MoJ's 'extremely poor track record' on contracts raises fears over probation overhaul

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
19 May 2014

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20 May 2014 | Will Green

MPs have raised fears about an overhaul of the Probation Service because of the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) “poor track record of managing procurements and contracts”.

In a report the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the MoJ needed to demonstrate it has “learned the lessons for previous contracts” as it implements a new probation system.

Under the changes, due to come into force on 1 June, a National Probation Service will replace the current 35 Probation Trusts and 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies will be created, which will be paid through a combination of fees and payment by results. These companies will be in public ownership pending a share sale, which is expected to coincide with the launch of a payment by results mechanism in 2015, according to the report.

In Probation: Landscape Review, the PAC said the savings produced by these changes would then be used to extend probation services to the 50,000 prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months’ custody.

Margaret Hodge, Labour MP and PAC chairman, said: “The Ministry of Justice’s reforms to the Probation Service carry significant risks.

“It intends to introduce new private and voluntary sector providers, bring in a payment by results system, create a new National Probation Service and extend the service to short-term prisoners, all in a very short period of time.

“We recognise that the reform programme is still developing, but the scale, complexity and pace of the changes are very challenging, and the MoJ’s extremely poor track record of contracting out – such as the recent high-profile failures on its electronic tagging contracts – gives rise to particular concern.”

In the report the PAC said the MoJ was addressing the issues thrown up by the tagging scandal involving G4S and Serco by changing contract management procedures, bringing in people on short-term contracts “who are commercially focused to manage contracts effectively”, and recruiting and training staff “who can manage contractors and contracting over the long term”.

MPs recommended that open book accounting and National Audit Office access are included in contracts with the new providers.

Hodge said: “The ministry must ensure that the current good standard of performance is maintained during the transition to new providers and the increase in offender numbers.”

The probation service in England and Wales supervised 225,000 prisoners in 2012/13 at a cost of £853 million.

In a separate report entitled The Criminal Justice System, the PAC criticised the passage of criminal cases, with a quarter of trials cancelled or delayed, the quality of police case files, “patchy” collaboration between forces, slow progress in improving IT systems, and over-reliance on a small number of large suppliers.

Justice minister Jeremy Wright said: "Each year there are more than half a million crimes committed by those who have broken the law before, and 50,000 of the most prolific offenders are released on to the streets, totally unsupervised and free to go back to their criminal ways. Living with the status quo just means accepting more crime and more victims, and that is not acceptable. The public expect us to deal with this glaring hole in the current system and we make no apology for doing so as a matter of urgency.

"These reforms will be rolled-out in a sensible way, to properly protect the public, and we will test our progress at every stage."

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