You say you want a revolution?

Jeremy BeechamJeremy Beecham on the deep flaws underpinning the government’s Offender Rehabilitation Bill

No-one would disagree that reducing re-offending should be a priority. The cost to individuals, society and the taxpayer is simply too great. The Coalition’s intentions in what it describes, with typical hyperbole, as the ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ are therefore welcome. But when it comes to the policies and the legislation they are promoting, the devil is too often in the lack of detail.

It is clearly right to extend supervision to offenders who have served short sentences, but there are many questions to be asked.  Should this be to all such offenders including, to take a random example, motorists convicted of an offence possibly coupled with a conviction for perverting the course of justice? Wouldn’t it be better to use more community sentences, cheaper and of proven effectiveness, to keep the less serious offenders out of prison in the first place?

Ministers are also using the policy to advance their ideological drive to privatise public services, excluding public providers from the new supervision and support of short term sentence offenders. And they’re splitting off probation – now to be nationally commissioned by tender, for “higher risk” offenders, usually for crimes carrying longer sentences.

There are serious doubts however, about the categorisation of low and medium risks, to be assigned to non-public providers. The latter might include people guilty of sex or violent crime, and in any case 25% might change category. There are clear doubts around public safety if the skills of our successful but under-resourced probation service are not to be effectively deployed, in what will become a binary system.

Moreover, the government is pressing ahead with its policy of payment by results. Yet Chris Grayling cancelled two pilot schemes and has refused a Freedom of Information request for publication of their evaluation. It is unclear how the results are to be judged. How long will the offender have to go straight? What sort of offence would count as a failure? And of course, the likely contract winners, which on past form will be your G4Ss and Sercos, possibly in conjunction with some voluntary sector bid candy. (Grayling, it will be recalled, is a high risk offender in this area – the author of the disastrous and expensive Work Programme, from which third sector organisations were effectively excluded.)

It is also far from clear how the relevant agencies which should be engaged in the rehabilitation drive – local councils, local and national NHS commissioners, the DWP, police and the courts – will work together to address the problems of housing, health (especially mental health), skills and employment. All are known to be issues that affect the likelihood of re-offending. And note there will be only 21 contract areas.

Once again, as with the disastrous Court Interpreter Service or the much-troubled 111 Healthline, Coalition ministers are rushing into action without adequately piloting the project or even producing a proper impact analysis. What is even more worrying is that many of the changes, particularly in relation to the massive reorganisation of probation, will be carried out without primary, or even secondary, legislation.  It is perhaps time for the government to undergo a Rehabilitation Revolution of its own!

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords 

Published 19th May 2013

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