Sunday, 20 October 2013

Daft and Monopolistic Privatisation: Clegg's 2006 Verdict on Probation Outsourcing Still Holds True

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.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Costs of Failure

 Hundreds of practitioners, academics and experts are flocking to London for the first World Congress of Probation which opens today. Probation officers from Albania to Vietnam, Belgium to Uganda will be no doubt keen to learn about the latest developments in the host country- indeed many are taking part in study visits to Probation services before the Conference proper opens.
Many will no doubt be puzzled to discover that the Probation service in England and Wales is in the process of being dismantled.  They may well ask representatives from the home team why a hundred year old public service is being handed over to the private sector. The official line, which Chris Grayling will no doubt give when he speaks at the Congress on Wednesday, is that the government is bringing in the best of the private and the voluntary sectors to reinforce what the public sector does.  But even if they don’t hear the noise from the rally of Probation Officers protesting outside parliament up the road, many participants are likely to work out that there is more to it than that. The question is exactly what?
One of the drivers of the reform is undoubtedly to cut costs, so it is an added irony that a report out today describes the impact of cost cutting in a closely related area- prisons.  Oakwood is the UK’s biggest cheapest prison with running costs allegedly less than half those of comparable jails. It has been put forward as a benchmark for future prisons with assurances that the specification and standards will be just as high as other comparable jails.
Already the local independent monitoring board (IMB) have described how resource constraints have impacted on the prison. The board have concerns about the amount of drugs, hooch and mobile phones that are being found and known to be in the prison. Much of the contraband is thrown over the fence, which is alongside a public highway but budgetary restraints have limited security cameras and extra netting in the area. Lack of work placements for prisoners is causing unrest with a fifth of prisoners locked back in their cell at as a result of not having purposeful activity; prisoners have little faith in the complaints system and do not feel that the staff are able to resolve their issues.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) have reported that the NHS Trust providing healthcare failed to reach five of the six standards it is judged on. Prisoners are able to trade medicines and had to wait three months for routine dental treatment.  When one inmate was being handed medication he was told ‘you’ll get what you’re given’ by a staff member. Today the independent prison inspectorate add their damning criticisms of the prison, classing the jail as poor or inadequate in the areas it looked at,  echoing the findings of the IMB and CQC..  

What are the implications of these findings for the Probation service? First, despite heroic  claims about the efficiency of the private sector and  how costs can be cut through innovative use of technology, reduced spending is likely to bring with it reductions in decency, safety and quality. Second, and more specifically, the privatisation of probation will lead to a potentially catastrophic loss of experienced staff. The Oakwood report found prison staff there were often inexperienced and failed to deal with poor behaviour in an attempt to avoid confrontation.  Inspectors said they were "passive and compliant, almost to the point of collusion". Not surprisingly frustration was common among inmates who said they routinely resorted to the complaints system to address issues. This confirms Cambridge University’s comparative research findings which found  public sector establishments were better than private ones  at ‘getting things done’; a distinct component of respect in prison, according to prisoners. The research also found that in the public sector prisons, officers are confident and knowledgeable, delivering routines that are safer and more reliable than in the private sector.

Safety, reliability, and respect may not sound as significant as innovation but they are as important in probation work as in prisons.The Oakwood report should be a wake up call not only about plans for large scale super prisons but the privatisation of probation too. The Justice Secretary should use his speech at the Congress to call a halt while a proper evaluation of his policies is undertaken.