fraud and irregularities.


We’re also concerned at the length of the contracts being proposed.

The OJEU documentation states contract lengths should be between 7 and 10 years with an option to extend for a further 3!

The estimated value of each contract is between £5 and £20billion.

Imagine what great work the public sector could do if awarded similarly long periods of budgetary stability instead of their year by year, hand to mouth subsistence.

Why is this Government always so keen to suck up to the big and powerful?


The public are pretty fed up of the same private companies being given public contracts but seemingly in a repetitive cycle of underperformance.

Allegations against G4S and Serco so serious to involve the Serious Fraud Office.

 Yet both companies still in the running to receive further MoJ contracts.

The Justice Secretary refuses to rule both companies out of the bidding process, despite calls from this side of the House.

And by the way, no obligation for the staff in these private companies to be qualified or experienced, let alone having to show a successful track record in providing such services.


We also aren’t confident in the MoJ’s ability to procure these contracts, given their poor track record.

Look at the scandal last year over court translators – also under this Government’s watch.

Here’s what the Public Accounts Committee said of this debacle:

The Ministry was not an intelligent customer”

“The Ministry failed to undertake proper due diligence”

The result was total chaos”

“The Ministry has only penalized the supplier a risible £2,200”

There are no guarantees that the big private companies won’t run rings around the MoJ once again.


Now, the Justice Secretary would like us to believe these companies won’t get paid unless they deliver.

As if “payment by results” was in fact “payment only on results”.

But it is in fact the case that nearly all of the fee will still be paid to contractors regardless of results.

Private companies are intent on squeezing down close to zero the fraction of the payment that is dependent on results – and this Government, so keen to suck up to these companies, caves in!

So much for payment by results!


No doubt, the Justice Secretary will claim that he is only doing what the 2007 Offender Management Act gave him power to do.

In fact, the 2007 Act established local probation trusts, empowering them to commission services locally from whom they see fit.

It wasn’t about abolishing local probation trusts nor commissioning services direct from Whitehall.


My RHF for Delyn, as the minister responsible at the time, knows exactly what this legislation was for.

I quote him from 2007:

there will also be a need for local probation trusts to act not just as service deliverers but as commissioners of services from the voluntary sector, or from others, providing a proper service to help prevent reoffending at local level”.

This was a supposed to be a limited power, with the Justice Secretary only stepping in when a Probation Trust fails, not to be used to abolish all probation trusts, and for him to be the sole commissioner.


And by the way, on the department’s own measure, none of the trusts are failing!

So there’s no justification for the Justice Secretary to do what he is doing.

And by the way, if the justice secretary’s argument was the reason he was abolishing the whole existing probation landscape was to save money, there would be a sort of logic to this.

But he can’t even say that.


The Ministry of Justice did an impact assessment of these plans – do you know what it said?

“The cost will be dependent on the outcome of competition”.

They can’t say how much these plans will cost, let alone save.

You couldn’t make it up!


And where are the Lib Dems on this?

24 Lib Dem MPs signed EDM 622 which heaped praise on the work of the Probation Service just last year.

Back in 2007 the Deputy Prime Minister wrote these words of wisdom:

“Few public services can be as readily overlooked as the probation service. For the last century probation officers have tirelessly and selflessly sought to help make our society safer and to rehabilitate those who have been drawn towards crime. The role they play is a vital one and it is important that politicians from across the party spectrum recognise this. As the second century of the probation service begins it is crucial that the unglamorous, painstaking yet hugely important work of the probation service is cherished, not undermined, by both Government and opposition parties”

So I say to the Lib Dem benches... our motion today is a modest one.

Read it, consider it, support it.


Mr Speaker, in conclusion, change to our probation service to better rehabilitate offenders is not something we, or the profession, or experts, are against.

We must do all we can to reduce re-offending, by introducing new and innovative ways of working, tried and tested before being rolled out.

No leaps into the unknown, and no gambling with the public’s safety, with half-baked reckless plans.

I hope colleagues from all sides of the House will vote against the Government’s amendment and support our motion.

I move.





Promoted by DJ Bellamy on behalf of Sadiq Khan and Tooting Labour Party, all at 273 Balham High Road, London, SW17 7BD.
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