POLITICS
27/02/2018 10:37 GMT | Updated 27/02/2018 17:21 GMT

Ministers Handed Probation Companies £342m 'Bailout' - But Demanded No Extra Staff

Cash was aimed at 'keeping them afloat', says union.

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Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said the money added to the contracts is to improve services

Ministers gave private probation companies a £342m “bailout and made no demand they hire extra staff, HuffPost UK can reveal. 

The cash for Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) was put up as part of a shake-up of the 21 contracts outsourced in 2015. 

The money was aimed at “improving services” after a rise in reoffending rates and can be slashed if firms fail to deliver, the Ministry of Justice has said.

But Labour and the probation union Napo said, with no money aimed at boosting manpower, the “bailout” money is “rewarding failure” and is simply “keeping CRCs afloat”. 

The cash boost for CRCs comes after Interserve Justice and MTCnov threatened to pull out of Government contracts in March last year, citing unsustainable finances. 

Dame Glenys Stacey, the Chief Inspector of Probation has repeatedly warned CRCs are reducing staff “to below an acceptable level.”

In her annual report in December, Stacey said that at some CRCs “staff numbers have been pared down in repeated redundancy exercises, with those remaining carrying out exceptional caseloads.” 

A series of Parliamentary Questions by Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon has revealed the Government failed to demand extra staff as part of its CRC contract shake-up to “improve services”. 

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 Dame Glenys Stacey, Chief Inspector, HMI Probation, gives evidence at the Justice Select Committee at the House of Commons

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart admitted: “The changes we made to CRC contracts did not require the provision of additional services or staff.” 

The MoJ said CRCs “are falling short of our vision for a high-quality system” but said their contracts already require them to maintain staff at a “sufficient” level. 

In a separate PQ, however, the MoJ admitted none of the contracts specify maintaining staff at any “particular level”. 

Ministers have come under pressure to improve probation services, with the 21 CRCs mired in criticism since they took over from publicly-run probation trusts in 2015. 

The number of offenders on probation charged with murder, manslaughter, rape and other serious violent or sexual crimes has risen by more than 25% - though the MoJ has stressed it is supervising an additional 40,000 offenders. 

A joint report of the prisons and probation inspectorates in June also gave a damning verdict on the CRCs’ Through the Gate (TTG) programme.

It found 10% of long-term prisoners leave jail homeless and just two out of the 98 prisoners surveyed as part of the report were found accommodation before they were released - 10% of that number were back in jail within 12 weeks.

Ian Lawrence, general secretary of Napo, said: “It’s clear that the bailout for the CRCs is not about extra resourcing for staff but is all about keeping them afloat and persuading them not to hand the keys back to the Ministry of Justice.

“Napo members also report that the National Probation Service are ordering managers to purchase as many services as possible from CRC providers, throwing more taxpayers’ cash at these failing companies.”

Richard Burgon added: “After the collapse of Carillion, this is yet another example of how privatisation is part of a rigged system that may work for a small number of corporate shareholders but does not serve the general public very well. 

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Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon

“Vast sums of extra public money should not be being handed over to private probation companies when they are failing to meet basic performance targets. It’s an even greater scandal that the government has not taken even minimum steps to ensure that any additional funds go into improving staffing levels that could help keep the public safer. 

“This case also lifts the lid on the complete lack of public accountability under privatisation. Despite relentless bad news coming out about the performance of private probation companies over the past year almost nothing has been done by the government to intervene to address this. 

“It’s a complete dereliction of duty that the government has not once called on a private probation company to improve staffing levels and that probation contracts do not specify a bare minimum for staffing levels. 

“The Tory government’s record has been one of rewarding failure in the probation service.” 

The Government said it will hold CRCs to account for poor service delivery. A proportion of the CRCs’ income from Government is subject to achieving reductions in reoffending, it said. 

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Contracts already require CRCs to have the necessary levels of staff, and we robustly hold these companies to account for the delivery of their contractual obligations.

“But as we have been clear, probation services are falling short of our vision for a high-quality system that reforms offenders and commands the confidence of courts.

“That is why we have changed CRC contracts to address the challenges CRCs are facing as a result of their financial situation, due to the reduction in the volumes of offenders referred to them.”