Probation privatisation plans will put ‘public at higher risk’
Internal review finds coalition reforms will bring ‘poorer service’.
Plans to put private companies such as G4S in charge of supervising tens of thousands of criminals on licence in the community have a “very high chance” of putting the public at greater risk and will result in a poorer service for victims of crime, according to an internal assessment presented to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and seen by the Observer.
The probation service’s risk assessment, written last month, spells out in detail how the government’s high-profile programme for allowing the private sector and voluntary groups to run its offender management programme is in danger of going off the rails.
The findings – coming after G4S and Serco were last week stripped of their contracts to monitor tagged offenders, amid allegations they carried out a multimillion-pound overcharging fraud – threatens to undermine the government’s case for pushing through its reforms within a short time frame.
The report is the latest in a series of internal assessments prepared for the MoJ ahead of its landmark reform of the probation service next year. It confirms that plans to use private sector firms, which the government says will help to help save taxpayers up to £200m a year, are in jeopardy.
Under the reforms, private companies will be paid by results. Almost three-quarters of all probation work, now overseen by 35 probation trusts, will be moved to a National Probation Service and outsourced to 21 community rehabilitation companies. Some 35 companies and charitable organisations are bidding for the contracts, due to come into force at the end of 2014. But it is clear that the plan is heading for trouble.
On a scale of one to 25, where 25 is the highest likelihood of something happening, the assessment gives a maximum score to the probability that there will be a “reduction [in] performance” under the new system. It states that this will see the “potential for service delivery failure increase” and that there is a very high chance of “operational confusion”. As a result, offenders will pose a “higher risk to the public” and there will be “poorer outcomes” for victims and communities. The report warns that courts would “lose confidence in the ability of the service to deliver sentences”.
The assessment estimates that there is a 25 out of 25 risk that the programme will not “be delivered either in scope or within the timescale set by ministers”. Other risks include a drop in staff morale, tension with police and crime plans, increased risk of industrial action and loss of public confidence. The analysis is likely to be exploited by critics of the government’s privatisation agenda.
All but the most high-risk offenders – some 140,000 a year – will be placed under the supervision of private sector companies, but the probation union, Napo, is warning that they will not have the skills to assess whether the risk patterns of offenders they are monitoring are changing. If an offender is judged to have moved from medium to high risk, their case will be handed to the public service. High-profile murders committed by offenders while on licence, notably the killing of two French students in 2008 by Daniel Sonnex, have highlighted the complex nature of risk assessment.
“The private sector is likely to miss cases which need recalling to custody, because of their inexperience,” said probation expert Harry Fletcher. “This plan will compromise public protection.”
The government had intended that current probation staff would be assigned to new private sector employers by 1 April, but concern about the way in which the reforms are being implemented suggests this timetable may slip.
Appearing before the justice select committee this month, the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, seemed to concede that the timetable was not set in stone, referring to “evolution, not revolution”, a change of tone from previous comments.
A delay would raise fresh questions about the government’s ability to introduce its reforms of the public sector. The timetable for the rollout of the universal credit scheme had to be scrapped recently, and in November plans to privatise three prisons were abandoned.
However, the justice minister, Jeremy Wright, insisted the government was “on track” to deliver its probation reforms. “These will see the best of the public, private and voluntary sectors working together to break the depressing cycle of reoffending,” he said.
“With more than 600,000 offences committed last year by those who had broken the law before – despite spending £4bn a year on prisons and probation – the status quo is not an option. Public safety remains our top priority and the department is working with probation trusts to ensure this will not be compromised.”