How to make recidivism and costs rise? Privatise probation


Four big firms are set to get even richer. We will be paying much more for the service, and failures are inevitable

First they launched a consultation for the outsourcing of probation services. That happened in January and finished in February. This is commonly agreed to be not really long enough to solicit the views of the experts in the field – but if you have already determined not to listen to them then it is plenty long enough.

The word “consultation” has that deadening thud of the political euphemism. The probation service is doing a good job, or – to give it its technical name – a “good to exceptional” one; the most recent figures showed reoffending down by 5%. The National Offender Management Service rated every single one of the nation’s 35 probation services to be either good or exceptional.

The government proposes to tear up all that expertise and track record, and hand the contracts over to companies such as Serco, G4S and A4e. The two largest names in this corporate cohort are currently under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. Whatever the outcome of the inquiry, as far as the massive waste of money that is the tagging fiasco goes, nobody is bandying about words like “good” or “exceptional”.

Of course those on the inside were going to oppose outsourcing. And of course they were going to be ignored. In September, the Ministry of Justice announced a competition for an annual £450m package of rehabilitation. Contracts will be awarded in 2014; the government hopes the private sector will take over 70% of probation work in 2015. So, consultation is a euphemism, but here I use “euphemism” as a euphemism for “bloody joke”.

Napo, the union for the probation service, has already spelled out what this procurement process looks like, having seen it at close range: in London, in 2012, Serco won the probation contract for £37m. The costing was predicated on its losing 100 of the 550 staff. But if the headline is redundancy and a reduced service, there’s a problem underneath that is actually worse. Serco underbid everyone else by a huge amount. We’re not allowed to find out by how much for reasons of commercial confidentiality (which is of course much more in the public interest than transparency).

The net result of all this is that smaller firms, or charities and pro-social outfits, that may not have much capital will be inexorably supplanted by larger firms that can afford to take a hit up front on government contracts. They will cheerfully put in a low bid; down the line they can claw profits back once the contract is theirs, its terms can be renegotiated, other contracts will follow, their smaller competitors will have gone bust, and it will be a seller’s market.

With a commissioning strategy like this, the competitive pool is whittled down until there are only four companies in it: Serco, G4S, A4e and Capita. Consensus is building that outsourcing per se is a bad idea, because it ends up promoting a de facto oligopoly, whether it intends to or not. A report out this week describes EU moves to roll back public service privatisation, at least to the point where public money can be spent on co-ops, social firms or mutuals, without running into competition law.

None of these new measures will help our situation, where the problem is not EU competition law, but a government hell-bent on privatising everything. It will not rest until “statutory” is a byword for “doesn’t work”.

However, there are elements to these proposals that are even worse, strikingly worse, than the tawdry, wasteful rip-off that outsourcing represents. These are what the probation trusts of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire object to.

Probation work is to be contracted on a payment-by-results basis, which we have already seen fail, spectacularly, with the Work Programme (cost: £5bn; result: much worse than doing nothing). The pattern with deterring recidivism will be exactly the same as it was with getting unemployed people back into work – it isn’t an accident. When you treat people as units of sale, a certain amount of human subtlety is lost. Sadly, this sort of work is almost all subtlety (let’s call it “caring about each other”, for brevity). The Howard League makes a convincing case for why the new system will be much more expensive, even without costing in its inevitable failures.

All this before we even consider the main point about probation – the thing that gets it into the news, for good or ill – which is that it protects the general population from dangerous prisoners. The Ministry of Justice doesn’t even describe how it plans to distinguish between “high-risk” prisoners (who are staying in the public sector) and “medium-to-low-risk” ones (who are to be outsourced).

The root of this is about more than probation. If you’re a large corporation looking to wring the UK government for every penny it has and then some, these are the places you look – away from the main traffic of public discourse, in the dank side streets, where careers get lost and battles become too dirty to yield a clear victor – probation, adult social care, prisons, tagging, court interpretation. This is where the cash is, because nobody’s looking. If the Olympics fiasco had happened in outsourced security services for the UK Border Agency, we probably still wouldn’t know about it. Hell, these fiascos have probably already occurred in the UKBA and we won’t find out until 2027.

This is yet another example of the haemorrhaging of public money into private hands, and the first step in opposing it is to notice – resolutely notice – that it is happening.