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Roll up, roll up for the great probation services sell-off

Roll up, roll up for the great probation services sell-off

🕔28.Nov 2012

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling made a speech recently on the future of the criminal justice system. Although the media picked up on his call for prisoners to me met by mentors at the gates on their release, they missed the real policy announcement.

This was the privatisation of probation services, following hard on the heels of the mass privatisation of other parts of the criminal justice system, from tagging and transporting prisoners, to prisons themselves, started by the previous Labour Government.

The Justice Department was about to embark on piloting a payment-by-result offender management programme, but with Grayling’s appointment the game changed from experimenting with a new system to making a fundamental change to the delivery of front line criminal justice service.

The public outcry when West Midlands Police announced it aimed to develop strategic partnerships with the private sector, showed the low level of appetite for the notion that companies looking for profits should be delivering front line services. The new
Police and Crime Commissioner Bob Jones may have put a stop to the extensive plans previously pursued so vigorously by his Chief Constable, but other areas of the criminal justice system are facing the same challenges.

Chris Grayling was the minister responsible for pushing payment-by-results in welfare reform, which led to the work programme – which has yet to be proven to deliver results. What has been successful is the huge profits that private companies running the welfare reform programme have, with voluntary sector bodies, who were promised a sizable chunk of the programme, either going bust or having to withdraw from the contracts. They could not deliver the results required by the private companies who in effect referred the ‘the hard to deliver’ clients to the third sector, keeping the easier clients for themselves.
And now the same minister is introducing payment-by-result on a mass scale in the delivery of rehabilitation services.

The Probation Service as we know it will be put out to tender, for private sector companies like G4S, Serco, Sodexo bidding to run on a payment-by-results basis, services run by the Probation Service, including supervision of low and medium risk prisoners released from prison and undertaking rehabilitation services.

The Justice Secretary has made it clear these contracts will be tendered on a national level, thereby restricting the market to large private sector companies with deep pockets. Even though the Government has indicated the voluntary sector would be able to bid for these contracts, it is unlikely that they would be able to for these national contracts, as the risks associated with delivering payment by results is too large for these organisations.

So will this large privatisation of front-line public protection service produce results in reducing the prison population and rehabilitating ex offenders? Napo, the probation service union, has quite rightly pointed out that the probation service hit or exceeded the targets set by the Government in 2011-12. They point out that privatisation is about cutting costs, reduce standards, having fewer staff, compromising public protection and is ideologically driven.

From the example of the work programme, we have a lot to fear from ‘sleep walking’ into the privatisation of probation services. Payment by results has delivered mixed results, with the hardest to reach people being failed by the system, as they are too ‘expensive’ to deal with.

In the welfare programme, private companies make millions off the backs of vulnerable people, with questionable results. Voluntary sector providers meanwhile pick up only the crumbs from the table while the public sector agencies, police, courts, health services pick up the pieces – and still most of the costs.

Public service reforms should not just be about privatisation, but reform should be about allowing entrepreneurial innovators to be given the space and resources to innovate and the air cover to make fundamental changes to deliver high quality, cost effective services that make a real difference to the lives of people.

Our public services should not be for sale.

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