The Coalition is sacking probation officers and paying former prisoners to take their place, Labour claimed today.
Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter questioned the costs and merits of the Government’s new prisoner rehabilitation plans.
Outlining the proposals in the Commons, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the new policy would mean lower reoffending rates by ensuring prisoners were properly managed when they left jail by “for the first time creating continuity between custody and community”.
But Mr Slaughter said: “It’s not probation officers who will now undertake 70% of supervision – you place a great deal of faith in reformed old lags helping out but you admitted on the Today programme these will have to be paid.
“So, professional probation officers sacked and replaced by ex-offenders. Is this your brave new world?”
Mr Slaughter said it was “disappointing” it had taken the coalition “three wasted years” to reach the conclusion on the need to cut reoffending.
He said Labour in government made some progress on cutting reoffending and said Mr Grayling’s plans were “ambitious”.
“Unfortunately, it’s a programme based on fewer resources, untried and untested methods, and putting faith in exactly those private sector organisations that have failed to deliver other major public sector contracts,” he said.
Mr Slaughter asked if there would be more money available or if existing resources would be spread more thinly, and he questioned the cost of reorganising the prison system to create the Government’s proposed “resettlement prisons”.
The shadow minister said: “You know the prison estate is chronically overcrowded and understaffed, so do you seriously think a reorganisation can take place against such a backdrop?”
Mr Slaughter questioned whether ex-offenders would get priority for social housing during “the worst housing shortage for a generation”.
He added: “Reducing reoffending while maintaining public safety should be our twin priorities.
“A focus on reoffending is to be welcomed but the Government’s ill thought-out policies and total reliance on payment by results are putting the safety of communities up and down the country at risk.”
The changes will mean every offender leaving prison must serve a minimum of 12 months under supervision in the community.
Mr Grayling said all offenders who enter prison, even for just a few days, will be subject to new supervision and will be given support through housing, employment, training and substance abuse programmes.
The reforms, to be rolled out across England and Wales by 2015, will see around 65,000 offenders serving sentences of up to two years receive extended rehabilitation.
Responding to Mr Slaughter in the Commons, Mr Grayling said: “I don’t understand why you are coming up with this faux anger about what we are doing when the legislative foundations that enable us to push through these reforms were passed by the last Labour government.
“If they supported this concept then, why do they not support it now?”
He defended the plans to use former prisoners after it was demonstrated as effective in test schemes.
Mr Grayling said: “You need to go and look, not in the world of big business but in the voluntary sector, where some of our first-rate charities have got living examples today of former offenders who have gone straight and are now helping turn the lives around of a next generation of offenders.
“I want to capture those skills in helping bring down reoffending.”
The Justice Secretary said the coalition did not believe all problems would be solved by “throwing money” at them.
“Are we actually saying it is not possible to run the system more efficiently and deliver support where it is needed to the offenders most likely to reoffend when they leave prison?” he said.
“Again, the divide between us and them. They think it is just a question of spending more taxpayers’ money, higher taxes. We want to get better value for the taxes we already raise.”
Mr Grayling said the resettlement prisons would make the prison estate work better and stop the need for prisoners to be moved across the country.
He said the plans had been worked up in conjunction with governors and other experts.
He told MPs: “Short sentence offenders will almost always stay in one place and longer sentence offenders will come to a prison close to where they are going to be released so when they are released we can provide continuity of support through the prison gate.
“It’s the right thing to do, it should have been done years ago.”
Mark Leech, editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said it was little more than a charade.
“I passionately believe that successful ex-offenders have a role to play in helping others reform, but its a charade to think they can replace skilled and qualified probation officers.
“When the reoffending figures rise or refuse to fall what is the next big idea to be – handcuffing offenders to police officers perhaps?
“This Justice Secretary says he wants to get drugs off the streets – well it might be an idea if he first managed to keep them out of jails.”
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said breaking the cycle of crime means breaking the dependency on drugs.
The Labour MP said: “Can I ask him (Mr Grayling) to be very careful about choosing providers on drugs rehabilitation, like G4S, who may have expertise in tagging, and they are obviously very good at that; however, they don’t have the expertise as far as rehabilitation on drugs is concerned.”
Mr Grayling replied that the Government has to be “absolutely certain” that the organisations it recruits have got the necessary expertise.
“I have no intention whatever of contracting with organisations that cannot demonstrate that they have got real and genuine expertise in delivering the solutions we need, I give him that reassurance.”
Barrister Sir Edward Garnier (Harborough, Oadby and Wigston) also urged the minister to ensure that small groups, such as charities and individuals, had a chance alongside bigger contractors to “carry people from prison out into the community” so there is no gap between incarceration and going out into society.
He added that he wants reassurances that people in prison will leave jail being able to read, with the average inmate currently having the reading age of an 11-year-old.
Sir Edward said: “You cannot get a job if you cannot read.”
Mr Grayling said one of the elements of the new contracts will be to put together resettlement services in prisons and support out of prisons to create a “genuinely joined-up service”.
He added that there were examples of older, more experienced offenders who have gone through the prison system helping younger inmates.
Mr Grayling said he wants to see prisoners who can read teaching those who cannot.
Conservative Philip Davies (Shipley) questioned what weight is being put on longer prisonsentences as figures suggest these reduce rates of re-offending.
He said: “The figures from his department are perfectly clear that the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to re-offend, largely because it gives them the time to do things like teach people to read whilst they are in prison before they are released.”
Mr Grayling said the length of time people had been spending in prison was increasing and he agreed they needed to take the opportunity to turn around the lives of people in jail.
But he added: “Those who are today saying short sentences don’t work, they shouldn’t happen, they always miss the point that 80% of people that arrive in our prisons have already been through a community sentence and it hasn’t worked.”
Concerns were raised in the Commons by Labour MPs about the opportunities for public sector organisations to bid for payment by results contracts.
Earlier in the questions, shadow minister for public health Diane Abbott, said: “How can it be a good thing to exclude some of the people with the most expertise and professional training in these matters?”
Mr Grayling said it was not correct to suggest the public sector would miss out and probation staff are being actively encouraged and supported to form their own mutual organisations to bid for contracts.