Probation privatisation – the saga continues…

Aug 06

Chris Grayling’s plan to privatise the probation service follows a similar model to the disastrous Work Programme (WP). The Work and Pensions Select Committee recently found the WP’s “payment by results” model had lead to an endemic culture of “creaming and parking” (helping jobseekers for whom it’s easier to find work). Bad news, and if privatised probation suffers from similar problems there’s a risk to public safety.

Under Grayling’s plans the probation service, which currently deals with 250,000 cases a year, will remain responsible for “30,000” high risk cases, while control of the roughly 220,000 low to medium risk offenders will go to private firms and voluntary groups. The lack of detail on how providers will know if someone is low, medium or high risk is of deep concern to probation chiefs. On top of that there are fears about dodgy contracts from the “prime” contractors (huge outsourcing firms) leading to “sub primes” (generally smaller charities) losing money or going out of business, the speed at which the initiative is happening, and above all the fact there’s no data at all to suggest it’s a good idea in the first place.

At a Civitas lecture last month, Grayling pointed the naysayers to two pilot schemes in Doncaster and Peterborough, which he said showed “promising” results. But when Jon Harvey, a Labour councillor for Buckingham, put a few questions to the Ministry of Justice asking for more detail, the responses were rather less so. First, the figures were incomplete and had been pre-emptively cited by Grayling. The comparison groups used for evidence weren’t randomly selected. The figures didn’t include cautions (which national reoffending statistics do).

And when asked about statistical significance (the test of whether a difference is just a chance or one that indicates a real effect is in play), the MoJ responded: “We have not carried out statistical significance tests on the interim figures because, when it comes to the final results, neither pilot will be assessed on the basis of whether they have achieved a statistically significant change.” In other words, while Grayling was happy to cite the (half finished) stats his own department won’t trust the final figures. And to think people say he’s winging it!

Probation officers were also dismayed by the performance of the Government’s spokesman in the Lords, Lord Ahmad, who responded recently to a question from Lord Beecham about the Transforming Rehabilitation programme and the right of parliament to scrutinise the reforms. He didn’t appear to know what he was talking about – at one point saying that Probation Trusts were not going to be abolished when this is a fundamental part of the programme.

His claim that the trusts had been “inefficient for too long” caused outrage among probation workers. Against a backdrop of annual budgets cuts since 2008, the trusts have continued to perform at high levels (judged by er, the MoJ’s own performance rating system and the British Quality Foundation’s external assessors).

For good measure, he repeated the mantra that probation needed reform because of unacceptably high reoffending rates among those leaving prison on short prison sentences. It’s a line that ministers have repeated in the Daily Mail as they prepare the ground for the likes of G4S and Crapita to step in. The only problem is that the probation service has never been funded to work with this group of offenders.