The government recently released its plans to outsource more than half of its rehabilitation services to the private and voluntary sector. Rob Allen notes that the scale and speed of the change in how services are delivered will be substantial, and that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has not thus far had to argue for substantive new legal provisions, nor has he had to worry much about whether his plans add up or are deliverable.
September was a sad month for the Probation service with the government’s launch of a competition which will see more than half of its work outsourced to the private and voluntary sector from 2015 onwards. Almost half a billion pounds worth of rehabilitation services each year will be contracted out to Community Rehabilitation Companies in one of the most ambitious reforms to criminal justice services certainly since the first private prison opened in 1992; probably longer given the scale of the proposed changes.
Arguably, the invitation for bidders to register their interest was just as sad for our system of governance and public administration which has been unable to subject the far reaching plans to any but the most superficial form of scrutiny. Many of those who work in and support the Probation service are asking how it is that a hundred year old public institution can in effect be dismantled at the whim of one here today, gone tomorrow politician; Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.
It’s true that the Coalition Agreement promised the introduction of a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ that would pay independent providers to reduce re-offending. But it was only when Grayling replaced Ken Clarke last autumn that plans emerged not only to bring these new providers into the system but to refashion the fundamentals of the system itself. Thirty five regional public bodies – Probation Trusts – will be replaced by twenty one companies, whose owners will emerge through the competition that was announced last month. There will still be public probation – a national service which will be created to supervise the highest risk offenders and to provide advice to courts and the Parole board about their decisions – which henceforth assumes a commercial consequence.
The lack of challenge to Grayling’s controversial proposals by the Coalition partners or within Parliament may partly reflect sleight of hand. “We’re bringing in the best of the private and the voluntary sectors to reinforce what the public sector does”, Grayling wrote on the Conservative Home blog recently, in line with a narrative suggesting a modest common sense adjustment to improve effectiveness. In fact, unlike most policies which promise a transformation and deliver somewhat less, the scale and speed of the change in how services are delivered will be substantial. But through failings in our system of checks and balances, there has been very little examination of whether and how they will actually work, let alone produce any better outcomes.
One reason for the relative lack of parliamentary scrutiny is that the Government has not had to pass any new law to sell off the bulk of probation work, relying on the provisions of the Offender Management Act 2007 which were legislated during the Blair administration to open up the probation market. Labour have belatedly questioned whether these provisions do in fact give Grayling the powers he needs, arguing that what was intended to drive largely local commissioning of services cannot be used instead to underwrite a wholesale national competition. Given the significance of the proposals, the legislative basis surely needs to be tested in front of a judge.
The government does have an Offender Rehabilitation Bill currently in Parliament, but its main purpose as far as the probation changes are concerned, is to extend supervision after release from prison to those serving sentences of less than 12 months. The government is arguably jumping the gun by including within the proposed new contracts the supervision of these short term prisoners for which there is as yet no statutory basis. They might reasonably point to the clauses in the Bill which in due course would give it such a basis; but they would also need then to acknowledge the Bill’s first clause – passed as an amendment by a concerned House of Lords – which requires that no alteration or reform of the structure of the probation service can be made unless the proposals have been laid before, and approved by resolutions of both Houses of Parliament.
If Grayling has not thus far had to argue for substantive new legal provisions, nor has he had to worry much about whether his plans add up or are deliverable. Thanks to a leak, it is known that the Ministry of Justice consider some aspects of the policy to be at high risk of failing. As the minister responsible, he could presumably ignore these departmental concerns. But what of the Major Projects Authority set up by the Coalition in the Cabinet office at the behest of the Public Accounts Committee to blow the whistle – within government at least – on such risks? One wonders if it has given the plans the green light. In particular it would be interesting to know whether it has had the chance to consider the impact of a policy which could give multi-million pound contracts to companies being investigated for alleged fraudulent behaviour and potential overcharging on existing criminal justice programmes. What are the odds on the hapless Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice being hauled over the coals by the Public Accounts Committee long after Grayling has moved on to answer for the wastefulness emerging from what many consider a rushed and grandiose scheme.
If Grayling has had an easy ride on the legality and structures of his reforms, it’s not been much harder on the penological content. Until, that is, last week when his department’s researchers published a summary of evidence on reducing re-offending to accompany the contracting documents. It reveals that the effectiveness of mentoring offenders coming out of prison – the apparent cornerstone of Grayling’s rehabilitative philosophy - is “mixed/promising”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. By contrast, what the evidence does show are some general characteristics of effective work with offenders, whatever the nature of the programme. These are the importance of skilled and trained practitioners, well-sequenced, holistic approaches and the delivery of high quality services and interventions in a joined-up, integrated manner. In the views of many experts, progress in all of these areas would be much more likely by building on the experience of Probation Trusts and their local partners rather than creating yet another elaborate set of structures.
Others take a different view. But should we not all agree that at the very least the arguments for and against deserve much more comprehensive and detailed examination than they have so far received.
A version of this article was originally published on the Reforming Prisons blog.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Rob Allen works on prison reform in the UK and internationally. From 2005 to 2010 he was director of the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS) at King’s College London, undertaking research on imprisonment and assisting prison systems to comply with international standards.