Today’s news bulletins report on Liberal democrat leader Nick Clegg’s plans to distance himself from aspects of the Government’s Free Schools policy. It also emerges that he sacked Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne for failing to alert him to the deeply illiberal Go Home Vans targeting illegal immigrants. Perhaps these are signs that the junior coalition partner is prepared to stand up to some of the more egregious Tory policies. If it is, then Clegg should take a careful look at what is going on in the Ministry of Justice. Of course the Coalition Agreement promised “a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ that will pay independent providers to reduce re-offending, paid for by the savings this new approach will generate within the criminal justice system.” But it said nothing about the wholesale destruction of the Probation service which now beckons.
It’s true that six months ago Clegg spoke at NACRO about wanting “to see something that takes and builds on the best from the public sector, the best from the private sector and the best from the voluntary sector to break the cycle of crime for good.” That is why he said “we are reorganising the Probation Service, so that the public, voluntary and private sectors can work more flexibly and effectively side by side.” But has Clegg really grasped the cataclysmic nature of this so called reorganisation?
He might well have been perfectly comfortable, as many were, with Kenneth Clarke’s original proposals to reform Probation. While extending competition, the core propositions, as Clarke put it, were a stronger role for public sector Probation trusts to commission services to meet local need and circumstances. “Trusts” the Consultation paper said, are best placed to work with courts and with local partners to design and commission services jointly.” Responses to the Consultation showed general support for devolving commissioning responsibility and budgets to Trusts, There was widespread support for local partnerships, between Trusts, police and local authorities.
One would expect Clegg to be considerably less comfortable with Chris Grayling’s altogether more reckless and centralising approach which is to do away with the Trusts altogether.
After all, the Lib Dems voted against the Second Reading of the Offender Management Bill which Grayling relies on for the powers he needs to sell off Probation. In the Second Reading debate in December 2006 Clegg described the Bill as a highly disruptive distraction from the real challenges in reducing re-offending. “By chopping and changing the organisation of the probation service yet again, the Government are in danger of ignoring the bigger issues at stake, which go beyond the managerial fiddling with the service.”
Seven years on, Clegg might argue that the government of which he’s a part has indeed gone beyond managerial fiddling into whole system redesign. But much of his analysis of the measures in the Offender Management Bill carry as much weight now as they did then; not only that “dogma is being attached to the headlong rush to much greater contestability” but that “the constant, almost Maoist, institutional revolution as the probation service struggles to do its work is hardly conducive to raising professional standards”.
Indeed what Clegg said in 2006 applies with even more force to the proposals which he appears now signed up to: “this is daft and monopolistic privatisation, because it is the worst combination of administrative monopoly and centralisation in Whitehall and unaccountable, fragmented, private sector activity at local level. Far from being a blow for a liberal vision of a de-monopolised probation service, it is arrogating new powers to the centre and increasing the monopoly of decision-making power given to the Home Secretary to chop and change the probation service at will.” This was Clegg's verdict on proposed outsourcing via local Trusts, not on the direct central contracting now in train.
That it is the Justice Secretary rather than the Home Secretary who has taken on these powers makes no difference to Clegg’s key arguments. He thought that the Offender Management Bill risked exacerbating, not curing, the problems of chronic re-offending that we all seem to agree must be tackled urgently. The same is true of the probation plans, and he should say so and call a halt to them.