The Ministry of Justice has been criticised for failures in letting and managing contracts with probation service providers and for allowing staff morale in the probation workforce to reach an “all-time low”.
MPs on the Justice Select Committee said the major reforms to the probation system brought in by former justice secretary Chris Grayling have created a “mess”.
The ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ (TR) project will probably never deliver its aims of reducing reoffending, they said in a report published today.
Among the report’s recommendations was that the MoJ should review the current probation system, undertake public consultations on possible changes and draw up a workforce plan.
Grayling split the probation system in two in 2014, transferring the monitoring of medium and low-risk offenders to the private sector, through 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs).
The Justice Committee said the split had created a two-tier system, with staff morale at an “all-time low” and support for those leaving jail “wholly inadequate”.
The report said: “Staff morale is at an ‘all-time low’ and staff have high caseloads, in some instances they are handling cases for which they do not have adequate training, and they feel de-professionalised. This is the concerning evidence that we heard.”
It called for the MoJ to publish a probation workforce strategy, covering staff in both CRCs and the National Probation Service, which manages high-risk offenders. This would outline professional standards, training and maximum caseloads/workloads.
The MPs also criticised the MoJ’s “constant renegotiation of CRC contracts”, and the questions this raises about the department’s “reluctance to challenge overoptimistic bids and its ability to let contracts”.
They did however welcome the department’s willingness to consider terminating CRC contracts before they are due to expire in 2022.
In January, Civil Service World reported that just two CRCs met their targets to reduce reoffending in the first year of the system’s operation according to figures for 2015-16 published that month. This followed a government announcement that £342m in additional funding was being made available to the contractors, who are signed up to run services until 2021-22.
Among their recommendations, the committee argued that the MoJ should initiate a review into the long-term future and sustainability of delivering probation services under the new model introduced by the TR, including how current performance might compare to an alternative system.
The Conservative chair of the committee Bob Neill said: “The TR reforms had some laudable aims but these reforms have failed to meet them. We are unconvinced that TR will ever deliver the kind of probation service we need.”
He added: “Hardworking and dedicated staff are doing their best with a probation system that is currently a mess.”
The committee also called into question the performance of the private firms, the training of staff and the reduced links between the probation service and the voluntary sector.
Responding to the report, prisons and probation minister Rory Stewart said the overhaul was a "significant programme of reform".
"For instance, an additional 40,000 people who would not previously have been monitored now receive support and supervision upon release," he said.
"Fewer people are re-offending and there have been some innovative and impressive programmes."
Stewart accepted that the state service to monitor high-risk offenders was facing "challenges" and needed improvement.
"We are currently in commercial discussions with providers and will consider all possible options to ensure we deliver this improvement," he added.
Much of the legacy left by Grayling at the Ministry of Justice was reversed by his successor Michael Gove, who overturned legal aid reforms, court charges, and a ban on prisoners receiving books, among other things. Grayling is currently serving as transport secretary, and has recently been blasted for his handling of dismal rail services across the country.