Last updated: December 7, 2010 6:33 pm

Plan to ‘revolutionise’ probation service

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Ken Clarke has thrown open the £1.6bn probation market to private sector companies such as Serco and G4S for the first time as part of radical plans to slash prisoner numbers and stop criminals from reoffending.

Highlighting proposals to cut the number of jail places by 6,000 within four years, the justice secretary said “prison cannot continue to be simply an expensive way of giving communities a break”.

The plan, published in a green paper on Tuesday, provoked an angry response from some Conservative backbenchers, who say reducing the prison population will lead to a rise in crime.

Philip Davies, a Tory MP, said Mr Clarke “seems determined that there should be fewer people sent to prison. He hasn’t actually ever used cost as an argument as he seems to think it is a desirable outcome in itself”.

However, opposition politicians said the more liberal approach to the sentencing of criminals was indeed driven by the need to deliver 26 per cent of savings at the Ministry of Justice over four years rather than any deeper commitment to penal reform.

Sadiq Khan, shadow justice secretary, said “the entirety of the Tory manifesto on law and order has been put in the bin” since the election. As well as reversing a commitment to increase the number of prison places, Mr Clarke also signalled his intention to drop a raft of other manifesto pledges such as imprisoning people found carrying knives.

Instead, Mr Clarke has promised to bring about a “rehabilitation revolution” by ending the imprisonment of many people who are dependent on drugs or alcohol.

He repeated his claim that many people were locked up even though they were not serious criminals. “There has been a doubling of the prison population since I was home secretary in the 1990s, but this is not because there is twice the number of gangsters.”

He said the justice ministry would reduce prison places by 6,000 by the end of the parliament, cutting costs by £210m. This would be done through a series of measures such as cutting sentences for people who pleaded guilty, sending home 500 foreign prisoners and reducing the number of indeterminate prison sentences.

He also confirmed a beefed-up role for the private sector in improving the performance of the probation service in rehabilitating prisoners.

Six pilot projects will be be launched for open competition to outside providers, where companies and charities will be “paid by results” if they stop people from committing more crimes. He told parliament that he hoped the payment by results approach, which mimics the Welfare to Work programme, would be the standard contracting method for probation services by the end of the parliament.

Two of the pilot projects will work with offenders being released from short prison sentences. Two other “large-scale” programmes will work with people serving community sentences in particular neighbourhoods. Manchester and London will pilot two more schemes, where private providers and voluntary groups will team up with councils in an attempt to cut local offending.

Justice department officials hope the approach will be cost-effective because they will need to pay companies only when offending has been reduced. So-called “community payback” schemes, which will force offenders to work on local projects, will also be open to private bidders.

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