Why do governments always assume that they will save money by privatising the public sector? The Probation Service is now in Chris Grayling’s sights with his plan to hive off low risk offenders to charities and private enterprise leaving the rump Probation Service to concentrate on high risk offenders.
High risk offenders are the sex offenders, domestic violence perpetrators and offenders on indeterminate sentences whose risk prior to release from custody is subject to constant review. As a former probation officer this was my bread and butter work – and incredibly stressful it was too.
I understand that under the Coalition plans the probation service will continue with this work whilst the majority low risk offenders will in future be supervised by charities and private companies such as SERCO or G4S. Forgive me but wasn’t G4S the company that could not even hire enough people to ensure the public’s safety at the Olympics?
They will be paid by results – i.e. they must demonstrate a fall in re-offending. Low risk means low risk of harm, but these offenders are often prolific, cause endless public nuisance with their drug and alcohol related offending, shop lifting and vandalism. Remember for every low risk offender there is also a victim. Low risk offenders are frequently difficult, dysfunctional and occasionally violent. Working with them takes skill, training and experience. Exactly the kind of experience the existing Probation Service has.
Despite that, I do think there is a place for the private sector, but only working alongside the Probation Service and not replacing it. Specialist charities do enormously useful work with drug and alcohol users, or provide hostels and educational and employment support. But when profit comes into running prisons, or rehabilitation programmes, then in my experience standards fall and safety is jeopardised.
There are lots of more useful ways the government could invest in the criminal justice system, such as in hostels and effective job training programmes, with jobs at the end of them, for offenders leaving custody. Offenders don’t come from Mars, they come from our communities and only by working in those communities will we start to fix the problems. This is where charities can make a real difference and this is where they can support the Probation Service by working in partnership. However, charities’ funding is also being squeezed and as the National Association of Care and Resettlement of Offenders noted recently,
Critically, the way these services are commissioned must take account of the financial constraints facing the voluntary sector.
The government will find that worthwhile mentoring and rehabilitation does not come cheap whoever delivers it.
In the end I doubt the government will save any money. The last Labour government wasted £800 million trying to implement a new computer system which eventually was junked before it was commissioned. That is the annual cost of running the Probation Service. The present government will probably hand vast amounts of money to SERCO with no appreciable reduction in reoffending. But by the time the mistake is realised the Probation Service, with its years of service, experience and highly committed staff will be lost for ever.
Now that really is criminal.
* The writer is a recently retired probation officer and member of the Liberal Democrats (and SDP since 1981). She wishes to remain anonymous to avoid creating difficulty for former colleagues.