Why sell and fragment a service that has met or exceeded its targets? The only reason must be money and ideology
After months of speculation, the coalition has finally published its plans for privatising probation through outsourcing. Essentially, up to 70% of probation’s core work will be put out to competitive tender. Companies likely to bid for the work include Serco, Sodexo and maybe even G4S. The voluntary sector has also been asked to play a part in the sale, but because the schemes are likely to be based on “payment by results”, the vast majority are unlikely to be able to compete, as they have no spare capital to risk on such schemes.
The government has said that the public probation service will retain its work with high-risk offenders – approximately 50,000 of them – and also retain the responsibility for giving information in reports to the courts. It however didn’t explain how this change will be organised either nationally, regionally or locally. It is at this stage uncertain who will be responsible for recalling individuals to prison for breaching probation orders.
The timing of the announcement is truly jaw-dropping. In 2011, the probation service in England and Wales was awarded the British Quality Foundation’s gold medal. In giving the award it said: “They are on the right path to achieving and sustaining excellence and being the best providers of these essential services.”
Last year, the probation service met or exceeded all of the Ministry of Justice’s set targets. Figures show that victim feedback in 2011-12 was positive in 98% of cases; that 49% of offenders were in employment at the termination of their orders; that 89% had accommodation; and that 82% of orders or licences were successfully completed during the period. In terms of timeliness of court reports, the service was set a target of 90% – and was successful in 99% of cases. And as far as cutting reoffending goes, the actual rate was better than the national predicted rate. In all but five probation areas, three-quarters of orders or licences were successfully completed.
I therefore suspect that the true motivation behind the announcement is to drive down costs, as well as to affirm an ideological commitment to the private sector. In 2012, community service (or “unpaid work” as it is now known) was privatised to Serco in the London area. So far, staff cuts since the transfer are exceeding 20%. That is how the government will make its savings, and the companies their profit.
During the course of the last few weeks, the government has claimed that reoffending rates of people on probation are far too high and cite the example of short-term prisoners who constantly reoffend and find themselves back in prison. Last year, 70,000 prisoners received custodial sentences of 12 months or less, and two-thirds were back in custody within weeks of their release. Yet ironically, the probation service has no statutory responsibility for this group, nor does anybody else for that matter. It is therefore grossly unfair to accuse probation of not working by referring to these particular statistics.
The reoffending rates are actually quite good: 50% for a standard probation order, falling to 35% if the person completes an accredited programme. Given that offenders are complex beings and are 10 times more likely than the general population to have been excluded from school or taken into care, have on average two or more mental illnesses and the majority are addicted to drugs or alcohol and have literacy problems, it is not surprising that reoffending rates are significant.
The government’s plans outlined this week are extraordinary thin on detail, and the timetable for delivery is far too hurried. The government has said nothing about what training operatives from Serco or G4S will receive. To date, there seems to be no mechanism for determining what happens if an offender moves from being low or medium to high risk. Crucially, there is also no mechanism to resolve any disputes about risk assessment between the private and public sector.
If this plan goes ahead, the provision of probation services will be fragmented. There will be communication issues between agencies, and any escalation of risk might be missed by the private companies. It is also difficult to see how the private sector will be able to negotiate protocols on sensitive data with the police, and public protection compromises seem inevitable.
The supervision of offenders is complex work. The government’s solutions are simplistic, and do not take into account the difficult nature of the work, or the need for local structures and liaison with local agencies. Fragmentation will create silos, and silos will lead to mistakes. All in all, this puts the public at risk.