The great probation sell-off

Richard Garside
Thursday, 19 September 2013

Today marks the next stage in the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, with the launch of the competition to deliver the bulk of probation work in England and Wales.

The contracts, split into 21 areas across England and Wales, are worth an estimated £450 million a year. The results of the competition are due to be announced next year, with the new contracts being rolled out during 2015.

Successful bidders will be responsible for the majority of future probation caseloads: the so-called 'low-' and 'medium-' risk individuals serving community sentences, as well as those released from prison at the end of their sentence. The Probation Service will be responsible for the much smaller 'high-risk' group.

As part of the plans, first announced in the Transforming Rehabilitation strategy document published in May this year, the Probation Service also faces major structural change. A new 'public sector probation service', directly managed by the Ministry of Justice, is to replace the 35 Probation Trusts, themselves only set up in 2008. 

The Probation Trusts, only a year ago seen as central to the government's plans to contract out probation work, have been sidelined and face an uncertain future at best.

The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling today claims in a Ministry of Justice press release that the 'scale of interest in these contracts from so many diverse and creative organisations is extremely encouraging. This is great news for the public who will finally benefit from the best of the private and voluntary sectors, working together with the public sector, to cut reoffending'.

Ian Lawrence, acting general secretary of the probation and family courts staff union Napo, is unconvinced. Quoted in this morning's Guardian, he claims the plans put public safety at risk:

'If it's not bad enough that this government doesn't care about jobs, professionalism and people's livelihoods, not caring about public safety is a downright disgrace and a total failure on their part to fulfil their duty to society.'

Probation staff are due to stage a walk out today in protest.

To understand the government's thinking on the great probation sell-off, it is important to keep in mind at least two related issues:

  • the government's priorities in relation to public sector reform in general; and
  • the perceived failings of the existing National Offender Management Service structures, including the Probation Service, in particular.

On the first of these, the government is committed to a dual priority of public sector reform and the creation of more business opportunities for the private sector. As the prime minister and deputy prime minister explained in their joint Foreword to the coalition's mid-term review:

'Dealing with the deficit may have been our first task, but our most important task is to build a stronger, more balanced economy capable of delivering lasting growth and widely shared prosperity. In essence, this involves two things: growing the private sector, and reforming the public sector so that what the Government does – and the money it spends – boosts, rather than undermines, Britain’s competitiveness'.

From this standpoint, the great probation sell-off ticks both boxes: an offender management marketplace in which the private sector can bid for business and a reformed public sector probation service.

On the second of these, an emerging consensus on the perceived failings of the National Offender Management Service structure in general and the Probation Service in particular has been been apparent for some time.

These perceived failings, it should be added, relate to the ability of the existing structures to service the new offender management marketplace, rather than in any necessary failings in day-to-day operations. As the Probation Association and Probation Chiefs Association pointed out in their joint response to theTransforming Rehabilitation consultation, the Probation Service is the first and only public service to receive the British Quality Foundation’s gold medal for excellence, and has been judged as consistently high-performing by the Ministry of Justice’s own measures.

A National Audit Office report on the National Offender Management Service in September 2012 noted that Probation Trusts, while central to the Ministry of Justice's commissioning agenda had a ‘fundamentally different relationship’ to the department as independent, local bodies. This point was picked up as problematic by a report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in March 2013. In the same report the Committee also stated that it was:

'not convinced that probation trusts have the infrastructure and skills they need to commission probation services'.

In a separate report, the House of Commons Justice Committee, argued that the existing National Offender Management Service structure was ‘inadequate’ and that previous attempts to bring prisons and probation closer together had been 'little more than a sticking plaster'. It added:

'We have long argued that the difficulties NOMS has experienced in reducing reoffending are inherent in its current structure and that there should be a more ambitious integrated system of offender management involving the commissioning of both prison and probation services in defined geographical areas'.

In short, the way the Ministry of Justice is going about the great probation sell off is about preparing the public sector to support the creation of an offender management marketplace, delivering both on the government's high level priorities and addressing perceived weaknesses in current structures.

Having sought in the first two years of coalition government to adapt the marketplace to the existing prison and probation structures, the Ministry of Justice is now embarked on doing the opposite: adapting prison and probation structures to the offender management marketplace.

For those who see the current plans as little short of irresponsible this makes little sense.

There is, though, an underlying logic at work.