Serial offenders

Jeremy BeechamJeremy Beecham on the government’s ill-thought through plans for the probation service

The Tories’ mania for privatising public services is long-standing. From the sell- off of the utilities and rail in the Thatcher era to the current “get it at a knock-down price” flotation of Royal Mail and the sale of the East Coast line the story remains the same. Consumers and the workforce pay the price and the buyers, often foreign-owned (sometimes nationalised!) reap the benefits.

Now following the costly market-driven reorganisation of the NHS and the botched Work Programme, the same principle is being followed in the sensitive area of probation. Much of the substance of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill is welcome, but Ministers have chosen to proceed with the privatisation of 70% of the probation service on the basis of an untested payment by results system. What’s worse is that they are doing so without seeking parliamentary approval despite a Lords amendment requiring them to do so and before the Bill has even been considered by MPs.

So the government has begun the procurement process under EU procedures and recently published a ‘Target Operating Model’, which sets out a complex structure analogous to the confusing shambles which they’ve imposed on the NHS. Local probation trusts disappear to be replaced by a National Probation Service responsible for ‘high risk’ offenders and private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs)will supervise ‘medium and low risk’ offenders including, for the first time, those released from custody after serving short sentences of a year or less.

The system of payment by results is far from clear, the document announcing only that a “proportion of their payment will be at risk and dependent on their” undefined “performance”. And the Probation Service will not be allowed to tender.

Nothing is said about the qualifications of staff or the overall cost of adding thousands of offenders to those receiving supervision. Ludicrously, all offenders released from custody after as little as one day will be included in the contracts. The document refers to the involvement of Police and Crime Commissioners in the process, but not local authorities, Clinical Commissioning Groups or NHS England (which commissions mental health services and GPs).

There are also serious concerns about the largely undefined risk categories. Around 25% of offenders change category, and the National Probation Service is supposed to assume responsibility for those moving from the lower categories to high risk. This is supposed to follow the deployment of “an actuarial tool” combined with “a clinical judgement of risk”. What is meant by the latter is entirely unclear. It surely cannot mean a judgement made by clinicians.

The document goes on to set out a hierarchy of officer roles – a Responsible Officer, a Supervising Officer, and a Supervisor each with differing tasks.

Similar vagueness and complexity surround the welcome notion of resettlement prisons. That should mean prisoners nearing the end of their sentence do so close to home, except that given the pattern of provision it is difficult to see how this can be achieved. Prisons in the North East for example, house a substantial proportion of offenders from elsewhere. Moreover the document is entirely unclear about what fees will be paid to CRCs for the resettlement service, and again makes no mention of councils or the health sector as crucial partners in resettlement.

While the government’s objectives in reducing re-offending are right, their proposals are complex, confusing, uncosted and potentially risky. They should be properly piloted, and at the very least probation trusts should be allowed to tender for work for which they have a deservedly high reputation. If Ministers press on with their ill-thought out plans it will be because they have decided to put ideology before criminology in an area where public safety should be paramount.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords

Published 16th October 2013

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