Let them fail

Far from trying to rescue the struggling privatised probation companies, the government should let them fail, Richard Garside argues

Richard Garside
Thursday, 27 October, 2016

In its structure, planning, delivery and financing, probation across England and Wales faces major problems.

These are problems created by government, through the ill-advised ‘transforming rehabilitation’ programme.

Whatever its original intent, this programme is sabotaging, rather than transforming, probation work across England and Wales.

A problem foretold

Many of the problems faced by the fragmented probation services across England and Wales were foretold by the House of Commons Justice Committee, in a report back January 2014.

Across a range of areas – programme design and definition of outcome, programme costings, transition planning and professional buy-in, to name but a few – the Committee’s report raised significant concerns and questions.

Things fall apart

Assessments published over recent months have vindicated the Committee's judgement. These include:

  • an April 2016 report by the National Audit Office, which highlighted a yawning gap between the estimated caseload volumes the private 'Community Rehabilitation Companies' (CRC) used to cost up their bids, and the actual caseload volumes they are working with;
  • a September 2016 report by the Public Accounts Committee, which found that delivery of probation services across England and Wales has become mixed and patchy, when it is not chaotic and inadequate;
  • a September 2016 report by the Probation Inspectorate into services for criminalised women, which identified a dramatic decline in the quality and provision of services;
  • and an October 2016 joint report by the Inspectorates of Probation and Prison on resettlement services for prisoners on short sentences. This report found that services were 'poor' and that 'there was little to commend' about them.

Earlier this month, the Financial Times reported that ‘almost every contract to provide probation services... is lossmaking’. Talks to resolve the problems faced by the CRCs had stalled, the paper also noted.

Market failure

The problems facing the CRCs are only likely to grow over time. At best, the government's current approach appears to revolve around attempting to make a badly-designed system work slightly less badly. The risk is that it will simply entrench the existing dysfunctions.

Instead, the government should embrace, not evade, the implications of market failure. The CRCs are struggling because the market in probation services, constructed by the former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, was an ill-judged ideological experiment detached from the reality of how probation works in practice.

The government should take decisive action to draw a line under the mistakes of the past and to place probation on a coherent and sustainable footing.

Contracts with the CRCs should be brought to a close as soon as possible, to be replaced by a unified, public sector probation service, organised locally/regionally and coordinated nationally.

If the penalties for ending the CRC contracts early prove too costly, the government should adopt an incremental approach, bringing the CRCs back into public hands as they fail or surrender their contracts.

Things can get better

It is worth recalling that before the government embarked on the transforming rehabilitation programme, every probation area had been rated as excellent or very good.

It is possible for probation to recover its position as a good public service. But only if it is freed from the failed privatisation experiment so foolishly imposed upon it.