Thursday, 19 September 2013

A sad day for probation and for policy-making

19.9 is a sad day for the Probation service but arguably just as sad a one for our system of governance and public administration. How is it that one here today gone tomorrow politician can effectively dismantle a hundred year old public institution without having his plans subjected to any rigorous scrutiny? Partly it’s through sleight of hand. “We’re bringing in the best of the private and the voluntary sectors to reinforce what the public sector does”, Chris Grayling disingenuously wrote on the Conservative Home blog this morning. But it’s partly through failings in our system of checks and balances.

Grayling has not had to pass any new law to sell off the bulk of probation work- although Labour have belatedly questioned whether the provisions of the Offender Management Act do in fact give him the powers he needs. But whether existing provisions intended to drive largely local commissioning can be used instead as a basis for a competition for 21 nationally let regional contracts needs to be tested in front of a judge. So too  the way in which the government is jumping the gun with respect to the  supervision of short term prisoners for which there is as yet no statutory basis; and the way that the  requirements in the current state of the Offender Rehabilitation bill are seemingly  being flouted.

Neither has Grayling had to worry much about whether his plans add up or are deliverable. We know that the Ministry of Justice consider some aspects 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 on such risks? Has it given the plans the green light and in particular 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 MoJ being hauled over the coals by Margaret Hodge long after Grayling has moved on to answer for the wastefulness emerging from
this  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, today. His department’s analytical services have published a summary of evidence on reducing re-offending. It reveals that the effectiveness of mentoring – the apparent cornerstone of Grayling’s rehabilitative philosophy- is “mixed/promising”-not exactly a ringing endorsement. What the evidence does show are the key aspects of effective working with offenders, whatever the nature of that work. 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 my view 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 new structure. But at the very least the arguments for and against deserve much more comprehensive and detailed examination than they have so far received.

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