September 28 2023

On the privatisation of probation

On the privatisation of probation

And so the government has taken its next big step in the rehabilitation revolution and it is another consultation. Yet despite the fact that this is the second such consultation on reforming probation services in just under a year, there remains a disturbing lack of detail on how the government intends to implement this complicated and radical agenda.

To begin with, listening to the Justice Secretary today and reading much of the consultation, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that the overwhelming focus of the announcement was on short sentenced prisoners. This is because the reoffending rate which has been frequently cited as the rationale for these reforms is that of prisoners serving sentences of under 12 months, 57.6% of whom go on to reoffend within a year.

A lack of detail
Yet in reality the vast majority of the document deals with the privatisation of probation. Citing the 57.6% figure is meaningless within this context because probation does not currently offer services to those short sentenced prisoners leaving custody. It would be more helpful to focus on the reoffending rate of 34.1% for those on court orders, unless of course you are trying to paint a picture of probation performance that is far worse than the reality.

Digging deeper behind this misleading use of statistics reveals more worrying detail (or lack of) again. The one striking policy commitment to come out of today’s announcement does indeed cover short sentenced prisoners, even if it is covered in only a handful of paragraphs. This is the announcement that the Ministry of Justice does intend to expand probation services so that those released from short prison sentences do receive some support where none is currently received.

Ostensibly this might be welcomed, although there is no recognition that short prison sentences themselves are damaging and play a part in the high reoffending rates.

But even if we accept the government’s intentions on its own terms it is wholly unclear how the Ministry of Justice can expand the reach of probation even as it is seeking £2bn in departmental savings by 2014/15. And this all before the forthcoming spending review which will likely take another dent from the department’s budget. 

The only way to read this commitment and the lack of any detail (such as a timescale) is that it remains an aspiration heavily dependent on securing savings that somehow escape the Treasury’s clutches. ‘Pigs’ and ‘flying’ come to mind.

Of course as said earlier, much of this consultation actually deals with those serving community orders and the privatisation of provision for those orders. But even here there is a range of troublesome issues that the consultation does little to answer.

For example, by separating prospective ‘clients’ into different groups based on their risk of offending, with individuals on low/medium risk going to market and high risk offenders staying in the public sector, the government is creating an artificial divide that does not pay attention to the dynamic nature of risk. It is asking private providers to work against their commercial interests in identifying when an individual is moving up the risk scale, and potentially back into the public sector.

Yet it is also asking the probation service to continue to make initial risk assessments and advise providers on risk management despite the fact that probation staff will arguably lose the necessary skills and experience because they are no longer working closely with the vast majority of people in the system.

Payment by results
Providers will be paid by payment by results, which continues to pose its own host of difficult questions. The Howard League has raised concerns that payment by results will encourage ‘cherry-picking’ among providers, as well as concerns about the measurement of success. For example, the Ministry of Justice is insisting on using a binary ‘yes/no’ measure of reoffending rather than a more sophisticated measure that captures the severity and frequency of reoffending, although the department acknowledges their chosen measure is crude and open to manipulation.

This consultation is now the third where the government has acknowledged the danger that providers may focus on the easiest cases in order to secure results. We are no closer to knowing what measures they will take to militate against this.

Other contradictions and lacunae abound. Privatisation will be based on the national commissioning model found in the Work Programme, the success of which has been far from clear. Commissioning from the centre will then focus on 16 contract areas, each large enough to get ‘economies of scale’ and to ensure that payment by results can measure ‘significant changes in reoffending rates’. Yet at the same time, it is hoped that this national commissioning can be ‘locally responsive’ and that the 16 contract areas will somehow ‘align’ with the 41 Police and Crime Commissioners, in order to facilitate ‘co-commissioning’.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Ministry of Justice there must be a map of the country with a great deal of red lines criss-crossing it.

The privatisation of probation may seem a clear if contestable policy goal but in reality today’s announcement from the Ministry of Justice contains so many contradictory and confusing elements that the government’s justice reforms are fast in danger of becoming a dog’s breakfast.