Did minister mislead public over probation sell-off?

Questions were raised about ministerial comments related to the sell-off of privatisation today, following Simon Hughes' appearance on the Today programme.

The justice minister said that:

  • a pilot had been carried out
  • there had been no criticisms from the independent inspector
  • serious cases would still fall to the national service

But critics of the scheme cast doubt on all of those statements, as the war of words over the sell-off turned into a full blown legal battle.

Lawyers are currently preparing to issue papers after the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) decided to pursue a judicial review over the plans.

The announcement came a day after the Ministry of Justice published the winners of the sell-off, with private firms Sodexo and Interserve winning the lion's share of contracts.

Probation workers have warned that officers, offenders and members of the public are being put at risk by an atomised system, with staff overworked and unable to access all the information about the people they are responsible for.

This morning, Hughes said:

"When you change the system there is naturally nervousness amongst the people who work in the old system but we have taken our time, we have done this deliberatively, it's not done in a rush, there’s been piloting of the new sorts of system in parts of the country.

"The independent inspector of probation has alerted us to no concerns that the system isn't moving across and there will be a new national public probation service for serious offenders, in every part of the country, in England and Wales."

Critics say the comments contain several inaccuracies. Firstly, they say there has been no pilot of the scheme. 

"It is a fact that there has been no piloting of these plans," shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan told Politics.co.uk.

"What's more, Chris Grayling cancelled the pilots of the scheme in his first week in the job, instead boasting to the House of Commons he prefers to 'trust his instinct' over hard, statistical evidence."

Hughes' insistence that the independent inspector has not warned of risks in the plans is also open to doubt, given he is not due to give his report until December.

The comment that serious offenders will be kept in the public probation service was also dismissed by critics.

While it is true that high-risk offenders will be kept in the national service, many of the low-to-medium risk offenders who will now be handled by private companies have committed violent crimes, including robbery, violence against the person and sexual offences.

"On the day a legal challenge is launched against the government's reckless probation privatisation, Simon Hughes is out on the airwaves doing the Tory party's dirty work," Khan added.

"The Lib Dems have fallen hook, line and sinker for the propaganda that this massive gamble with public safety has been tried and tested to make sure there are no problems or risks."

Lawyers for Napo will pursue the absence of published evidence on the new system's safety as the basis for a public duty legal challenge through judicial review. They will also pursue a private law duty based on the secretary of state's duty of care to probation staff.

The Ministry of Justice refuses to publish details of the safety tests it says it has conducted into the break-up of the national service and will not respond to freedom of information requests.

Grayling originally received the letter threatening legal action on Monday last week but Treasury solicitors did not respond until the deadline, on Friday afternoon, when they issued a holding letter asking for another two days.

Before the two days had passed the Ministry of Justice quietly published the list of preferred bidders. They then issued a response insisting there had been sufficient consultation on the Transforming Rehabilitation programme – a claim probation staff deny.

Lawyers will confirm they are pursuing legal action later today and issue papers to court at the earliest availability.

Justice minister Simon Hughes said:

"We have been piloting a number of different approaches to payment by results, most notably the schemes in Doncaster and Peterborough. And before we carried out extensive local testing of the reforms before making these changes.

"This new approach has seen the private, public and voluntary sectors working hand-in-hand to crack the stubborn cycle of reoffending by giving offenders targeted through-the-gate support on release.

"Protecting the public is our key priority, and we are clear that management of the offenders who pose the highest risk of serious harm should remain with the public sector. We have designed a system where a case must be referred to the public sector probation service for a reassessment of risk if there is a significant change in an offender’s circumstances."