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 88.

    @ 41.James Murray
    You are wrong on ALL counts.
    1/ This isn't a consultation, it's going ahead
    2/ The present system is not a shambles, its internationally admired
    3/ The profit motive won't change a damn thing, as it is not a proper market
    4/ Payment will be given whatever the outcome, only extra payments will be withheld.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    How about we apply payment by results to the Government.

    If inflation goes over 2% The Treasury ministers take a pay cut.
    If crime figures go up the Home Secretary is penalized.
    If unemployment rises etc. etc. etc.

    I'm all for it after all we are all in it together!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Sounding really dull on this.The biggest problem is procurement process. Public sector lawyers are generally massively outgunned by a private sector company so then there is a bad deal done for the taxpayer .However, if the public sector does a very good deal then it is pushes the private company into bankruptcy. either way it is lose lose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Just another example of the Public Sector being sacrificed to the private firms who already have their fingers in too many pies! Is it just me or do these initiatives always end up costing the taxpayer more for less of a service.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    does anyone need saving from a rottwieler today that is not dangerous?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Offenders should be sentenced to custody. They should carry out private sector work that requires completing for the good of the public. Nationally or internationally. The money made by them completing such work should pay for their stay in custody and a proportion should go to the victims of their crime. Once the is sentence is complete they should be rehabilitated by both probation and private.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    don't make no difference if you're in or out the place is run like a 70's geordie borstal already.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    I forget who said, 'The State is the only legitimate user of force'. Despite misgivings, I'm prepared to accept that, in a reasonably civilised nation like the UK. But to have my liberty restricted by employees of a private company? That's a very slippery slope, and I would fight it every inch of the way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Give the contract to Atos. They can make seriously ill people miraculously better just by talking to them for half an hour and making them touch their toes so they can definitely stop ingrained criminals commiting crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I would let all the prisoners out

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    My main concern is that the government feel the secret to success will be down to contract negotiation. Their ability to negotiate a contract that is in our favour seems beyond them. I see Serco is named. How can they be given a lucrative contract when their provision of out of hours cover in Cornwall is so bad they have apparently been massaging the statistics and lives have been put at risk,

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.


    If it is about reducing the number of re-offenders then look to Scandinavia and see how they do it. They've got one of the lowest rates in Europe.

    What certainly does not help is e.g. insurers refusing cover and other exclusions for people "conviced" of something. They've often got nothing to lose so they won't care.
    Give them something to lose and they'll be under pressure to behave.


  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Privatisation of the probation service is only good for the few fat-cat businessmen who will take it over and make a profit from the tax-payer.

    Tells you everything you need to know - we'll be paying through the nose for somebody to get richer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.


    Of course I'm not saying that, what I am saying that if someone has fallen into a live of crime for whatever reason (normally abuse, drugs, mental health problems or a combination), then it will be much harder for them to get out of it if they don't have support and therefore there is a higher chance of them reoffending which is good for noone, especially not decent citizens.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    This government must be stopped now.
    Privatisation is notba cheaper option.
    How hard is it going to be to renationalise once a foreign company gets its claws into a service the public purse pays for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    72. And_here_we_go_again

    oh, so what you're saying is unless you have training, help, support, crime is a perfectly acceptable course of action?

    the poor things had nothing else they can do so they turned to crime. good job not everyone in this country does that eh?

    its about time we started rewarding decent citizens in this country instead of continually focusing on criminals

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.



    So ex-prisoners have to pay money they earn after leaving prison to the prison service, but they still have no education because prison is about punishment and have had no help with their addictions or mental problems, so they don't get a job so how do they get this money? Oh yes, through crime - they know how to do that! So the circle of life continues.

    Better to at least try

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    At last the UK's weak and spineless probation service is addressed. It has long needed sorting out, as it molly-coddled criminals and the high degree of criminal recividism was no surpise.

    Another smart move by D Cameron

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    This is a Govt that loves buck passing - as long as the Posh Boys can pin the blame onto their servants they are happy, that is why they keep creating over-seeing Bodies (Quangos, which they wanted to burn), so that just like the West Coast Fiasco they can come out smelling of roses that their sycophantic Press dance to their every whim, they will continue to go unchallenged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Just more relentless privatisation to provide money for corporations and firms, relentless globalisation driven from abroad by the global empire philosophy.

    Everything, (everything) to be corporate profit for the few.

    End globalisation!!


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