Would you hand supervision of offenders to companies with no experience of providing probation services?

The government's plans to sell-off the probation service will be pushed to a vote on today by Labour MPs.

Jenny Chapman MP is a shadow justice minister

The government’s plans to sell-off the probation service will be pushed to a vote on today by Labour MPs.

Supervision of the majority of offenders in the community will be handed over to companies with no experience of providing probation services, some of which are themselves currently subject to criminal investigation for fraud.

Probation reform needs to be piloted so that mistakes can be put right. But there has been no piloting, no evaluation and no effort to check if this actually works, how well it works, or how it could work better. Instead the justice secretary has given us a personal assurance that he just ‘believes’ this is the right way to go. 

Although the government insists that companies will be paid only for what works, the majority of the cost will be paid up front regardless of performance. The government still do not know how expensive the new arrangements will be. The Ministry of Justice is about to sign the tax payer up to contracts worth 450 million lasting seven to 10 years without trialling the new arrangements. This isn’t just irresponsible, it’s downright risky.

Reoffending rates in this country are too high, with 46 per cent of criminals reoffending after release; but those supervised by Probation officers have a much lower chance of reoffending. Probation is a tough job that prevents crime and protects the public.

The justice secretary assures the public that only low and medium risk offenders will be supervised by the new providers. What he knows but doesn’t say is that low and medium risk offenders include those who have committed burglary, violence against the person, sexual assault, domestic violence and more. This is a high risk strategy that the government’s own assessment predicts will result in a drop in performance.

The plans will see the service broken up. When risk quickly escalates the offender will have to be passed between providers. This creates unnecessary bureaucracy, delay and confusion at exactly the moment when an offender poses the highest risk of harm.

The secretary of state wants to complete the sale of Probation services by May 2015. He knows no new government would contemplate pursuing such a dangerous initiative.

This is not an informed practical deadline, but a political cut-off point. His timetable has been described by an ex-chief inspector of prisons as ‘bearing no relation to practical reality’, while the chairs of at least three Probation Trust Boards have written to the secretary of state individually to warn him that he must slow down or risk serious public protection failures.

Those implementing the reforms do not ‘just believe’.

The House of Lords voted to stop the justice’s secretary half-baked plans, and Labour MPs want to do the same when the Offender Rehabilitation Bill reaches committee stage today.

With proper piloting and a realistic timetable, in collaboration with experienced practitioners, we could devise a new probation system that would supervise all offenders well and cut crime as well as costs. The government is wrong to miss that opportunity.

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