Last week justice secretary Chris Grayling focused in on the high levels of reoffending by those leaving prison and confirmed its full steam ahead for rehabilitating offenders through a payment by results approach. On one thing he is right – we need to do more to reduce reoffending rates, and I have been on record repeatedly showing my determination to achieve this. Despite dramatic falls in the crime rate over the last 15 years, the number of ex-offenders drifting back into a life of crime remains stubbornly high. Different ways of thinking are crucial if we are to tackle this, by testing out new ideas, seeing what works, learning from what doesn’t work, and spreading best practice. But Grayling’s approach – ramping up PbR across the country before it has been tested and proven to work – is taking risks with public safety.
On the face of it, PbR seems common sense. Providers – be they private companies or charities – are only ‘rewarded’ if they manage to reduce reoffending. But an untested methodology has risks attached – and working with offenders released from prison, the risk is with public safety. The government’s proposals will see those of low and medium risk subjected to PbR – but even medium risk includes those who have committed offences like domestic violence and burglary. That’s why it’s sensible to see if it works before rolling it out across the whole country – an approach adopted back in 2009 by the previous Labour government, who launched a scheme at Peterborough Prison. But this is a pilot scheme – so that what works and doesn’t work can be studied and then ironed out before any scaling-up across the whole country.
Labour is open to PbR. After all, we started the early trials. But with no track record anywhere in the world in justice, and no best practice to call on, we need to be confident that it works and it doesn’t risk public safety. No doubt that’s why Grayling’s predecessor, Ken Clarke, launched other PbR pilots, including two in probation, to see how it might work. Within days of replacing Clarke, Grayling cancelled both pilots before any results had emerged.
Looking to the other public services where PbR has been used for evidence of how it might work in justice doesn’t fill me with encouragement. With the work programme, of which Grayling was the architect, not a single provider hit their targets. The DWP’s own figures show out of 878,000 people on the programme only 3.5 per cent were still in work after six months. It performed so badly it’s actually worse than doing nothing at all!
If the work programme fails, it’s bad enough – the unemployed don’t get a job, or their job doesn’t last. But in justice, failure could mean dangerous offenders in our communities without the necessary support and monitoring. Nor is it the case, as Grayling argues, that PbR will be delivered by voluntary and local groups – as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have themselves said of the work programme ‘many charities have found themselves squeezed out by large commercial providers’.
I’m also worried that motivations may change within our criminal justice system, with providers skewed to ‘cherry-pick’ the easiest offenders to rehabilitate, leaving the most difficult cases unaddressed. And which intervention by which organisation is the one that should be financially rewarded? Was it the drugs intervention, or the support for reading and writing, or help in finding housing? Or was it none of these?
I’m also worried that the contracts for providers could become exceptionally complex, and I fear those responsible for the commissioning will have rings run round them by savvy experienced consultants in the larger companies. It is also incorrect to say that providers won’t be paid if they don’t deliver – some models of PbR see providers paid regardless of whether they succeed – it is only the bonus they forgo for failing to deliver.
Nor is it the case that innovative work can’t be done in the public sector. Pilots started under Labour looking at intensive alternatives to custody for 18-25-year-olds have shown encouraging improvements in reoffending rates, led by the probation service working in collaboration with agencies in the private and voluntary sector. It is a travesty this evidence of success has been virtually ignored by the current government.
Grayling dismissed the need to pilot PbR in response to questioning from me in the House of Commons. By doing so, Grayling has declared war on evidence and, instead of evidence-based policy he is making policy on a whim, based on gut instinct. This is a mistake and risks repeating the errors of his other creation, the work programme, but this time with offenders recently released from prison. If he fails because he ignored the chance to iron out the flaws during a trial stage, he risks damaging the whole agenda of rehabilitation, and public safety to boot.
Sadiq Khan MP is shadow secretary of state for justice. He tweets @SadiqKhan
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