Jeremy Beecham on the government’s poorly thought out plans for the Probation Service
After the ‘triumph’ of his Work Programme – a 3% success rate in placing benefit claimants into jobs – Chris Grayling has turned his attention to the Probation Service. The ex-SDP Lord Chancellor plans a massive restructuring of a successful service which has not only met or exceeded all of its targets but also won the British Quality Foundation Gold Medal for Excellence, for its achievements over many years.
Grayling proposes to centralise the service, currently run by 35 trusts; and to then put the work out to tender in 21 areas. There is some talk of mutualisation, but the intention is clear: to privatise the delivery of an essential public service in a sensitive area of public and social policy. What’s more, the service will be precluded from bidding for, let alone carrying out, the supervision of offenders released after serving short sentences. Instead, the work will also be thrown open to the market in an untested ‘payment by results’ system. Grayling actually cancelled two pilot schemes and has refused an FOI request for details of their evaluation.
Neither of these two massive changes is included in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, which merely sets up the system of supervision and the requirements to be followed by the offenders. The government believes, incredibly, that there will be no cost in extending supervision to short sentence offenders. And Ministers have yet to indicate whether this would apply to all of them, for example those sentenced for motoring offences or other crimes unlikely to be repeated.
Much more seriously, they are splitting responsibility for supervision between what they call ‘low and medium risk’ and ‘high risk’ offenders, with probation only dealing with the latter. Yet a quarter of the current caseload change category, with an estimated 15,000 cases last year moving into higher risk. It’s entirely unclear how this will be managed, and we could be dealing with offenders who have committed violent crime, including sex crimes and domestic violence – a high proportion of whom are categorised as medium or low risk!
The Bill was accompanied by the flimsiest impact analysis since the Coalition government took office – quite an achievement in itself. The slapdash approach was illustrated by Grayling’s comparison of reoffending rates for those who serve longer sentences with the worse record of those on short sentences. He appears to have overlooked the fact that while the former are looked after on release by the Probation Service, it has not been allowed to engage with those on short sentences.
So, its roll on Group 4, Serco and the like – no doubt dressing up their tenders with a bit of voluntary sector bid candy. Although the latter could have a valuable role alongside probation, they are likely to find, as with the Work Programme, that they won’t get much of a look in.
Labour will be seeking to ensure that any proposals to change the probation system and introduce payment by results require parliamentary approval after proper piloting – and we will table amendments to this effect. We will also seek more details of how the provisions, so sketchily outlined in this serial offender’s prospectus, would actually work.
Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords
Published 5th June 2013