Monday, 11 November 2013

On probation

The work of the Probation Service gets little publicity when it is done successfully, but is thrust into the spotlight when something goes wrong.

However, re-offending rates are too high and more needs to be done to improve rehabilitation and break the cycle of re-offending. All the research demonstrates that success is built on partnership working between agencies - public, private and voluntary - and on the strength of the relationships between dedicated probation staff and individual offenders.

So, what are we to make of the government forcing through a wholesale privatisation of probation at breakneck speed, trying to avoid proper scrutiny and ignoring its own risk assessment which highlights major concerns with its proposals? Be alert that the government wants private companies to take over the supervision of nearly 9 out of 10 offenders released from prison or undertaking community sentences, including those convicted of domestic violence, burglary, robbery, violence against the person and sexual offences.

First, do we trust the Minister? He is Chris Grayling, who set up and forced through the massively failing Work Programme on the same payment-by-results basis. He has a track record of ignoring inconvenient facts, but being driven by ideology. Or, as he put it “Sometimes we just have to believe something is right and do it”.

Secondly, pilot schemes of these proposals were cancelled by Mr Grayling in his first week in the job. As the Economist magazine put it: “If the Work Programme fails, the cost is higher unemployment; if rehabilitation of offenders fails, the cost is worse: more crime: which is why those now-disregarded pilots were set up in the first place”

Thirdly, the list of private companies who are gearing to hoover up these contracts is dominated by the usual suspects, including G4S and Serco.

You will remember that G4S massively failed at the London Olympics, with security services having to be rescued by the police and armed forces. Further, it has already been found to have billed the government for tracking offenders who were dead, abroad or in prison, and is now the subject of a criminal fraud investigation. And, as I write, in the high court, Mr Justice Mostyn has referred a number of G4S employees for prosecution for forgery and contempt of court in a "truly shocking" case of what he called disgraceful behaviour. Similarly, the Serious Fraud Office has opened a criminal investigation into Serco's electronic monitoring contracts after it was found to have overcharged by millions of pounds for work it could not have done. Astonishingly, Mr Grayling has refused to rule G4S and Serco out of this process.

Under these proposals, it is inevitable that both national and local charities which play a significant role in crime prevention and resettlement of offenders will be totally squeezed out of the service in exactly the same way that they have been in the Work Programme.

Fourthly, because private companies delivering public services are exempt from the Freedom of Information legislation, they can’t be held to account for any failings in the same way that the current probation service can.

Fifthly, it is clear that the government is also trying to hide as much information as it can. For example, it simply refused to say how many offenders these proposals would affect. However, my Labour colleagues submitted Freedom of Information requests to all Probation Trusts in England and discovered that more than 200,000 offenders are covered, including more than 7500 in South Yorkshire, 3500 in Derbyshire and nearly 10,000 in Nottinghamshire.

Sixthly, by its own admission, the government has absolutely no idea how much this will cost. And, despite Ministers claiming this is a “payment only on delivery” system, we now learn that companies will still receive at least 90% of their fee whether they deliver or not.

Seventh, given the way the contracts have been designed, it is inevitable that – just like the Work Programme – companies will focus on the easiest cases and simply park the more complex and difficult offenders, increasing the risk to the public.

Eighth, the proposals create a suffocating bureaucracy between service providers for those offenders – some 25% of the total - whose risk level significantly fluctuates during the period of their supervision. It’s not only bureaucratic and costly, it provides a platform for buck-passing.

My view is that no government should be taking such a reckless approach to public safety. Handing over supervision for serious and violent offenders to the same companies that time and again let down the taxpayer is a recipe for disaster.
People need to be confident that those offenders under supervision in our local communities are not part of some giant ideological experiment.

We should all be worried that the Government have not brought their plans before Parliament to enable proper scrutiny. Instead, it has chosen to rush ahead at breakneck speed and impose its completely untried and untested privatisation on every community.

I strongly support carefully planned and monitored innovative work in our Probation Services – this privatisation isn’t. I am happy to support an approach that allowed faster sharing of best practice as well as even more collaboration with other providers -   this privatisation isn’t.

Rushing headlong into change, with no evidence to support it, is simply irresponsible.