Businessmen, lawyers and justice

A prisoner in a cell

The simple fact that most prisoners come out of jail and reoffend is the government's central justification for dismantling the state-provided probation service in England and Wales. The hard part is putting something else in its place that will work better.

The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is determined to cut recidivism but he wants to save money at the same time. His answer is, effectively, to privatise probation. All but the highest risk offenders will be managed by non-state providers.

The government talks about private and voluntary sector bodies running the 16 contracts, but few charitable organisations have the capital reserves or expertise to win the tendering process. There will be a role for not-for-profit bodies in front-line delivery of some services, but it looks almost certain that the people in charge will be hardheaded businessmen out to make a return.

The Ministry of Justice is convinced that the profit motive will deliver a cheaper and more efficient service. Critics argue it will lead to confusion, waste and risk.

Ministry of Justice logo

Companies like Serco and G4S, which already advertise their willingness to expand into the probation sector, are front-runners for the contracts - a prospect which naturally alarms the 20,000 people employed by the state-run service at the moment.

It is thought that around 14,000 probation officers may lose their state-funded jobs. Many will be re-employed by the private providers but, since one of the key aims of the reform is to save money, a significant number will not.

It is no surprise that the National Association of Probation Officers, the union for the sector, say the government's motives are "purely ideological" and warn that "if this plan proceeds it will be chaotic and will compromise public protection". The association's influence, indeed its very existence, is threatened by the reforms.

What, though, is one to make of the predictions of chaos and public risk? Similar arguments were put forward when the Labour government privatised prisons and introduced payment by results in other public services like the NHS.

Graph showing re-offending rates of convicted offenders in England & Wales

Indeed, the concept of "contestability" (market competition) was inserted into the DNA of the National Offender Management Service when it was being created almost a decade ago. The sky did not fall in.

The public risk argument comes down to this: if you have low-medium risk offenders being managed by the private/voluntary sector and high risk offenders by the state sector there will be confusion and error because risk is dynamic.

A survey of probation cases in London has suggested that 24% see a change to their risk status while under supervision. Most, of course, see their assessment go down. But some may suddenly be identified as a much greater risk than originally thought.

Chris Grayling: "I want to capture the skills that exist across the public, private and voluntary sectors."

The man jailed for reckless driving, a low risk at the outset, may emerge as someone who presents serious risk of domestic violence. How easy will it be for that person to be moved from the non-state provided service back into state supervision?

Here lies the conundrum. The government insists that the new streamlined state-run probation service must not be "constantly looking over the shoulder" of the contract providers. Equally, they say the state-run service must have oversight of all cases. Where is the line drawn? Get it wrong, and confusion and risk increase.

The Ministry of Justice stresses that a lot of the detail is still to be worked out; many of the challenges will be dealt with in the construction of the contracts. But, as ever, the devil will be in the detail.

Putting together payment-by-results contracts often proves much more complex than originally planned. For example, an operation where Serco and the existing state-run London Probation Trust jointly provide Community Payback services for the MoJ took around two years to procure.

One big headache is defining the "result" for which payment will be made. In the context of probation, how much reward, if any, should a contractor get if an offender with a history of violent crime commits no offences of violence while supervised, but steals a chocolate bar from Tesco's?

There is also a concern that private providers might maximise profits by focusing on the less challenging cases. Offenders with complex needs may require high levels of investment which don't make business sense. The contract is key in addressing such questions.

So the most important people in deciding whether these proposals work will not be politicians. Nor will they be businessmen, probation officers or voluntary sector mentors. Success or failure will be in the hands of contract lawyers.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.


    As money is only made for keeping people out of prison, it should be self-funding.

    You cant treat EVERYTHING like a free market style business.

    What will be the consequence of payment by results?

    As seen with A4E/G4S either collapse of the service (public at risk) or a major fleecing of the public purse.

    Is this a suitable area for profit chasers?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Privatisation is an acknowledgement that the present public officials do not know how to do the job. Recruit someone who does, do not let private enterprise profit. It is likely that a private provider would recruit and use some existing staff, particularly the probation officers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    As money is only made for keeping people out of prison, it should be self-funding.

    We save on prison costs and some of this money goes to the companies who kept offenders out of jail. So, offenders break the cycle of crime = less people in prison = lower crime = lower costs to the taxpayer & society.

    If the Left can't figure out this is good thing then they must be criminally stupid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    This government has hit rock bottom. A journalist trained Minister with no experience of probation service provision putting the protection of the public in the hands of the private and voluntary sector. A decision based purely on a policy of improving the balance sheet through headcount reduction and Tory political ideology to feed big business. Citizens safety no longer seems to be important!

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The Tory Grand Plan:

    1) Identify a working public service
    2) Cut costs so it can't work any more
    3) Bring in costly consultants to recommend privatisation
    4) Put freshly ruined service out to Private sector where it will get even worse
    5) Repeat until there's enough directorships for all ex-Tory MPs after the next election

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    There will be a dumbing down of jobs just like we have in seen supported housing. In that sector the jobs are dumbed down to a tick box exercise where more time is spent on paperwork and compliance than in front of those needing support. They then pay un educated staff with little experience the minimum wage whilst the CEO's take home over £100K a year. Charites are the worst offenders by far !

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Is that not an oxymoron?
    A profit motivated buisness being cheaper with more efficiency?

    Ministery of justice if you believe that then you are unfit to hold your posts.

    If history has told you anything, then its this.
    When a private company gets paid out of the public coffers they charge what ever they think they can get away with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The current probation services are stretched to the limit (as is the rest of the Criminal justice system) and are unable to provide anything like the level of supervision or monitoring of Community Orders as they should. Offenders on 12 month Supervision Orders with treatment or work requirements often don't ever get either supervision or work or treatment. Will this help...unlikely

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Dear oh Dear. .. . .Before long it will be like . . . . . . I am Legend. . . . . Each man for himself, boadring yourself in and protecting what you have.

    Whatever is happening?. . . . . . I'll take that one way ticket to Mars

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    This has nothing to do with the rehabilitation of offenders or safeguarding the public, but everything to do with reducing pension payments to those in the public service. The Probation Service has suffered constant cuts in its funding and is always expected to do more with less money. It deals with some of the most inadequate people in society whose offending is often like the tip of an iceberg.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Can we not just outsource it to India like everything else?
    That's one idea i would go for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    This is all getting unbelievable, ? G4 springs to mind , how many more failed money spinning schemes will we have foisted upon us ; everything yes that has been privateised meant to be better and more cost effective costs us so much more , i sick of saying look at all the utilities and transport ? thing is gov only see it from their view ie they do not need cash and can pay bills .we struggle .

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    For decades Probation has been the most effective part of the Criminal Justice system in terms of reoffending rates. Prison reoffending rates have always been skyhigh. No logic in "reforming" the Probation Service to reduce recidivism (many prisoners are not supervised by Probation Officers on release anyway) but not REFORMING the Prison Service. Just a poke in the eye for decent caring people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    More of the same from the Tories - not surprised.

    Wonder how long it will be before the army have to take over, like London 2012.... or perhaps that it what they REALLY want, the army on the streets.

    Roll on the happy day when either the LibDems see sense (which is highly unlikely) or 2015.

    Two and a half years to hang on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I'm betting any money you like Chris Grayling will end up with a directorship on the board of one of these companies (that are all major Tory donors) in a few years.

    This is about the political class helping themselves, not about serving the public. Otherwise, why would they continue these sell offs, and continue this failed policy of privatisation?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I wonder if this will feed back into decisions over the release of inmates from prisons run by the same companies that start handling probation services ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    What they mean is they are privatising it.

    Bad bad bad news

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Wasn't G4S the same company that made a fiasco with the Olympics staffing levels recently??

    Letting them look after probation, what a laugh?

    Another example of private contracts for the Eton old school boys network, at the expense of 14, 000 public sector jobs!!

    Shame on you Lib Dems for being part of this dismal set -up.

    Noreen Dorries is the only tory I respect, for calling them posh boys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    This is not difficult, 1st offence normal sentence, 2nd offence double the sentence, 3rd, 4th and so on if they don't learn they don't get to molest the general public anymore.
    Only financially, as it costly vastly more to catch, try, sentence and incarcerate versus rehabilitate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Why would I want to volunteer to help rehabilitate offenders just so that Serco & G4S can make vast profits for their execs & shareholders ?


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