A FEW days ago the Offender Rehabilitation Bill returned to the Commons, designed to reform the current arrangements for the release and supervision of offenders released from short custodial sentences.
Tackling our high reoffending rates is necessary, but questions have been raised of this controversial Bill.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) claims it will save money by reorganising probation services and inviting private companies to tender for contracts. However, there has been a worrying lack of costings or projected savings for the reforms. Parliament shouldn't be signing a blank cheque.
The private sector should not replace the probation service. It would be ideal if other providers, like charities and third sector groups, could work with the probation service, but we don't know how the reforms will play out.
It is clear from correspondence I've exchanged with local probation officers that their work is complex and requires experience and sensitivity, particularly when dealing with difficult and troubled individuals.
Their genuine care for public safety and rehabilitating offenders is admirable. But by placing profit and competition at the heart of the Justice Secretary's reforms through Payment by Results (PbR) I fear we risk creating perverse incentives.
We have heard concerns about "cherry picking" – providers concentrating their efforts on offenders least likely to offend and neglecting the most prolific and hardest to reach offenders – before. North Devon charities have struggled to compete under the Work Programme's PbR arrangements.
We are talking about radical changes and without proper pilots the risk to public safety in forging ahead is huge. It requires hard evidence to show the reforms are effective, workable and affordable.
Following historic criticisms, governments really shouldn't deliver reforms without piloting the specifics first, but the MoJ want to roll out these changes without proper evaluation.
It has rebutted this by saying it ran pilot schemes in Peterborough and Doncaster, but a closer look reveals a marked difference between these and the changes it is driving through. The Peterborough pilot offered voluntary support to those leaving custody after their short-term sentence, funded through additional monies.
These changes have the potential to change the rehabilitation system for good, but we can't afford to jump headlong into an unknown system. I voted this week to wait until an independent pilot had taken place before moving ahead with these reforms.
Ultimately, I would like to see more ownership of community sentencing by communities themselves, rather than civil servants tucked away in Whitehall.