MoJ’s probation services contracting ‘botched and costly’

1 Mar 19

The Ministry of Justice’s “botched contracting” of probation services will cost the taxpayer £467m.

Reforms to probation services, which began in 2013, have failed to meet expectations, the National Audit Office has said in a report out today.

Although, contracts with probation providers were ended early, the ministry’s “rushed roll-out” will still be costly, the NAO concluded.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “In its haste to rush through the reforms the Ministry of Justice has failed to deliver the transformation it promised.

“Its botched contracting has left this essential service underfunded and will cost the taxpayer an extra £467m, while the National Probation Service is hampered by a shortage of staff and intolerable workloads.”

The ministry expected to pay private probation companies £3.7bn between 2014 to 2022, but after posting losses of £294m in early 2018, the ministry decided to terminated the contracts by December 2020 – two years early.

Early termination meant the MoJ spent only £2.3bn on the ‘community rehabilitation companies’ from 2014 to December 2020, but the NAO said contract termination costs (£171m) alongside additional payments to “stabilise” CRCs between 2016-2020 (£296m) amounted to a £467m taxpayer bill.

The 2013 reforms saw 35 self-governing probation trusts dissolved and replaced by 21 CRCs to manage low or medium risk offenders, alongside the publicly controlled National Probation Service which oversees high risk offenders.

The MoJ’s decision to reform probation services was to open the market to a range of rehabilitation suppliers and encourage innovation, according to the NAO report.

The ministry expected CRCs to reduce reoffending by 3.7 percentage points over the life of the contracts, resulting in £10.4bn of economic benefits. But by March 2017, just six of the 21 CRCs consistently achieved significant reductions in the number of reoffenders, the report said.

HM Inspectorate of Probation found that CRCs have poorly overall, with nine out of 13 inspections producing negative assessments.

Between January 2015 and September 2018, offenders on short sentences as a percentage of those recalled to prison rose from 3% to 36%, the NAO said.

In February, it was announced that a private company responsible for three CRCs, Working Links, went into administration.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “The ministry set itself up to fail in how it approached probation reforms. Its rushed roll-out created significant risks that it was unable to manage.

“Not only have these failings been extremely costly for taxpayers, but we have seen the number of people on short sentences recalled to prison skyrocket.”

Unison national officer Ben Priestley said: “This is a devastating critique of a catastrophic privatisation and reads like a catalogue of disaster.

“Rather than ploughing on regardless with a failed system, the justice secretary must now take control and bring these contracts back into public ownership. No amount of tinkering around the edges will make these CRCs work.”

Prisons and probation minister Rory Stewart said: “The performance of the CRCs, which look after our lower risk offenders is too often deeply disappointing. That is why we have stepped in to end contracts early and invested an extra £22m a year in services for offenders on release.

"We take the NAO’s findings very seriously and will set out our detailed proposals for the future of probation later this year.”

Justice secretary David Gauke recently announced his intention to get rid of prison sentences of six months or less.

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