Those with long memories (or those who own the appropriate box-set) cannot fail to remember the wonderful 1980s TV series Yes Minister, a political satire which featured the daily tussles between a government minister and senior civil servants.
Most of the episodes revolved around proposals for new policies, legislation or administrative change put forward by either the minister or civil service and the determined attempts of the other to frustrate the proposals, whilst purporting to support them. Of course, it was all fictional but, occasionally, so close to the truth that laughter was tinged with alarm bells.
The reason I mention this now is because, whenever Minister Jim Hacker put forward a scheme - which could clearly only end in a policy shambles, political calamity, public anger and a massive waste of money – Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby would inevitably respond “Well that’s a very bold proposal, Minister”.
So it was when Conservative Minister Christopher Grayling – yes, that’s the same CG who the Yorkshire Post, thousands of rail users and MPs from all parties have been calling on to resign as Secretary of State for Transport, given the rail timetable shambles he oversaw this year, but then Justice Secretary - decided to press ahead with the privatisation of the probation service.
The probation service is responsible for the supervision of offenders in the community – either undertaking community service or following release from prison - and for providing reports to the criminal courts to assist judges in their sentencing judgements.
My Grayling is ideologically committed to privatisation. When senior civil servants told him his probation proposals were ‘bold’, he just told them to get on with it. When everyone concerned with the criminal justice system told him that his policies would end in failure, poor performance and waste vast sums of money, he told them they were wrong. In fact, the only people who supported Mr Grayling’s proposals were a few free-market think-tanks, ideologically committed to privatisation, and a number of companies which claimed wide expertise in the criminal justice system in the UK and overseas.
Yes, you’ve guessed. These companies included those – like G4S and Serco - who had been busy ripping off the public purse by charging millions of pounds for claiming to have fitted and be monitoring the tags of people who were dead or in prison. G4S had to repay £104m and Serco repaid £71m for over-charging. It wasn’t surprising that they supported privatisation but, given their performance, alarm bells should have been ringing loudly in Mr Grayling’s ears. But no, he pressed ahead with his ideological experiment.
It has been a complete and utter disaster.
Not only did service performance drop dramatically - we learned of offenders only being supervised over the telephone – but it also proved a financial disaster. Last year, the government was forced to spend an extra £342m to bail out the privatised ‘community rehabilitation companies’.
Earlier this year, the National Audit Office produced a scathing report about the new services. This was followed by similar scathing reports from the chief inspector of probation and the all-party justice committee.
Finally, last month, the new Conservative Justice Secretary David Gaulke announced that the eight private firms that run these ‘community rehabilitation companies’ will have their contracts terminated in 2020, two years earlier than agreed. Just to prop up this service until 2020 will cost an additional £170m.
So, Mr Grayling’s ideological venture has proved to have cost more than an additional £500m and much more money will now have to be spent in recreating a probation service from 2020.
Mr Grayling’s experiment was not bold. It was criminal.