In 2014, the government enacted reforms to the probation system designed to reduce the human and economic costs of reoffending. The changes resulted in a new National Probation Service taking over supervision of high-risk offenders and 21 new community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) to supervise low and medium-risk offenders.
Successful bidders to run the CRCs were expected to subcontract some services’ delivery to public, private and voluntary sector organisations.
But in its Transforming Rehabilitation report, which examines the government’s progress in enacting its probation reforms and was published last week, the committee said that despite plans to "open up the probation sector to a diverse range of rehabilitation providers, including mutuals" the CRCs were dominated by private sector firms.
It therefore recommended that the government and National Offender Management Service "assess the health of the voluntary sector’s relationships with CRCs and the NPS and use this insight to identify and address gaps in provision and enable smaller providers to contribute more effectively".
The report also said that while the government said it recognised the voluntary sector had less capacity than the private sector to accept commercial risk when bidding for contracts, "it is not evident to us that this learning was well applied to the CRC procurement".
The report said: "In other sectors, the committee has repeatedly seen a narrowing of the private contractors bidding for, and running, services over time. Despite the ministry’s professed intention to avoid this, we are concerned about the trajectory which appears to mirror other sectors where smaller expert providers are squeezed out.
"We also received submissions raising concerns about how voluntary groups are being managed by CRCs and the lack of transparency about work opportunities."
Nick Davies, public services manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations , said the government must urgently assess charities relationship with probation services "ensure a diverse market of suppliers".
He said: "Otherwise, as with the Work Programme and countless other services, the danger is that the expertise and capacity of smaller, specialist organisations, particularly in supporting those with the most complex needs, will be lost."
Anne Fox, chief executive of Clinks, which represents criminal justice charities, said: "To revolutionise and transform rehabilitation the voluntary sector’s expertise of working in innovative ways with impressive results needs to be fully involved. However, the Public Accounts Committee has recognised that the full potential of the voluntary sector is not being realised."
Sam Gyimah, the justice minister, said: "We are carrying out a comprehensive review of the probation service to improve outcomes for offenders and communities.
"Public protection is our top priority and we will not hesitate to take the necessary action to make sure our vital reforms are being delivered to reduce reoffending, cut crime and prevent future victims."