We will end the merry-go-round of reoffending

By tapping into the expertise, resources and innovation of the private and voluntary sector, the government is bringing a fresh approach to rehabilitation.

Editor's note: This piece is a response to Alan White's article, "Three reasons Chris Grayling's outsourcing plan for the probation service is a terrible idea"

Last year around 600,000 offences were committed by those who had broken the law before. And almost half of people who leave prison are back to their old ways within a year.

These are dreadful figures and represent untold misery and pain for victims and billions of pounds in wasted taxpayers’ money. Anyone who is happy to live with this is on another planet.

Try telling the homeowner who has had their home broken into by the repeat burglar, or the old lady who has been mugged in the street by the recidivist crack addict that we’re happy with the status quo, that we’re doing enough.

Simply put, we are not, and I am determined to deliver swift and significant reforms so we can finally stop the merry-go-round of reoffending and give the public a criminal justice system they deserve.

By tapping into the expertise, resources and innovation of the private and voluntary sector, we will bring a much needed fresh approach to rehabilitation. Only paying providers in full if they are successful at reducing reoffending is the right way forwards, ensuring taxpayers’ money works harder with organisations that are fixed on turning round the lives of troubled offenders.

We need providers to work with all offenders. Our payment by results contracts will be split in two: one success payment for reducing reoffending and another for reducing the number of further crimes committed by the people they are working with. This will stop providers picking off the low hanging fruit – on the contrary, greater rewards will be available for tackling the most persistent and chaotic criminals who cause so much damage to our communities.

We will not see big private companies monopolising rehabilitation contracts – smaller grassroots charities and voluntary organisations have an essential role to play in our reforms. We will give them the right support to take their seat at the table. This is why we recently announced a significant package of measures to help the voluntary sector compete for contracts on a fair and level playing field.

Introducing competition and payment by results, and giving the voluntary sector a greater role, means we can do more with less. By freeing up our budgets we can afford to introduce a new minimum 12 months rehabilitation period in the community for every offender leaving prison. This will give frontline staff and offenders a proper chance at finally breaking the cycle of crime.

Our reforms are not about removing the public sector from the mix - quite the opposite. A new refocused National Probation Service will be at the heart of the system, protecting the public from the most dangerous offenders and taking on lower risk criminals whose risk rises. Let’s not forget, the professionals who are making these judgement calls today are the very same ones who will be making them in two years time. The difference is they will be working in a far more flexible environment, one in which they can innovate to find what works best.

The argument for change could not be clearer and we are now working closely with all providers on the fine design of a new approach that will bring together the best of the private, voluntary and public sectors, so we can better protect the public.

People have criticised payment by results, and pointed to the Work Programme. It is still early days but already more than 207, 000 people had been helped into a job through the Programme by the end of September 2012 and performance is improving still further.

We have seen some first-rate, innovative support from providers to get people into work, albeit in a challenging economic climate. That’s not to say we haven’t learnt valuable lessons from it. For example our rehabilitation contracts will not be 100 per cent payment by results. Providers will be paid a set fee for carrying out orders of the court, but to achieve the full value of the contract they will have to demonstrate real reductions in reoffending.

I’m under no illusions about the scale of this challenge and what we are trying to achieve, but I’m determined to drive these plans forward for roll-out by 2015 - it is simply not an option to rest on our laurels. No longer can we shrug our shoulders as if this merry-go-round of crime is an inevitable fact of life that we should all just put up with. We can and will stop it.

Chris Grayling is the Justice Secretary

David Cameron is escorted around C wing by prison officers during his visit to Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.