Jeremy Beecham on a government that continues to be ideologically-led on probation
Ministers are yet again pressing ahead with sweeping changes before any legislation has been passed – this time by making arrangements to dismember the Prison Service. The proposals amount to a structure so complex and confusing, it is reminiscent of the expensive top-down reorganisation the Coalition government imposed on the NHS. Local probation trusts are being removed and replaced by a national service responsible for ‘high risk’ offenders, while private companies supervise medium and ‘low risk’ offenders.
But what are these categories between which some 25-30% of offenders move? And how are they defined? Will a motoring offence count the same as a burglary or crime of violence? The National Probation Service is given responsibility for deciding those who move from the lower categories to high risk by using an ‘actuarial tool’ combined with a ‘clinical judgement of risk’. Ministers need to explain what these terms mean and what each category of offences contains.
The hierarchy of new officer positions created – a Responsible Officer, a Supervising Officer, and a Supervisor – will no doubt pile complexity upon confusion and fragmentation. Police and Crime Commissioners also feature in the new hierarchy. But crucially, local authorities, CCGS and NHS England are all absent, despite the latter having responsibility for commissioning primary care and mental health services.
£450m worth of contracts are to be offered to providers, including Group4 and Serco, who gave us the Olympics fiasco, the tagging scandal, Oakwood Prison and the transport to prison of male and female prisoners in the same van. But this should come as no surprise from the Secretary of State responsible for the lamentable failure of the Work Programme. No doubt he would be happy to see them take over the entire system from policing to the court service, probation to prisons. As Caliban might have said: “Oh Brave New World that has such providers in it”.
The government has offered no estimate of the number of probation officers who will lose their jobs, when 70% of their work is transferred. But estimates suggest 18,000.
The proposals continue to be vague about the system of payment by results that is intended to dictate these contracts. Stating that “a proportion of their payment will be at risk and dependent on their performance”, while failing to establish the basis on which that will be measured. Or indeed what proportion might be involved. Nowhere does the government explain the basis on which they might deduct a proportion of the fee should a provider underperform or miss its stated targets.
Liz Calderbank, the former Chief Inspector of Probation warned of the government’s plans that “only a small part of the contract price can be genuinely dependent on a re-offending measure”. Warning also that the system of national commissioning designed by the government would lead to small local voluntary organisations being squeezed out, potentially “at the expense of the local perspective”.
Despite the new layers of bureaucracy, the complex hierarchy, and vague terminology, the government claims that the programme will involve no extra expenditure. Despite also estimating that it will result in some 200,000 offenders coming under its auspice,. 60,000 of whom are likely to be recalled into custody. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice’s own risk assessment estimated a 51%-80% risk that predicted cost savings will not be met.
What is the basis for this improbable assertion? Payment by results has not had a full pilot. The then Lords Minister Lord McNally admitted in a debate on the Bill that formal evaluations were not available because the pilots were discontinued but claimed the government had “learned from the process of designing the pilots” – the design seemed more important than the results.
The government’s objective to reduce re-offending is the right goal. But its proposals are complex, uncosted and potentially risky. They should be properly piloted and probation trusts should be allowed to tender for the work for which they have a deservedly high reputation. By railroading through their ill-conceived plans, Ministers are putting ideology before criminology in an area where public safety should be paramount.
Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham
Published 21st January 2016