The Tories' dismantling of the probation service really is a case of privatisation gone mad

The task of rehabilitating convicted criminals is now subject to the rigours of the market. Think about exactly what that means

Andreas Whittam Smith
Wednesday 11 May 2016 11:05 BST
The probation officers’ union, Napo, campaigned against reform of the service
The probation officers’ union, Napo, campaigned against reform of the service (Getty)

Privatising the probation services is privatisation gone mad. That is the only conclusion you can draw from a progress report by the National Audit Office on the Government’s plans, though it received little attention when recently published.

Yes, you read that correctly: probation services – whose main task is to rehabilitate convicted criminals so that that they do not re-offend – are being made subject to the rigours of the market.

Think what the work of probation entails. Its essence is the establishment of a relationship between a probation officer and an offender. A good description was given by an outgoing Chief Inspector of Probation, Andrew Bridges, in 2011. I quote what he said at some length:

“The heart of probation practice, and youth offending practice for that matter, is about using one’s influencing skills in a one-to-one relationship. You are trying to use a relationship to achieve a purpose: the relationship isn’t the end in itself.

“You are trying to get individuals to want to change and to make changes to themselves. You are often doing it with offenders whose probability of change is very low, with the really difficult ones. Anybody who had been a practitioner 40 years ago would still recognise that now, I would say”.

Indeed, you can go right back to the origins of probation in 1876, when a charity first appointed police court ‘missionaries’ to help offenders find work and employment, to see that the task and the method has always been the same.

In 1907, the Probation of Offenders Act put the charitable activity onto a statutory basis. Courts could release offenders on probation. Probation officers were to “advise, assist and befriend”.

Activities based on relationships are expensive to run because they are time consuming. For example, the personal relationship that bank customers used to have with their managers has largely disappeared as digital technology has been introduced in order to reduce costs. These days, an application for a loan is more likely to be ‘scored’ by a computer than to be discussed with a member of bank staff. And since relationship banking has been replaced by transaction banking, a lack of respect for customers has become pervasive. This led to banks miss-selling financial products on an enormous scale.

With this example in mind – and noting also that the Government intends to pay the providers of probation services by results – I fear that the personal relationship that lies at the heart of good probation work will be first distorted and then lost.

The idea that probation work should become a commercial activity began to surface in the early 2000s. By then, the emphasis of the Conservative or neoliberal revolution launched in the early 1980s by Margaret Thatcher (together with Ronald Reagan in the US) had switched to public services.

In 2004, Tony Blair’s Labour government accepted a report that recommended what was called “greater contestability” using “providers of… probation from across the public, private or voluntary sectors”. In 2007, probation boards began to be transformed into probation trusts, in preparation for privatisation.

The Coalition government quickly went a step further: providers of probation services would be paid to reduce reoffending and the savings that would accrue to the criminal justice system would pay for this. Here, however, comes a further problem.

How can the Government be sure that a particular probation service has been solely responsible for a reduction in re-offending in the cases it has handled? The crucial factor, for instance, could have been the remedial work done by the prison from which the offender had recently emerged.

Moreover the level of crime across the country is declining and this must reflect some general trend rather than individual actions. The Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that in 2015, there was a 7 per cent decrease from the previous year.

Brushing this problem aside, the Government has made it clear that, over time, the majority of probation trusts’ current business will be opened up to competition, apart from advice to court and the management of higher risk offenders. Unfortunately the National Audit Office (NAO) report lists numerous difficulties with making such a dramatic change.

To start with, the computer systems on which the exercise depends are lamentably poor with no hope of early improvement. Their failings cause what the NAO calls “severe inefficiencies”. New tools used for assessing and allocating offenders are “cumbersome and require repeated data re-entry.”

Linked to this, the performance of the new bodies cannot be reliably measured. Crucial data that would allow the success or the failure of the new policy to be judged is often simply not available.

Worse still, there is what the NAO describes as “limited visibility” of contract commitments. The National Probation Service itself “only has copies of around 30 per cent of its contracts and does not know exactly what it spends on goods and services.”

Even more chilling, the NAO report observes that many of the successful bidders for contracts were “new to probation”. Unsurprisingly, these firms did not fancy having much of their revenue tied to the results of an activity of which they knew little. So the original purpose of the entire exercise has largely been lost.

Back in 2011, the Government said that it would “pioneer a world first – a system where we only pay for results, delivered by a diverse range of providers from all sectors. This principle will underpin all our work on reoffending. This is a radical shift.” A radical shift indeed, except that now it isn’t going to happen.

Indeed, one is entitled to question the merits of privatisation. What has happened in this case is that Conservative ministers and Ministry of Justice officials – few of whom have any direct experience of the business world – have been attempting to introduce market disciplines, that they do not understand, into a valuable social service of which, again, they seem to have little comprehension.

Doctrine has replaced thought. Which is where revolutions end.

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