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Business Comment

Mark Leftly: Probation bidders may make a profit, but they’ll never be popular

The crisis is too great to subdue quickly or, indeed, profitably, in most of the CRCs

Westminster Outlook It’s time for Andy Parker, Debbie White, Mel Ewell, Adrian Ringrose and Richard Howson to do the right thing and withdraw from the race to, in effect, privatise 70 per cent of the probation service. The chief executives of Capita, Sodexo UK, Amey, Interserve and Carillion, respectively, will inherit utter messes if they are successful in bids to run any of the 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) that have been established under Chris Grayling, the obstinate Justice Secretary.

The deals are worth at least £5bn over 10 years, but the risk to these companies’ balance sheets is tremendous. Staff morale is at an all-time low, case files are either missing due to chaotic IT systems or gathering dust in cupboards because of workforce shortages, offenders aren’t being properly supervised, and there is a growing risk to public safety.

The crisis is too great to subdue quickly or, indeed, profitably, in most of the CRCs. These outsourcing groups will be criticised and almost certainly financially penalised if a shambles not of their own making worsens.

Even if these groups somehow manage through sheer organisational nous to tackle a unique and untested situation and turn things around, they won’t be thanked. Probation officers are not particularly well-paid given the nature of their jobs; by and large, they have chosen this career to serve the public good rather than introduce the profit motive into what, for more than 100 years, has been by necessity the preserve of the state. 

At a rally held by the Napo union in Parliament’s Gladstone Room this week, around 150 probation campaigners hissed at the mention of Sodexo. Putting aside that company’s difficulties in running Northumberland prison, including a major “stand-off” with 50 inmates in March, and questions over what a caterer can bring to rehabilitation, the French group is not the problem.

Rather, Mr Grayling won’t listen. He believes that dividing the service in two, so that low-to-medium-risk offenders are supervised by CRCs and the most dangerous are allocated to the National Probation Service (NPS), will save money. 

A payment-by-results structure should, he reckons, incentivise the CRCs to cut the reoffending rates of prisoners on short  sentences, who cost up to £10bn a year. Yet the split from 35 probation trusts into 21 CRCs and the NPS occurred in June and the evidence of failure is irrefutable.

Notably, CRC staff can’t see the files of those offenders allocated to the National Probation Service. Recently, a CRC officer in Essex did some work at the NPS; without access to those files, she had no idea of the danger that the man before her posed, and was sexually assaulted.

Officers insist that dividing the service according to an offender’s risk level is absurd; it depends on what is happening in his or her life. The level changes in about a quarter of cases, a substantial enough figure to mean the division is arbitrary.

A union survey of around 1,000 probation workers this week showed more than half of staff are looking for new jobs and that 98 per cent have “no confidence” in Mr Grayling. Still, he ploughs on, because, as the Labour MP Sarah Champion puts it, “you can’t fight ideology with reason”.

The Independent titles have covered this story in depth this summer. We have reported that a preventable murder might have occurred because of the reforms, and published the self-written eulogy of a probation worker, Sarah Kane, who committed suicide.

Friends of the latter say that the reforms might have “contributed” to her death, though she was clearly extremely troubled aside from any work-related stress. But what is damning is that eulogy, her final message to those she left behind, in which she accused Mr Grayling of having “murdered the probation service”.

Here is another quite awful example. Angela Suggett, a 64-year-old probation officer in West Yorkshire, was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live in May. She asked for ill-health retirement on 2 June, just as the split occurred, and could have reasonably expected a lump sum to be agreed within two to three weeks.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman says that “all applications are dealt with promptly and sensitively”. But Mrs Suggett still hasn’t received her money as the whole system has been thrown into confusion. She accuses the MoJ of “frittering away” her life, and is furious that “absolutely no sympathy whatsoever” has been shown towards her when she needs the money for life-extending treatment.

Mr Grayling’s aides are furious with us, perhaps sensing bias or sensationalism. A source close to Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat justice minister who might be expected to oppose the reforms, is insistent that these are teething problems and that change in any organisation is met with resistance and complaints.

There are no apologies here for pursuing this issue, because the weight of evidence is overwhelming. But no matter what we report, Mr Grayling is not for turning.

That’s why it is up to those five chief executives to refuse to get involved in probation, if not for social then for commercial reasons. If those companies, which are among the biggest bidders, withdraw, Mr Grayling’s great folly will be sunk.