Probation for sale

The author of this article has worked for the UK Probation Service for 8 years. He wishes to remain anonymous

So here we go again… another round of privatisation. This time it’s the National Probation Service. But what does that mean? Who does it affect? And why does it feel like the first principle of any government, that of protecting its people, is being sold down the river? Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice is sprinting headlong towards an end-game which will see private companies taking responsibility for the majority of offenders subject to sentences handed down by the courts. This will include not only vulnerable offenders but also dangerous individuals who have caused physical and emotional harm to their victims. As a country it is fair to ask for these people to be managed properly, efficiently and effectively when they leave prison and return to the community (as nearly all prisoners will do), so that the majority of us can live with a minimal fear of crime and repeated victimisation.

And guess what – those under the supervision of the Probation Service are less likely to go on and re-offend. Yes the Probation Service is actually an effective public sector organisation. They manage sex offenders, domestic violence perpetrators, violent offenders, gang members, burglars and robbers, and all manner of people who present challenges to community peace and security. But the Probation Service does more than just pick up the pieces by supporting these people into housing, training, education, employment or addiction support services. They risk manage these people with the skills and tools at their disposal to reduce the likelihood of re-offending. In its most recent assessment, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation classified all 35 Probation Trusts as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ in terms of their performance – not one is failing. So why sell off this experienced and prized asset when it is not broken? Surely any other business would invest and expand the excellent work it is doing. Well ‘Failing Grayling’ says that re-offending is too high, particularly amongst those who have spent less than 12 months in prison. Well guess what Mr Grayling, and you should know this, the probation service has never been asked by the government to supervise these people on release from prison. Those sentenced to 12 months or less in custody are not subject to any probation supervision and they never have been. Once released from prison, they are left with no state support except their £46 release payment – that is the governments doing not that of the Probation Service.

You will find no Probation Officer disagreeing with the principle of introducing statutory supervision for that group of offenders, because it makes sense. The trade union for Probation Officers, NAPO, also agrees with this move. It just doesn’t make sense that the very Probation Trusts with proven track records of reducing re-offending are being completely overlooked and sidelined in favour of unproven companies seeking profit, profit and more profit. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of everyone working in the Probation Service that money is being made from crime when it should be the responsibility of the state to protect its citizens. It fills me with no confidence that the management of these offenders will be left to companies with little or no expertise of managing offenders. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons state that at the G4S-run HMP Oakwood it is easier to obtain drugs than soap, and that one in every seven inmates have developed a substance abuse problem since entry. How can that be right? These companies are subject to ongoing fraud investigations after they were found to be lying about tagging and monitoring offenders who were subsequently found to be dead or not even living in the country. Remember also that G4S spectacularly failed to deliver on a highly lucrative government contract for the 2012 Olympics. Do we really believe that they will offer a better, more accountable, trustworthy and effective service than that currently being delivered by probation staff?

They will enact savings from employing fewer staff (Officers’ case loads will rocket, diluting their effectiveness) and commissioning cheaper interventions with no evidence of rigour. To put it bluntly shortcuts will be taken in pursuit of profit, inevitably resulting in offenders not being taken back to court when they really should be because payments will be given to companies based on successful completions of sentences even where there has been no re-offending. Offenders will get less support to help them avoid re-offending (which will ultimately harm us all) and victims will be left wondering what happened to the principles of the British justice system. Well I can tell them right now. They have been insulted by this government. A message to Chris ‘failing’ Grayling. If you believe in ‘what works’ then support the Probation Service. If you want re-offending rates to fall further then extend and support the remit of the existing Probation Service. If you want to sustain strong partnerships and trust across criminal justice agencies, then keep the Probation Services as it is. If you want to ensure justice for victims then keep the Probation Service. If you believe in evidence-based policy making you MUST keep the Probation Service. It really is that simple.