The Public Accounts Committee of MPs (PAC) has published two reports on the government’s reforms to the Probation Service and the Criminal Justice System, after gathering evidence from a range of senior civil servants. Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the PAC said at the launch of the reports, “The scale, complexity and pace of the changes are very challenging, and the Ministry of Justice’s extremely poor track record of contracting out…gives rise to particular concern.”
Margaret Hodge argues there are “significant risks” in the reforms carried out by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in the area of probation, which include introducing new private and voluntary sector providers as part of a new National Probation Service (including the abolition of the current publicly managed 25 Probation Trusts on 31 May 2014 and replacing them with 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies), and bringing in a payment by results system, all in a very short period of time.
The concerns raised by the PAC along with the recommendations they have outlined in their two reports, builds on a previous inquiry the committee conducted into private contractors and public spending. As a result of this investigation the PAC asked the government to ‘get its house in order’ in regard to its use of private contractors. The committee recommended proper scrutiny of public spending on outsourcing, as well as measures to ensure service quality.
These conclusions by a parliamentary body add to a growing evidence base documenting the detrimental impact of, and concerns with, government reforms of the Criminal Justice System. This evidence base includes a recent report by TUC based on research by the New Economics Foundation – Justice for Sale, which explores the growing scale of private sector involvement in the Criminal Justice System looking particularly at probation, electronic tagging and prisons. The report identifies a highly concentrated market in justice dominated by a few large multinational companies, and it makes some key recommendations.
One of the main issues that emerges from the PAC reports is their highlighting of the fact that the reforms the government wishes to implement are both untested and unpiloted. That the government wishes to implement such far-reaching changes without piloting or testing, without basing policy on evidence, is very worrying, and underlines the ideologically-driven nature of the reforms. The PAC also raised concerns in regard to transparency. Margaret Hodge mentioned at the launch, “The Ministry must ensure that the new contracts contain open-book accounting arrangements and allow the National Audit Office full access to contractual information…”
Finally, the PAC argue that the management of offenders is an essential public service “that must be maintained in the event of a supplier failing or withdrawing from the contract.” The extremely poor track record of the MoJ in contracting out (for example in regard to the recent high-profile failures on its electronic tagging contracts) was something that the PAC highlighted. When asked about its contracting out procedure by the PAC during its investigations, the MoJ could not provide the committee with “details of its contingency plans as commercial negotiations are still in progress.”
The PAC also reported that the government aims to extend, for the first time, rehabilitation services to those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody, which represents a significant increase (22 per cent) on the 225,000 offenders managed by the probation service during 2012-13. The government could not answer the committee’s question as to how this significant increase in the case load of probation staff would be managed.
The report by PAC examined the reforms as well as the wider Criminal Justice System, their key recommendations were:
To the Ministry of Justice (MoJ):
- The MoJ should set out the key review points it will use to assess whether it is safe to progress to the next stage of the programme and report the basis on which, should it decide to do so, it considers it safe to proceed.
- The performance of the current probation service should be the benchmark against which the reformed service is judged. The MoJ should set clear performance metrics for the new systems, both during the transition process and beyond, and monitor performance to ensure a satisfactory service is maintained.
- The MoJ needs to apply best practice in all aspects of contract design, bid evaluation and contract management and be able to demonstrate that it has learned the lessons from previous contracts.
- The MoJ must establish a clear mechanism for identifying suppliers at risk of failing or withdrawing from their contracts that includes setting out what action it will take in these circumstances to maintain an adequate service.
- The MoJ should set out how it intends to satisfy itself that the proposed payment mechanism is workable. As the PAC recommend in their recent report on contracting out public services, the MoJ must include open book accounting arrangements and ensure that they are used effectively. The PAC would also want the NAO to have full access to contractual information that is relevant to assuring Parliament that value for money is being served in these contracts.
To the Home Office, the MoJ and the Attorney General’s Office (‘the Departments’) – who jointly oversee the Crown Prosecution Service:
- The Departments should write to the PAC in six months to update them on their progress against the 2013 White Paper action plan. They should undertake research necessary to understand better the impact of their interventions on the fall in crime, to enable them to target their activity to maximum effect.
- The Departments need to set a clear vision for future IT with a timetable for how different initiatives will come together to provide a coherent and seamless case management system.
To the Criminal Justice Board:
- The Criminal Justice Board should be able to demonstrate by its actions and choices that it has created a mixed market of suppliers. Contracts should therefore be framed in a way that creates genuine opportunities for a broad range of suppliers, including SMEs, to participate.
To download the reports, Probation: Landscape review and The Criminal Justice System, follow this link: