It is stretching it somewhat to claim that Transforming Rehabilitation, the Ministy of Justice blueprint for probation privatisation, makes for interesting reading. Like most documents by most governments over the years it combines turgid prose with a generous dose of hyperbole and a light dusting of mendacity.
Yet the reader prepared to sift through the tailings will find him- or herself rewarded with the discovery of an interesting nugget or two. For instance, consider the following, from page 31:
'We will ensure that contract package areas do not cut across either PCC or Local Authority boundaries and align as closely as possible with the Work Programme.'
'Contract package areas', for those happily unaware of such bureaucratic speak, are the geographical blocks across England and Wales that are the basis for the big probation sell-off. Ultimately each contract package area will have a single prime contractor - mostly from the private sector - managing a network of sub-contractors delivering probation interventions in the area.
Those who follow these debates might not find the reference to Police and Crime Commissioners or Local Authority boundaries surprising. But what of the reference to the Work Programme?
Since March 2012 released prisoners in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance are referred immediately to the Work Programme. This has not been a conspicuously successful policy to date, as Russell Webster points out in an assessment of the latest data. But if the government is committed to a range of enforcement and supervision arrangements for released prisoners - both criminal justice and beyond - doing its best to align the geography of local delivery has a commonsense appeal.
With the exception of Scotland, which is not part of the Transforming Rehabiliation plans, the resulting alignment of contract package areas is pretty close.
Transforming Rehabilitation Contract Package Areas
Work Programme Contract Package Areas
|Source: Transforming Rehabilitation: A Strategy for Reform, page 31.||Source: Work Programme Contract Package Area and Prime Providers|
But there is more to this alignment between the Work Programme and Transforming Rehabilitation areas than a desire for tidy boundaries. The current Justice Secretary Chris Grayling was previously the Work and Pensions Minister with responsibility for the Work Programme. He will have brought his experience of the Work Programme roll-out, including how they carved up the delivery boundaries, with him to the Ministry of Justice.
Marketplaces for public services do not arise spontaneously. They have to be constructed by the government. It is not easy to get this right. Create too many small areas for the private sector to compete in and you risk driving up the costs as companies will not feel they can achieve the necessary economies of scale. Commissioners - whether central or local - can also be left with a proliferation of contracts to oversee, making effective management and enforcement difficult.
On the other hand, make the areas too big and you risk creating monopolies, with a few large companies hoovering up all the business and overcharging for their services.
In the case of the Work Programme the government opted for 18 contract package areas across England, Wales and Scotland. In the process they massively simplified the job of managing the resulting contracts, as the Public Accounts Committee pointed out in a report in September 2012. Comparing the Work Programme contracting arrangements with those that operated under Labour's 'New Deal' employment programme the Committee noted:
'It has reduced the number of contracts it oversees. Under the New Deal there were 1,300 contracts and 600 contractors compared to the Work Programme's 18 contractors and 40 contracts.'
That is some simplification!
When Mr Grayling arrived at the Ministry of Justice, in the same month the Public Accounts Committee published its report, the existing contracting plans for what his predecessor Ken Clarke termed the 'Rehabilitation Revolution' must have looked eerily like Labour's New Deal. Six months earlier, in May 2012, Mr Clarke was challenged to justify these plans by the Conservative MP Ben Gummer, during a hearing before the House of Commons Justice Committee. It was a revealing exchange.
The Ministry of Justice, Mr Gummer said, appeared intent on 'letting a whole series of contracts' that would make it 'fiendishly difficult' to manage and determine the outcome. The Committee did not understand, he added, why the Ministry of Justice had not emulated the Work Programme, with 'very large prime contracts' and only one prime contractor for each area to manage.
Mr Clarke hedged in the face of this questioning. The system was complicated he explained. The Ministry of Justice was piloting various approaches. Modifications would be needed. Slowly and surely was the prudent course.
His successor Chris Grayling struck a markedly different note when he appeared before the same Committee in November 2012:
'In government, if you are going to be a reformer you have to bite the bullet and reform. There is a real danger that government just pilots and pilots and, in the end, nothing really happens for years.'
The new broom in the Ministry of Justice came with a blueprint developed in the Department for Work and Pensions, inspired by some key parliamentary committees and set in the context of the broader coalition government programme. Transforming Rehabilitation, in an important sense, has little to do with rehabilitation and a lot to do with a particular view on how the government should manage the marketplace in public services.
As for the long term, aligning Work Programme and Transforming Rehabilitation boundaries opens up the prospect of the same companies delivering employment, prison and probation programmes in a given area. Where this would leave the distinctive role of probation work, or indeed the important boundaries between different public services more generally, is anybody's guess.
Monday, October 7, 2013: The text above refers to the 'prime contractor' and 'sub-contractors' in each contract package area. The Ministry of Justice's prefered terminology is 'Tier 1' as the designation of the prime contractor and 'Tier 2' and 'Tier 3' to designate subcontractors. For more on this, and other jargon-busting help, check out the useful guide on the Clinks site.