Watchdog criticises Government's privatisation of probation services

The National Audit Office has warned the Government has no way of knowing how well companies responsible for running the country’s probation services are performing

Siobhan Fenton
Tuesday 03 May 2016 17:19 BST
The National Probation Service was split in 2014, with some 70 per cent of its work outsourced to private companies
The National Probation Service was split in 2014, with some 70 per cent of its work outsourced to private companies (Getty)

Serious failings in the Government’s privatisation of the probation services have been exposed in a damning report amid warnings that David Cameron’s “half-baked and reckless” policies have left the criminal justice system in a mess.

The report by the independent Parliamentary spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, warns the Government has no way of knowing how well companies responsible for running the country’s probation services are performing due to a failure to collect accurate information.

It also says some of the Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) may be manipulating or withholding data from government agencies while others are putting financial profit above public safety by ignoring difficult offenders who require the most help because it costs them too much money to treat them.

The disclosures have sparked fears that companies are not subject to adequate oversight or scrutiny and led to calls for an urgent investigation into the rushed policy of selling off parts of the probation service en masse.

Andrew Neilson, from the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the report raises serious questions of whether companies were protecting financial profits rather than public safety.

He told The Independent: “This clearly is not safe. A lack of reliable data means this report stops short of entirely condemning [the privatisation scheme], but the major problems it identifies suggests that the programme is a mess. This is an inauspicious start for untested reforms that could have disastrous consequences if they fail.”

Shadow Justice Secretary Charlie Falconer called for an immediate inquiry into the report’s findings: “This important independent report from the National Audit Office adds to the growing criticism of David Cameron’s half-baked and reckless privatisation of the probation service.

“With prisons in crisis and now the probation system seemingly failing to effectively rehabilitate offenders, we need a serious study of how private companies running prisons or probation reports their success or failure to the public. They should be open, transparent and should publish fully accurate and reliable data on reoffending whenever possible. Any suggestion that CRCs are withholding information from the National Probation Service should be investigated thoroughly.”

The report itself states that the Ministry [of Justice] should “as a matter of urgency ensure data are available to support the contract”, noting that under current provisions no data will emerge until late 2017, meaning there will be no accurate way of assessing the private companies’ performance until then.

Privatisation of probation services began in 2014, with responsibility for low- and medium-risk cases being outsourced to CRCs held in public ownership, before the scheme suddenly extended shortly before the general election in February 2015 to apply to commercial companies in the private sector.

But the sudden rolling out of the proposals means the Government did not wait to find out the results of its own pilot scheme to test whether privatisation was appropriate for the probation service.

The rushed nature of the scheme also meant that Ministry of Justice staff struggled to cope with the demands: “Ministry teams appeared stretched in dealing with so many bidders with relatively junior staff sometimes fielding complex commercial, operational or legal questions,” the report outlines.

A number of the companies that were awarded contracts had no experience of the sector at all and a number of others were set up shortly before being awarded contracts, meaning that they had no track record from which they could be assessed for their suitability.

The report also states that the Government has no way of knowing how well the CRCs are performing after failing to collect accurate data required to assess them. It adds that the Government has “no data” or “insufficiently robust data” in a variety of assessment criteria, concluding: “Performance of CRCs remains unclear given limitations around data quality and availability.”

The report’s authors also express concerns that the private companies may be manipulating data, warning: “In the four CRCs we visited only three provided initial caseload data and these were presented as an average, which masks any variation within and across CRCs.”

It also notes that “many junior staff in the National Probation Service thought that their CRC contracts were often not providing them with necessary information”.

These revelations led to accusations that the CRCs are putting commercial profit above quality of services and public safety, as “many junior staff in the National Probation Service thought their CRC contacts… had become too focused on their commercial interests as opposed to the best interests of the offenders”. The report also describes how the companies are paid per task they perform rather than whether reoffending rates go down, raising concerns that they are engaged in a box-ticking exercise rather than producing real results which reduce reoffending and protect the public.

Concerns have been raised that privatisation carries “an inherent risk” that private companies may avoid working with some offenders who need the most support because this could cost them more money and carry the risk that they will miss performance targets and subsequently incur financial penalties, despite the fact that working with difficult cases is necessary for public safety.

Probation services are responsible for monitoring and engaging with offenders once they are released from prison in order to reduce reoffending rates and ensure public safety. In February of last year, a privatisation scheme introduced under the coalition government saw responsibility for low- and medium-risk offenders sold off to CRCs, while responsibility for high risk offenders remains in state control through the National Probation Service (NPS). Around 80 per cent of probation work is now the responsibility of CRCs, costing the taxpayer some £450m per year.

Serious concerns have also been revealed regarding the NPS, which remains a state agency and manages high-risk offenders. The NPS has been found to have little awareness of how it operates or what contracts it holds. “It only has copies of around 30 per cent of its contracts and does not know exactly what it spends on good and services – its best estimate being £60m.”

The NPS has been described as having no proper storage of records, instead using a chaotic system relying on information on older cases coming from staff who had been working there for long periods remembering the case details. The system has been described as having “extensive miscalculation and mis-recording of allocation decisions” about offenders.

A spokesperson for The Ministry of Justice told The Independent: "Major transitions in public services are always challenging but figures show the performance of the new probation system which was introduced only a year ago, is continually improving. As the report notes, the majority of offenders found that services had remained stable or improved since our reforms. Thanks to these reforms, offenders in prisons for less than 12 months are now receiving support from the probation service for the very first time.

"However we are not complacent and have been addressing the problems which have been identified. Public protection is our top priority and we will continue to support staff to deliver these important changes."

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