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Contracting out of probation services

Published Wednesday, July 4, 2018

This briefing paper charts the implementation of controversial reforms to the probation service. Most offenders are now supervised by Community Rehabilitation Companies, which are primarily led by private companies. A new public sector National Probation Service manages high risk offenders. So what's the verdict so far?

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This briefing paper charts the progress of recent reforms to probation services in England and Wales. It also brings together some of the commentary.


In the 2010 Coalition agreement, the Government said it would introduce a “rehabilitation revolution that will pay independent providers to reduce reoffending”. On 9 May 2013, the MoJ published Transforming Rehabilitation: A Strategy for Reform, announcing its plans to invite providers from the voluntary and private sectors to bid for rehabilitation services.

One of the main new changes was splitting the probation service in two, with the public sector managing high risk offenders and providing services to the courts, and the new Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC) managing low and medium risk offenders. In September 2013, the MoJ invited bids to run 21 CRCs across England and Wales, worth a combined £450 million. The list of new owners of CRCs was released on 18 December 2014. Only one of the CRCs was won by an organisation outside the private sector.


Payment by Results (PbR) is an outcome-based payment scheme central to the Government’s reforms. Under the contracts, a proportion of a provider’s payment is determined by the reductions in reoffending they achieve. The Transforming Rehabilitation strategy document said this would create an incentive for providers to “focus relentlessly on driving down reoffending”.

Transforming Rehabilitation introduced a nationwide “through the gate” resettlement service. The intent was to give most offenders continuous support, usually by the CRC, from custody into the community. CRCs began providing “through the gate” services from 1 May 2015.


Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP) produced five reports evaluating the reforms as they progressed. The final report, published in May 2016, found improvements in joint working and communication between the CRCs and the NPS, particularly in dealing with breaches or increased risk of harm However, there were problems with court work, staff training and morale.

In its thematic inspections, HMIP said that the ‘Through the Gate’ services were so poor that if they were removed the impact would be “negligible”. HMIP also found in a separate report that the reforms had meant services for women offenders were less focused. 

HMIP began individual area inspections in summer 2016. They have found overall that CRCs are performing below expectations, with particular criticism for some CRCs monitoring offenders by telephone.

Reactions to the reforms

There has been widespread comment on the reforms in Parliament, and by charities, inspectors and directors of prisons and probation.

Transforming Rehabilitation has primarily attracted criticism since the reforms were announced. Initial concerns focused on the speed of the reforms, the splitting of the probation service into two, and the possible ideological reasons behind the changes. During the reforms, criticism focused on the performance of CRCs, with lower than expected workloads causing financial difficulties. The Public Accounts Committee found that the MoJ had yet to bring about a “rehabilitation revolution” and questioned the effectiveness of the reforms.

In 2017, both the Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service and the Chief Inspector of Probation have said the new system is not working well. 

The Justice Committee’s report Transforming Rehabilitation, published in June 2018, identified and examined many serious issues regarding the reforms and said that the scale of the issues facing the sector is of great concern. Regarding the longer-term future of the reforms, the Committee concluded that it was “unconvinced that the TR model can ever deliver an effective or viable probation service”.

The Government’s position

In July 2017, Sam Gyimah, then Minister for Prisons and Probation, accepted that there had been problems with the delivery of the reform programme, blaming in part the reduction in the number of low or medium risk offenders. The Minister said the Government acted urgently to adjust the payment mechanism to make CRC income “less sensitive to changes in demand”. The Government hopes that this will provide CRCs with more certainty of their future income, allowing them to invest in delivering the necessary services.

The Government also set out plans to develop a joint protocol with the health authorities, as well as funding a new inspection framework for probation.

The Government set up a dedicated unit in Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service in the summer of 2017 to coordinate implementation of all recommendations made by Inspectorates and other bodies in relation to offender services.

The Ministry of Justice said in June 2018 that it was in commercial discussions with the CRCs and that no decisions had yet been made about the future delivery of probation services once current CRC contracts end.

Commons Briefing papers SN06894

Author: Jacqueline Beard

Topics: Alternatives to prison, Crime, Prisons

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