Privatising probation puts public safety at risk

What the government is proposing goes against everything we know about cutting re-offending

What the government is proposing goes against everything we know about cutting re-offending

If this government has its way, by next May 80 per cent of people leaving prison or on community sentences will be supervised by private companies with no track record in this area.

These companies will take over the day to day running of most of the probation service, on ten year contracts costing the taxpayer around £6billion.

All of this is happening despite no testing having been done to see if the new system will work. There’s been no piloting so we don’t know if the new way of working puts public safety at risk.

The new payment model has never been used on this scale before in criminal justice anywhere in the world.

It’s a reckless gamble that’s already leading to chaos -offenders going unsupervised, experienced staff demoralised and despairing probation officers opting to walk away.

No wonder experts, including the Ministry of Justice’s own officials, have been warning against these reforms ever since they were first announced.

I’m not saying the old way of working was perfect. Far from it. Much more needs to be done to reduce re-offending, and it is right that those on short sentences are going to get rehabilitative support instead of being left to their own devices.

But what the government is proposing goes against the grain of everything we know makes a difference in cutting re-offending.

Evidence shows that close co-operation between all of the key agencies – police, prisons, probation, local authorities, charities, employers, trainers and the private sector – really does lead to lower re-offending rates.

What doesn’t help is carving up responsibility between different agencies, which increases the likelihood of failures, leads to confusion and creates a stifling bureaucracy.

Failures in probation put public safety at risk. To guard against this, a strong, independent chief inspector of probation is a crucial check and balance to prevent things going wrong.

But Chris Grayling, in his arrogance, appointed a chief inspector with links to two of the companies that are preferred bidders for almost a third of the contracts. At a time when the chief inspector needs to be at their most vocal, serious questions are being asked about whether the current incumbent can perform the role free of fear or favour.

Serious questions need answering about Chris Grayling’s judgement in making the appointment in the first place.

To make matters worse, Grayling’s dogma and ideology have led him to insert poison pill clauses into the contracts with the private companies, which would provide them with a massive windfall.

So insecure is he about his legacy that he wants to make it as difficult as possible for any successor to unpick his half-baked reforms. Should a change of government wish to walk away from his mess, the taxpayer could be lumbered with a compensation bill worth £400million. This is not value for money for taxpayers.

There is still a chance that the mess created by Grayling’s privatisation is so great that the wheels come off. If so, I’ve made very clear that any unsigned contracts will go straight in the bin if I become justice secretary.

What’s more, if the contracts are signed, I’ll be asking the best and brightest experts to pore over them to find a way out that doesn’t lumber the taxpayer with the bill for Grayling’s windfall for the private companies. Let those bidding be on notice – I won’t simply inherit this this government’s plans, no questions asked.

The fact is there is an alternative if only the government had been prepared to look for it: local, publicly run probation trusts acting as commissioners of what works to cut re-offending. Each trust close to their local area, free to work with the public, private and voluntary sector to keep the public safe.

Whitehall restricting its role to setting tough stretching targets, and a no nonsense zero tolerance regime in place for those trusts that fail. What’s more, as my discussions with probation trusts confirmed, most trusts would have taken on short sentence prisoners within their existing budgets if only they’d been asked – there was no need to privatise the service.

We can only conclude that the government’s plans are ideologically driven. Outrageously, the Lib Dems have gone along with Grayling’s plans to reward the same companies that have time and again let down the taxpayer.

They are propping up the same payment model that failed so spectacularly in the Work Programme. Public safety is too important an issue to take risks with, but that is precisely what this government is doing with its reckless probation privatisation.

Sadiq Khan MP is the shadow justice secretary. Follow him on Twitter

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