Opinion: The Justice Secretary has got it wrong on privatisation of probation services

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.

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  • I notice you failed to mention that the Probation Service only deals with those serving 12 months or more.

  • Richard Dean 10th Jan '13 - 4:44pm

    What is your evidence that private enterprise cannot do this job effectively? If you want something that is close to the society from which offenders come, private enterprise is likely to be closer than a government department.

    The problem with G4S was likely as much to do with the way the contract was mis-managed by the Home Office, rather than with the company itself. The subsequent effort by UK government to destroy that UK company through pillorying at a parliamentary committee was a disgrace. Government always seeks to avoid blame, but it will need to learn how to manage projects whether or not it’s public or private enterprise that does the work.

    You think that profit distorts performance? What about the distorting effects of the absence of financial discipline that is the hallmark of many public services?

  • Richard Dean – the onus should be on the Government to prove that payment by results to a private sector company is more effective than the current set up. Currently there is none – the government has not released any information about the ongoing pilot scheme it has.

    Given the woeful record of PFI type schemes such as this in the past, and currently in the prison service, the onus should be on the proponents of the new scheme to provide the evidence.

  • Richard Dean 10th Jan '13 - 6:59pm

    So a scheme can continue without needing justification if it’s part of the public service, but not if its private enterprise? No! That’s not the way a fair government should work.

    When you have two proposals, you assess each using the same criteria. The two proposals in this case are the present scheme and the proposed private scheme. If one has onus, so has the other.

  • Richard – seeing as the Government hasn’t released the results of the pilot and you have no facts to back up your view, that might be diffuclt.

    Here is a useful briefing from Full Fact, a usually accurate and independent source: http://fullfact.org/factchecks/probation_service_reoffending_rates_chris_grayling-28700

    How exactly can the probation service have failed when they were never responsible for offenders with prison terms of less than 12 months in thee first place?
    What is the current reoffending rate?

    “Grayling says a radical overhaul is needed to tackle the high reoffending rates, with 58% of short-sentenced prisoners offending again within a year and half a million crimes committed each year by released prisoners” – The Guardian

    According to the Ministry of Justice, more than half (54.2 per cent) of adult offenders discharged from prison had served a sentence of less than 12 months. These offenders had a one year “proven re-offending rate” of 57.6 per cent.
    Furthermore, “these re-offenders committed an average of 2.87 re-offences each. In total, this represents around 500,000 re-offences”.

    We’ve provided further analysis of this 58 per cent proven re-offending rate, but it should also be noted that the Probation Service does not have legal responsibility for those who have served a sentence of less than 12 months.
    Has the Probation Service failed?

    A recent Daily Mail headline (“Nearly 50,000 criminals spared jail offend again within a year”) suggested that probation officials needed “to get a grip on criminals they were supposed to be reforming”. However, we examined this claim and found that if the latest data is compared to previous years, the percentage of criminals re-offending has decreased slightly since 2000.

    Liz Calderbank, the Chief Inspector of Probation for England and Wales, alluded to this trend when she said on the BBC’s Today programme that the work of the Probation Service has made a difference in the rate of reoffending.
    “The Probation Service is current, and generally speaking, a well-performing service,” she said. “It’s gone through a number of financial cuts in the past few years, yet it’s continued to meet its targets.” Furthermore, the Probation Service won an excellence award in 2011.

    How do you measure the rate of success and paying by results?

    Ms Calderbank also raised an interesting point on the Today Programme: “How do you define a result? If you have someone convicted of a serious knife crime, and then they reoffend by stealing a jar of coffee, is that a failure or success?” Although it is early days with the proposals, paying by results is not as clear-cut as it is sometimes presented.

  • As a former probation officer this was my bread and butter work – and incredibly stressful it was too.

    Personally I would prefer to introduce this change on a small scale first and only implement it on a large scale after working the bugs out, but by your own argument the probation service will be largely unaffected by this change – it will continue to do its bread and butter work without distraction.

  • Richard Dean 11th Jan '13 - 1:16am

    Andy May – any chance of you reading what I actually wrote?

  • For me, the Opposition made a fair point when asking why two payment by results pilots, set up under Clarke, have since been scrapped. Presumably there was a cost there? While Grayling might argue that ‘sometimes we just have to believe something is right and do it’, I think I’d agree with Justice Committee chair Sir Alan Beith when he called it ‘a decision that some of his advisers might have called courageous’. Given the flack they are getting over the under-performance of the Work Programme, its not surprising people are sceptical.

  • You talk here about Low Risk of Harm offenders being managed by the private sector, when actually Grayling is proposing both Low and Medium Risk of Harm offenders being sold off. I think it’s really important that the public actually understand what harm means. When we talk about harm, it means SERIOUS HARM, definition being serious harm which is difficult or impossible for the victim to recover from. Low, Medium and High refers to the likelihood of it occurring. Low means unlikely, Medium means unlikely unless circumstances change, and High means it could happen at any time. People who are assessed as Medium have often already committed serious offences, i.e an ex gang member who stabbed someone and committed lots of other violent gang related crimes is assessed as Medium Risk of Serious Harm as it’s unlikely he’ll commit similar violent crimes again unless he returns to his gang. An man who when drunk attacked a stranger, leaving the victim unable to walk or talk and in a care home for the rest of his life, is assessed as Medium Risk of Serious Harm, because he’s unlikely to commit a similar crime unless he starts drinking again. Examples I’ve used her are very very basic, but assessing and managing risk is a very complex business which Probation staff are trained to do. Medium Risk of Serious Harm means unlikely unless circumstances change, so can very quickly escalate to High Risk of Serious Harm. Do people really think the likes of G4S and Serco are going to have the skills to manage these cases, public safety is at stake here.

    Payment by results is risky, now if someone on licence needs to be recalled to prison because they’ve re-offended or their risk is escalating, we do it, it’s a completely unbiased decision. But what if recalling someone means G4S/Serco miss out on their pot of gold, is Grayling 100% convinced the same decision will be made; I know I’m not.

    As you’ve already written, Grayling is completely manipulating the figures by giving reconviction rates for people Probation don’t even work with. However, their proposal for offenders being met with at the gate by a volunteer and engaging voluntarily with services is in my opinion never going to work. A lot of short term prisoners have ended up in custody because they failed to engage with services time and time again, not accepting the help when it was a mandatory Court order, what makes him think they’re going to engage to voluntarily. So each and every prisoner released would be met by 2 volunteers (would have to be 2 for risk purposes) and drive them to some accommodation they’ve managed to build overnight. It’s absurd! I’ve known this scheme be trialled in several counties, and not surprisingly, it failed. In my my opinion unless they change the legislation so short term prisoners are released on a Notice of Supervision like Young Offenders, it’s never going to work and Grayling needs to get his head out the clouds and look at the evidence before him.

    Probation already work alongside lots of fantastic charities, this is no new idea Grayling’s selling here. Why not allow Probation the opportunity to build on this, rather than breaking it apart and privatising it; work which the Probation Service aren’t even allowed to bid for. Criminal indeed!

  • Andrew Hatton 9th Sep '13 - 8:12pm

    Interesting that LibDems do not seem really interested in probation – this was the most recent piece I found when I searched your forum.

    Maybe I am not competent with the search, but may just be you want to avoid seriously controversial stuff now that Nick Clegg has endorsed the rehabilitation revolution, that has been code named Transforming Rehabilitation and Lord McNally has piloted the Offender Management Bill through the House of Lords without answering any of the serious questions that were raised.

    In view of the issue’s topicality – Probation Trust Boards are in the process of being asked to agree to have their organisations wound up in less than the twelve months stipulated in legislation (for example) – I posted a response in another thread a few days ago – it criticised current policy of Lib Dems and was not accepted for publication – neither did I get any explanation.

    I am not a member of Lib Dems but would like to engage with members and supporters (I was a member of an SDP/ Lib Alliance group back in the 80s and twice accepted as a candidate – but chose not to join the then new party after the 87 election – for a variety of reasons – one being the general lack of interest in criminal justice matters – my priority – which took up much of my time – I couldn’t see much point in being in a Party that placed policy on CJS so low (in practice – although it was much talked about)

    Any way this will be my last attempt to engage with you folk. I was a probation officer for nearly 30 years and began my involvement in Criminal Justice as a practitioner in 1973 – so I have a mite bit of face to face experience from magistrate’s courts to prisons and the court of appeal and all points in between, murderers, child molesters, first offenders, bank robbers, fraudsters, as well as (probable)innocent folk sentenced to custody and more.

  • They have now delayed the split to june 2014 and possibly beyond due to lack of planning and rushing things through. Chris graylingm conservatives and the liberals have done much damage to the good will and hard work of probation that staff have become very unmotivated and disaffected by these ill thought out plans. Liberals have also been cost votes by the betrayal to the service. Having the likes of A4E, Capita, Sodexo and Geo running probation with the shocking bad history of service is basically nuts.

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