Scrapping Grayling’s Probation Privatisation Is Right – We Need Probation Fully Back In Public Hands

Just like with the NHS, our probation system should be in public hands where it can help create a safer society, not act as a cash cow for failing private companies.
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From the chaos in our transport system to his disastrous Work Programme, when it comes to failures in government Chris Grayling’s are second to none.

But his part-privatisation of probation is perhaps his worst of all – a high bar indeed.

Probation supervises over 250,000 offenders in our communities, with the goal of reducing reoffending. It should play a central role in keeping us all safe.

Somehow Chris Grayling saw a profit-making opportunity in that and bulldozed his part-privatisation through, despite the overwhelming views of experts, those that work in the service and the Labour Party.

It is difficult to overstate the disaster that this privatisation has been.

Underperforming probation companies received nearly half a billion pounds in bailouts even while failing to reduce reoffending. Some serious crimes committed by offenders soared by over 50% following the reforms.

A constant flow of criticism of the probation privatisation has turned into a flood into recent weeks - just as the Tories were desperately trying to re-tender private probation contracts.

Most damningly, the Chief Inspector of Probation last month warned that tens of thousands of offenders are being supervised under an “irredeemably flawed” system. She added that public ownership is a “safer option” for the core work and that improvements are not likely “while probation remains subject to the pressures of commerce.”

In May, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee released its latest damning report concluding that, “inexcusably, probation services have been left in a worse position than they were in before the Ministry embarked on its reforms”.

While the National Audit Office recently found the privatisation had wasted “at least” £467million of taxpayers’ money and led to a 22% increase in the average number of offences per reoffender. As a result the number of people on short sentences recalled to prison was “skyrocketing”.

After putting public safety at risk and squandering hundreds of millions of pounds on trying to shore up failing private probation companies, the Tories have now been forced to face reality and accept their probation model is irredeemably broken.

The Tories didn’t want to make this U-turn. In fact Justice Secretary David Guake’s big probation announcement last summer was based on retendering probation contracts to the private sector having cancelled the current ones two years early.

What changed? Perhaps it was the scathing reports from experts that forced his hand?

More likely it was the collapse of Working Links, one of the largest private probation providers in the country, and the severe financial difficulties faced by another, Interserve.

Whatever the reason, the move away from a profit driven probation model is a necessary first step in cleaning up the probation mess.

But there are already concerns it doesn’t go far enough and could still give too greater a role to the private sector.

Under new plans each probation region “will be expressly required to buy all interventions from the market, spending up to an estimated £280m a year.”

While the government makes references to the voluntary sector and specialist smaller scale suppliers playing a role, we have heard such promises before. Chris Grayling promised the same but this turned out to just be a smokescreen for the big corporations to get their hands on probation.

The Government needs to give greater clarity on how it will genuinely support the voluntary sector and social enterprises. Reassurances are needed that the new model won’t be about letting the outsourcing giants continue through the back door.

Labour has long called on the Conservatives to drop their dangerous obsession with running probation for private profit and instead bring it fully back in house where it can focus on keeping the public safe.

We have not just been opposing the government, but outlining the alternative, with the well-respected Lord Ramsbotham overseeing the Labour Party’s review into what a publicly-owned probation service would look like under a Labour government.

Just like with the NHS, our probation system should be in public hands where it can help create a safer society, not act as a cash cow for failing private companies. There is real hope that this Tory U-turn can be the first significant step towards that. But for those fighting for probation to be fully returned to the award winning public service it was before this disastrous Tory privatisation, the battle will continue.

Richard Burgon is the shadow justice secretary and Labour MP for Leeds East


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