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 48.

    G4S one of the front runners...........Don't make me laugh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    I've a radical idea, why not make going to prison less attractive? Make it a deterrent rather than a 'holiday'. It's a fact that some people choose to re-offend because jail time is so cushy.

    I wonder if our taxes will go down if this goes ahead? Hmmm...

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    As evidenced by every other privatisation there has ever been two things will happen:

    A/. Service standards will fall dramatically.....

    B/. The cost will rise exponentially.....

    but with probation we could be paying with more offenders re-offending than with merely bigger utility/travel etc bills.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Payment by results is very especially when working with offenders. Some will continue to reoffend what ever you do & you can't just ignore them, but then if you don't get paid for them, where does the money come for the resources? Also what is a result?

    My bf works in this area, the staff are already paid peanuts as it is for a very hard job, PBR could result in them just being paid even less.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    G4 are the obvious choice for this.

    They have a great record for losing prisoners before they are released. Now they can lose them when the come out on probation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Yet another raid on taxpayers money for Tory donors by the truly nasty party. 'Nasty' is by now is almost a compliment, more like 'totally depraved' or even 'completely evil'

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Reoffenders. Privatised Probation Service.
    Now taxpayers are twice as likely to be mugged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Seems an idea worth looking at - the present system is clearly a shambles

    And this is a CONSULTATION exercise'. So,let's examine how 'success' will be measured and when the firm gets paid

    Now. if a public official fails, little happens.
    But with proper competition, profit motive produces much higher standards.

    Because no results, means no cash

    And prisoners win and we win

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I know a senior nurse who works in a mental health unit (on suicide watch).

    She tells me they are introducing payment by results!

    God knows what effect this will have on caring professions.

    I think the Tory boys want the accountants running every aspect of our lives (those who know the price of everything, value of nothing).

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Sorry but this government are just trying to finish off thatchers dirty work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    How long will it be before the mantra that private sector is best is finally challanged properly?

    How many fiascos?
    How many service reductions for increased costs?
    How many knowledge drains from public sector creating a spiral of dependancy?
    How many massive profits and bonus's to the bosses?

    Probably when MPs who are mates with the heads of these companies stop getting elected!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Sounds like a re-run of 'payment by results' for the dodgy private firms supposedly finding work for the unemployed.

    Tens of millions pocketed by the people running the private firms. Less people found work than when just left to their own efforts. Not a single new job created.

    This is just another scheme to redistribute tax payers money to the private sector chums of the tory government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.


    You just don’t get do you

    You are paying through the nose for Gas, Electric, Water, Trains and a lot more, these services may not be better than they were but they sure are more expensive

    This pay for performance has so far fail to deliver results

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Perhaps someone like G4S could organise training classes to prevent reoffending. Locksmith courses for burglars, double entry bookkeeping for embezzlers, Karate classes for muggers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    28. Sixp

    Given the current system is abysmal and we have some of the highest re-offender rates in Europe, can it get much worse?

    Labour were truly inept at controlling business but it doesn't mean the coalition will be too.

    At least they are starting off on a good foot with a payment by results scheme. Something that Labour never did in their 13 years of power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.


    It doesn't work. Ever. Stop it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Not a good idea = system doesn't work = create another so that you have 2 - likely both dyfunctional, overlapping, & confusing.
    A good idea = when a system doesn't = improve the one you got.
    With austere economy, recidivism will be high because there are few jobs open to persons with a record. This suggests greater need for probationary counselling = increase officers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

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

    So what skills do the private sector have? Oh yeah they will TUPE some folks over from the Public sector, but not all, and ask them to do more work. Then their profit comes from the saved wages.

    So if the private sector want's to chop say 10%, why don't we keep it public and chop 10% ourselves?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Oh dear here we go again public service bad private service good

    The pilot study for this idea has yet to be evaluated so why the rush to implement

    Oh yea silly me someone is going to make a lot of money out of it and then make a large donation to a like minded political party just before the next election

    Are that all makes sense now

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Wonder which politicians have friends and family in the private probation game?

    Disaster and a public ripoff in the making.

    Another step on the downward spiral for society.


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