Comment: why is outsourcing wrong?


With the memory of the G4S debacle at the beginning of the summer still sore, today’s news that the government plans to outsource huge swathes of the probation service will be met by cynicism and concern.

British government use of the private sector to run services has had a difficult history. However, the justice secretary Chris Grayling still aims to hand control of low to mid level offenders to private companies and charities. The most high-risk offenders will continue to be the responsibility of the public probation service.

The contracts will be run on the basis of “payment by results” and will be offered to private companies and charities.

Some may urge that it is not right that the aim of lowering re-offending rates could become motivated by profit. This moral objection argues that the probation service is a public good that should not be a means for private companies to gain profit.

However, this objection in itself is not very powerful. I think most people would accept that if the private sector delivered a service at a much higher standard than the state and there was no major associating problem, then it would be correct to outsource. For example, farm and food production are necessary for the public good but very few people would argue that the state should collectivise food production (it is also worth pointing out that most people would agree that the state still has a role to play by enforcing standards and regulations).

A slightly different point is that treatment of very vulnerable people like those in prison should not become an area for profit making. In their bid to make profits, companies will treat prisoners like cogs in the machine and less compassionately. But, there is no reason to think that a state probation service and the targets slapped onto it from on high, is necessarily better in this regard. Ultimately, the greatest good for offenders will occur if they are rehabilitated.

Of central importance is whether the private or charity sectors are better when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners. As it stands 58% of offenders sent to prison for less than a year, re-offend.  For issues as significant as public safety and rehabilitation, good evidence is required to believe the proposed changes would do better.

The “payment by results” scheme is being piloted, but the results have not been made public; it is difficult to say whether such a scheme works.

As Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has said:

“Payment by results in criminal justice is untested, and the Tory-led government are taking a reckless gamble with public safety.

“Pilots were already under way to see if payment by results worked and to ensure any problems were ironed out before being rolled out. The new justice secretary, Chris Grayling, is demonstrating breathtaking arrogance in choosing to ignore the pilots.”

For a party that is founded on the idea that a government should be weary of change for change’s sake it is surprising that the Conservative party are pursuing something that has so little evidence underlying it.

A further problem is that the distinction between low to mid risk offenders and high-risk offenders is not clear-cut.  As Geoff Dobson of the Prison Reform Trust writes:

“The proposed model fails to recognise that circumstances can change abruptly. Thus, someone who is deemed to be of low or medium risk could suddenly become high risk, and staff in the contracted organisation may not be equipped to recognise that and, even if they did, would then presumably need to arrange a hurried transfer back into the public sector. This could be a bureaucratic nightmare, with public safety under threat.”

Another significant issue is what happens when a company fails to deliver and the state is left to foot the bill. For example, G4S failed to fulfil its contract for the Olympic Games and soldiers had to be brought in to fill the gaps. If organisations that take over the probation service fail then the consequences for offenders and the public will be drastic. Of course it will be the state and the public that will ultimately pay for higher re-offending rates. It will also be offenders who are let down by such a failed privatisation policy.

In conclusion, it can be said that such a proposal requires greater research and that any move to introduce such radical outsourcing should be resisted. There are very serious problems that could occur if the coalition’s policy fails and there is not enough evidence to support implementing it.

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