Shine A Light

Gambling with public safety: privatising probation

In England and Wales the probation service works. The Coalition government is privatising it anyway, at speed. A former probation officer assesses an oversight committee's anxious report on government plans. 

Mike Guilfoyle
23 January 2014

My final year as a Probation Officer in London was the most stressful of my twenty year career. It was 2010 and the pressure was on to achieve what was, for many in the higher echelons of probation, the holy grail of institutional maturity: Trust status.

The rewards of Trust status would, it was argued, liberate the probation service from central government interference. Devolved local commissioning would unleash new collaborations with partners in local communities, working to reduce reoffending.

Probation practitioners were encouraged to show Stakhanovite enthusiasm, hitting targets for the processing of statutory supervision 'cases'. At daily staff briefings local managers displayed a Commissar-like discipline to ensure that the deadline for Trust status would be met.

So it was with some wry amusement, that I read the anodyne announcement earlier this week from the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling MP, that there's been a delay. The Ministry of Justice, the progenitor of this top-down target-driven politically motivated privatisation, needs an extra two months. And so, the dismantling of a century-old, high performing national probation service would now start from the beginning of June 2014.

Yesterday the House of Commons Justice Committee published their interim report on the Government's Transforming Rehabilitation programme. Their report (Crime Reduction Policies, a co-ordinated approach? — PDF here), calls into question the viability of some of the government's more grandiose and contested claims on the evidence base of its rationale for its probation service 'reforms'.

There was broad agreement among witnesses to the Justice committee inquiry for extending legislative oversight and post-release 'through the gate' supervision to those short-term prisoners whose resettlement needs have thus far been largely overlooked; given the opportunity they might engage well with many of the community-based organisations who responded to the government's consultation.

The Coalition government claims its Transforming Rehabilitation proposals will reduce reoffending, improve supervision and support for those offenders serving prison sentences of under twelve months (controversially current probation services are precluded from bidding for such work), provide for peer mentoring, resettlement prisons nearer the homes of offenders, greater involvement of the private and voluntary sectors, and the potential for more innovative solutions to the persisting problems of crime in communities.  

But, says the Committee:

"Witnesses in our inquiry, including some supportive of the proposed changes, had significant apprehensions about the scale, architecture, detail and consequences of the reforms—some of which are still to be determined and much of which has not been tested—and the pace at which the Government is seeking to implement them."

The Offender Rehabilitation Bill, currently at third reading stage, will, if passed, give legislative underpinning for some of the changes above. But the mechanisms and organisational arrangements proposed by the government are best characterised as policy-driven marketisation, aggressively timetabled, ideologically driven, largely untested, informed by the need for cuts especially in the public sector in a climate of enforced austerity. They are also poorly supported by hard evidence on the likely impacts on future offending.

The Justice committee canvassed a range of expert views on the payment by results approach advocated by government, and advised caution. They warned that payment by results, as presently configured, may result in equivocal or perverse outcomes.

The Justice Secretary's rush to use Labour's 2007 Offender Management Act (which many viewed at the time as a lever to introduce wholesale privatization of the probation service) without effective public and political scrutiny could lead to fragmentation and conflicts of interest. The dangers were clearly illustrated by the recent withdrawal of corporate giants G4S and Serco from bidding for probation work, after much publicized corporate malfeasances and a heightened risk to public safety from delivery failure and poor staff morale.

As Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, demonstrates here on OurKingdom, so-called 'payment by results' is inherently bureaucratic and leads to cherry-picking: outsourcers are tempted to leave difficult cases to the public sector. Payment by results certainly delivers — for shareholders.

The probation service currently has around 300,000 offenders under some form of statutory supervision. The government wants to divide this work between a rump public sector organisation, called National Probation Service, and new commercial providers. The public sector will get the 30 per cent of offenders who are deemed high risk. The 70 per cent deemed low to medium risk will be supervised by twenty one Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) which will operate as shadow companies pending the planned sell off later in 2014 to private and third sector providers.

All this has been widely criticized. Rushed changes to the probation service (the National Probation Service was only set up in 2001) are premised not on reasoned professional advice, but on an arbitrary political electoral timetable.

The government proposes that employee-led mutuals (that's the fig-leaf) will partner up with other (private) providers. The true character of these reforms reveals itself in the way that senior probation staff and (with some honourable exceptions) employers have been silenced. Critique has been suppressed by the myrmidons housed in Noms (National Offender Management Service) the prison-centric organisational body under which probation has been subsumed, acting on ministerial diktat.

Energized by recent strike action, the probation union Napo has galvanized political resistance to these proposals from politicians in both Houses of parliament. 

Many of my former colleagues now face job uncertainty, a creeping and insidious sense of de-professionalization, attenuation of terms of employment and the morale-sapping prospects of an outsourced future, if employed in Community Rehabilitation Companies. 

Many dread the potentially febrile professionally demanding burn-out arena of the National Probation Service. They fear that they'll be burdened with unsustainably challenging workloads.

The Justice Committee's interim findings give practitioners hope that these proposals might be further delayed or even abandoned, hope that the diminishing range of potential commercial bidders for probation work might now review the viability of entering the proposed market in offender services.   

Certainly the prospect of 'through the gate' support to those serving under 12 months in custody is to be welcomed, but with a strong caveat. Increasing supervisory oversight might result in a swift return to custody due to failure to comply with the terms of their supervision. The resultant increases in returns to custody for breach action could offset many of the anticipated gains.

Will the caseload demands of the 50,000 offenders (whose offending in socio-economic terms is estimated at £7 billion a year), namely those short-term prisoners being targeted for government intervention, result in other community orders being marginalised and poorly resourced? There is a weak evidence base for outsourcing, especially outsourcing something as complex and multi-layered as probation.

In the absence of evidence and piloting, the government relies instead upon a pollyannaish confidence that a one-size-fits-all intervention can replace, in its entirety, a probation service that is internationally admired and emulated. The adamantine folly of not disclosing the Ministry of Justice risk register on probation reorganisation (leaked copies of which point towards 80 per cent likelihood of systemic failure) has left the Justice Committee unable to test government claims that such risks can be safely mitigated.

The committee's report sharply criticised the absence of a contractual obligation to employ suitably qualified probation staff in Community Rehabilitation Companies. The MPs approved of plans to employ more ex-offenders as mentors. Further concerns centred on Ministry of Justice procurement practices (the recent debacle of the language services contract is cited) and a worrying dearth of contingency planning if commercial bidders fail and services to courts are imperilled. Will the public sector be expected to shore up such operational failures?

I was recently an audience member at a BBC Radio 4 Any Questions programme when a probation colleague eloquently challenged, by way of a direct question, the Justice Secretary's blithe assertions on his commitment to the professional ethos of a soon-to-be dismantled probation service. 

The Shadow Justice Secretary, Sadik Khan MP, also on the panel that night, has been resolute in his recent defence of the probation service. But whether a future Labour government can restore or retain a dismantled service in any recognizable form is a moot point. My colleague called the government's proposals: "morally wrong and factual incorrect".

Should justice be contracted out or should it be constitutive of a more considered civic duty that our fellow citizens owe to one another? This question of whether justice can be commercialised hangs heavy over the government's criminal justice policy-making, but the Justice Committee does not address it directly.

Will the Committee's findings send out a timely health warning for a gung-ho Justice Secretary intent of such corporate vandalism to stop and think again?

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that the Committee's report "highlights the fact that ministers are rushing proposals through to meet a political timetable, which could put the public in danger. Why is the government in such a hurry to dismantle a probation service that has worked well for more than 100 years?"

She warned: 

“With banks, train services and Olympic security, we have already seen the government step in to clear up the mess left by private firms who failed to deliver the goods. But the risks with probation privatisation are far higher. This could be your house burgled, your bag stolen, your grandchild assaulted." 

All is not yet lost. As Crook said: "The fact that plans to destroy probation trusts have been delayed for two months should give the government further pause for thought on whether it is worth gambling with public safety in pursuit of an ideological experiment."

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData