14th January 2015
Dear S (MP),
Thank you for your letter of 13 December, forwarding on the concerns of your constituent, Mgt L, regarding our reforms to the Probation Service.
Perhaps it would be helpful if I set out the rationale for our reforms. While it is true that over recent years former Probation Trusts improved their performance and this is a tribute to the hard work of Probation staff at all levels, it is widely agreed that we need to improve provision of services and support for those who reoffend the most - offenders being released from prison following short term sentences. As in every other part of Government, we are faced with the challenge of trying to do better for less. We can either impose further cuts on the structures we have, risking increases in reoffending and leaving short sentence offenders without support after release, or we can reform the system so that it provides more effective rehabilitation at a better value to the taxpayer. We want to do this in a way that is sustainable for the future and we are committed to reinvesting most of the savings we make in order to support supervision for short sentence offenders. We can only do that if we bring in the best of the public, voluntary and private sectors to work with offenders in order to reduce their reoffending rates. Although Ms L was concerned about the cost of the reforms, I can assure you that our proposals are affordable within the context of the MoJ commitment to deliver annual savings of over £2billion by 2014/15.
In response to Ms L's concerns about public safety, I would like to reassure her that protecting the public is a key priority and we are clear that management of offenders who pose the highest risk of serious harm should remain with the public sector. However, we believe it is the right approach to open up the management of low and medium risk offenders to the private and voluntary sector. This will deliver greater innovation and efficiency in reducing reoffending rates. In terms of maintaining the quality of service following the implementation of our reforms, the Secretary of State will continue to issue national standards for the management of offenders, and the government will place contractual requirements on CRC's in relation to the management of offenders, to ensure that the risk of harm posed by all offenders is effectively managed. The new system will ensure that professional standards continue to be maintained and the NPS and CRCs are both required to have suitably qualified and competent staff. The NPS continues to use a Probation Qualification Framework (PQF) and CRC's are free to do the same should they choose to.
I would also like to reassure Ms L that thorough, externally assured business and systems readiness testing was conducted to review key activities that had to be completed prior to transition to the new probation structures on 1 June. On the basis of evidence from the testing we remain satisfied that the business was ready to make that transition. Performance measures, rolled forward from the previous system, also continue to be monitored and show broadly consistent performance with pre-transition levels. The wide range of information we published in mid-November demonstrates how closely we are monitoring the system to ensure that the performance levels are maintained. There is of course, still work to do and this has been a challenging time for staff. but they should be extremely proud of the way they have kept up standards. We are also continuing to provide support to staff in both the NPS and the CRC's as they work to embed the new structures and we are using all of the period up to the point that contracts are let to stabilise and embed the new structures.
In response to Ms L's concerns about the workloads of probation staff, and the appointment of Trainee Probation Officers, we recognise the importance of ensuring that there is enough capacity to meet demand within the new system, and are confident the new NPS and CRC's are sufficiently resourced to deliver their core duties. However, we continue to monitor the system closely. Furthermore, since September, the first cohort of new probation officers into NPS has begun training, further intakes are planned for early in the New Year (January and April). This is part of a process of recruiting 1000 new trainee Probation Officers. All these recruits will have relevant degrees, for example in Criminology, and will be assigned and available for work within the system and will undertake professional training to become fully qualified Probation staff. We are continuing with other recruitment as well, with campaigns ongoing across the NPS and, where they determine it appropriate, CRC's to fill operationally critical posts.
In terms of the allocation of staff to the new probation structures, I would like to reassure Ms L that we took care to ensure that the arrangements for the assignment of staff to either one of the 21 CRC's or the NPS were carried out in a fair and transparent manner. The sifting criteria and appeals process were developed by the Ministry of Justice in consultation with Trade Unions and the employers' side as part of discussions to provide the right means of assigning staff to the appropriate organisation on an objective, transparent and equitable basis. The automatic assignment process and, where appropriate, the sifting criteria were applied on the basis of posts held on 11 November 2013. This provided a standardised approach to assessing existing roles and provided a clear basis for undertaking assignment.
With regard to Ms L's points about ICT and access to information, we are modifying our ICT infrastructure to improve risk assessment, and to support the new organisations and information sharing between different providers. We will continue to work with the NPS and CRCs to ensure effective systems are in place. Testing of key systems, including ICT, is well advanced and will continue at every stage and we continue to monitor the situation and act accordingly. It is also worth noting that, as part of our reforms, it was necessary to introduce controls within the main systems, based on individuals' roles, to ensure that the right people have access to the right information at the right time. These control which data authorised users can access, in a similar way to previous controls on use by Probation Trust staff. However, it is important to stress that there is no reason why information of offenders cannot be shared between organisations where appropriate. This was already common prior to the creation of the NPS and CRCs, with information shared between many different agencies in offender management.
In relation to Ms L's concerns about use of office space, I can confirm that there are no plans for the probation estate to change as a diect result of transition. The NPS and CRCs are operating from the buildings used previously by Trusts. Where a building services a function that only exists in the CRC (eg a community payback unit) or NPS ( eg an approved premise) it is being operated by that organisation. Where a building services a function that exists in both the NPS and CRC (eg, an offender management unit), both organisations are co-located within that building. The relative allocation of space has been determined and the cost of the building charged accordingly. In the future if either the NPS or CRC's want to move the new organisations to a new location, they will have to follow due process to consult with staff.
Ms L also raised the issue of the ability of staff to raise matters of concern. As civil servants, staff in the NPS are now covered by the Civil Service Code. The Code does place certain restrictions, which apply to all civil servants, on the activities of staff. However, I would like to reassure you and your constituent that this does not restrict their ability to report concerns about the functioning of the service through appropriate channels.
Ms L also highlighted the importance of the relationship between Magistrates and the Probation Service. I would like to reassure her that one of the fundamental aspects of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms is the recognition that, to successfully reduce reoffending, the new probation providers will need to work closely with all local services and agencies. The CRCs are contractually required to participate in relevant statutory partnerships and also engage in non-statutory partnership working arrangements aimed at protecting the public from harm, safeguarding vulnerable adults or potential victims of domestic abuse and promoting service integration. Outside of this, CRCs will also have the flexibility to enter into local agreements and arrangements with other agencies involved in delivering services to offenders if they consider it will help them in achieving their overarching objective to reduce offending. This includes the ability to enter into information sharing agreements.
Ms L also expressed concerns about the performance of the Prison Service. I would like to make it clear that overcrowding in prisons is at the lowest level for 10 years. In 2013-14, the average number of prisons held in crowded conditions decreased to 22.9% of the total population compared to 23.3% in 2012-13. This is the lowest level since 2001-02 and has come down from a high of 25.3%in 2007-08. We will always have enough prison capacity for those committed by the courts and will aim to manage the prison population in a way that gives taxpayers the best possible value for money. All our prisons operate an effective regime with safe population levels, and space for those sent by the courts.
Finally, Ms L may be interested in our wider progress in implementing these reforms. On 19 September the Government launched the competition to find the future owners of the CRCs who will deliver rehabilitation services in England and Wales. On 18 December we signed contracts with the new owners of the 21 CRCs. This announcement marked another significant step towards implementing these vital reforms. It is also worth emphasising that we have an incredibly diverse market. In 19 of the 21 areas a mutual or a voluntary, community or social enterprise (VCSE) is involved in the Tier 1 bid, and six of the CRCs will be run with the involvement of a probation staff mutual. All new owners have included VCSE organisations in their proposed supply chains and 75% of the 300 contractors named in those supply chains are VCSE or mutual organisations. All of the new owners also have experience working with offenders or across the Criminal Justice System.
Through the Offender Rehabilitation Act (ORA) 2014, which received Royal Assent on 13 March, we have changed the law so that all offenders released from short prison sentences - who are most likely to reoffend - receive 12 months of supervision in the community. The transfer of ownership of all the CRCs will take place on 1 February 2015, along with the transition to the new Services Agreements. We intend for the provision of the ORA 2014 to be commenced on this date.
Finally I would like to take the opportunity to express my gratitude to probation staff for their hard work to implement these. I enclose a copy of this letter to share with Ms L should you wish to do so.