Offender Scheme Axed Early As Justice Ministry Tries To Save Reputation

A multi-billion pound government organisation to prevent criminals re-offending and to protect the public is to be scrapped three years after it started. It is part of a shake-up at the Ministry of Justice aimed at preventing the new department gaining a reputation as a failure.

{mosimage}The proposals are in a “classified” document seen by The Times containing recommendations from an organisational review. Under the proposed new structure the National Offender Management Service (Noms) ceases to exist. Since 2004, the service has spent £2.6 billion. In the past two years it spent more than £5 million on consultants. One Whitehall source said: “God knows where all the money has gone.”

Last month it emerged that there was a £33 million cash shortfall on a Noms computer system after £155 million had been spent and that ministers had halted work pending an emergency review. The system was to underpin the strategy of managing offenders from conviction through prison sentence to supervision by the probation service on their release.

It would have brought together more than 200 disparate databases to allow staff to share records. The project was a radical attempt to reduce stubbornly high reoffending rates.

Under the system, a probation officer would have responsibility for the rehabilitation needs of offenders such as drug treatment or skills training, irrespective of whether the offender was in jail or on a community punishment.

The document entitled “Recommendations from the organisational review: a summary” highlights how little thought was given by ministers to the creation of the Ministry of Justice by injecting the key Home Office functions into the former Department of Constitutional Affairs. It said the new ministry faced a challenging agenda and one reason for change was that its reputation could have been damaged by early failure.

“Our reputation as a reliable and capable department in Whitehall and in the media is critical, and any early failures could tip us into crisis management before we have built the capacity to respond in a more measured and strategic way,” the document said.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, is studying the plans and the shake-up is to be announced on October 11. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said Noms “was flawed from the outset. There was no consultation with either the public or Parliament. Noms became expensive, bureaucratic, and added nothing to the front line.” Charles Bushell, general secretary of the Prison Governors’ Association, said: “If, as we sincerely hope, this report spells the demise of Noms we will see the end of what has become a wasteful additional tier of bureaucacy. The Prison Service has struggled, largely successfully, over recent years to cope with growing numbers and tight budgets. We believe that the probation service has been undermined by the Noms experiment. Without Noms we can together deliver to a much higher standard.”

The Ministry of Justice said: “Of the noms budget of over £1 billion, around 95 per cent pays for operations such as contract prisons, escorts, property and offender-related casework.Current performance shows improvement in reconviction rates and noms is working to reduce these figures further.

Noms has been overwhelmed by the rising jail population, which has reduced it to crisis management. Its first, and only, national offender manager told The Times that the project could succeed only if there were fewer prisoners and that has not happened.

Back in the dock

Reoffending rates of two years after leaving jail or starting community punishment in 2004

of offenders who left prison in 2004 had reoffended within two years – the same figure as in 2000
of criminals who started a community punishment in 2004 were reconvicted within two years, compared with 53 per cent in 2000
of offenders who started a community rehabilitation order in 2004 were reconvicted within two years, compared with 61.1 per cent in 2000
who started a community punishment order in 2004 were reconvicted within two years compared with 40.9 per cent in 2000