14:16, May 16 34 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-16 14:16:04
The Guardian view on privatising probation: a disaster ignored

Probation services are intended to help those who have fallen foul of the law. They ought to change the lives of some of the most marginalised people in our communities. That the government thought it possible to make a profit for shareholders from this process seems beyond satire. Yet the joke was on the voters. Against repeated warnings from civil servants about the potential risks to public safety, the then justice secretary Chris Grayling rushed through a botched partial privatisation of the service in 2014.

Mr Grayling’s idea was that the rehabilitation of low-and medium-risk offenders could be done more cheaply and more effectively by the private sector. The result was as bad as many predicted. The numbers recalled to prison for breaching licence conditions skyrocketed; the taxpayer lost out to the tune of £500m; some private providers gamed the system while others went bust. The level of distrust between the judicial system and the probation service is as bad as anyone can remember.

The current justice secretary, David Gauke, made headlines on Thursday for repudiating Mr Grayling’s disastrous legacy. That is far from the reality. In the Commons, Mr Gauke made it clear that every one of the proposed 11 new regions of the National Probation Service will be “expressly required to buy all interventions from the market”. While some of these might be charities, experience suggests that most will come from big companies. It looks as if ministers are trying to recycle the ideology in a new form while pretending to be doing something more strategic.

Over decades, both Labour and Conservative governments combined to discredit the probation service’s professional ethos of “advise, assist, befriend” to such an extent that those words became despised by much of the public. Rather than encouraging voters to see that reintegrating prisoners back into the communities they lived in would be better for everyone, politicians from Michael Howard in the 1990s onwards preferred to retail inanities about how “prison works”.

This political culture has been overlaid on an administrative one which encouraged the replacement of professional judgment by a jungle of performance indicators. It is now difficult to accurately measure the reoffending rate, rather than the reconviction rate. It is unforgivable that Mr Grayling was willing to judge and pay private companies on unmeasurable results.

The government’s retreat bodes ill for a service that badly needs a strategic plan. Every offender has different needs, which must be assessed and assisted properly if the public is to be protected. A criminal record is another life sentence, crippling employment and housing opportunities.

Ministers ought to take up the approach set out by Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, who has produced an excellent roadmap for the Labour party. The crossbench peer correctly insists that probation should not have been centralised as a societal curative service. Instead it belongs at a local level and ought to be re-established in the communities it serves. His idea is to help offenders find a direction and purpose in their lives in the neighbourhoods they live in. This would bring the probation service into closer contact with other arms of the state such as the NHS. It could be directly responsive to concerns about crime in their communities. The private sector’s role, if any, could be then confined to limited tasks commissioned by the new probation authorities.

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