‘Private companies running failing probation services must be made publicly accountable’

Public control and accountability must be restored to the failing privatised arm of probation if it is to stop putting the public at risk and reduce reoffending, the head of the service’s union is urging.

Ian Lawrence, general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), which represents those working in the public and private sectors, said the time has come for the “chaos” engulfing the service to come under proper public scrutiny.

Probation services – responsible for supervising offenders released from prison and those given community sentences – were public sector-run until 2014, when the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling introduced reforms to drive innovation and slash costs as part of the Government’s austerity agenda.

The service was split into a public sector National Probation Service (NPS) supervising high-risk offenders, and 21 privately-run Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) managing low- and medium-risk offenders.

Three years on, the warnings voiced by staff and unions at the time about the scale and speed of the changes have, predictably, been borne out.

“The whole infrastructure has been disrupted,” Mr Lawrence told me. “Some pockets of good practice exist, but it isn’t like it was and that raises questions about who is going to fix this broken system?”

Both the NPS and CRCs are beset with problems. But, while the NPS is struggling with excessive caseloads without the staff to match, it is the situation of the CRCs that is most worrying.

In its latest report into services in Gloucestershire, the Chief Inspector of Probation said the work of the NPS was “reasonably good”, although “efforts to rehabilitate offenders often came to little or nothing”. More troubling: “the CRC’s work was so far below par that its owner and government need to work together urgently to improve matters”. 

A similar picture has been painted in other reports, including one on services in north London which found the CRC’s work to be “poor… with the public exposed unduly to the risk of harm in some cases” and “little or no likely impact on reducing reoffending”.

Through the Gate, Chris Grayling’s flagship policy aimed at reducing reoffending by helping prisoners to resettle into the community – a process that is meant to begin as soon as they step inside a jail – has failed to get off the ground. If it was removed tomorrow, “the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible”, the Chief Inspectors of Prisons and Probation said in a report published in June.

So, what is going wrong in the CRCs?

Unmanageable case-loads, probation officers rarely seeing offenders face-to-face, staff shortages, high staff sickness levels, lost contact with offenders and new recruits with no probation qualifications have all become commonplace.

It is difficult for cases to be referred between the companies and the NPS is an offender’s risk changes, as it often can.

And with fewer low- and medium-risk cases referred to them than was projected, many are now operating at a loss.  

“So many staff cuts have taken place,” Mr Lawrence said. “The CRCs said to the MoJ ‘we can deliver that contract for that price with less staff than you’ve got’. But, they haven’t now got the trained, skilled staff in place to deliver the services expected of them.”

Former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“When you introduce new operational supervisory models that our members believe are unsafe and flawed, when people aren’t getting seen and some people are being seen every four weeks and some with telephone support, how is that supposed to work?” he added.

“The low- and medium-risk cadre is one area where more serious offences tend to emerge from. We have seen a number of serious further offences – murders – in the last year or so, where people who should have been under supervision in these categories haven’t been supervised properly.”

The problems cannot be taken in isolation. 

Together with wider social issues, such as a lack of housing for ex-prisoners, the failures of probation are feeding into the prisons crisis.

“For some people, recidivism is the only route to the next hot meal or dry bed and that’s a pretty sad indictment,” Mr Lawrence said. 

“When you look at that alongside the crisis in prisons – because there are too many people in prison for offences that arguably you could do something else with in terms of reparation – you’ve got a real pot-boiler.

“Mental health, drug abuse, alcohol problems are typical of the types of issues that people present with. You’re never going to solve all of society’s problems, but it’s a cycle – we have to do something in the prison estate for people in a way that gives them some chance of changing their lives when they emerge.”

But, he added: “You could do quite a bit of good work in prisons and it would still fall down on the outside because there aren’t enough people with the skills or capacity in the CRCs to take the next steps.

“The whole model on which the privatisation was predicated has failed and the Government is in such a state over it, the only option it seems to have is to plough more taxpayers’ cash in. It’s outrageous.”

The CRCs – run by companies including Sodexo, Interserve, MTC Novo and Working Links – have been given at least £22m of public money this year to help keep them afloat, while another £277m will be paid to them over the next four years. (The figures only came to light after Private Eye raked through the Official Journal of the European Union in which member states are required to publish such payments.)

The bail-outs were alluded to in a parliamentary written statement by Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah in July, but no amounts were given.

A MoJ spokesman told me it had “taken steps to improve probation by amending CRC contracts to ensure providers can focus on delivery of core services”.

The press office did not confirm the £22m figure, but said the payments were still “expected to be below original forecasts”.

The £277m was not a “an additional one-off cash payment”, it added, and “we are not paying these companies more than originally expected”.

“It changes the payment mechanism over the life of the contract to better reflect CRCs’ costs,” the press office said. “If volumes increased significantly, for example, some CRCs could end up being paid less in total than they would have been paid before this contract variation.”

Napo members protesting against the reforms in 2014. Credit: Napo

Mr Lawrence believes the work of the failing CRCs has to be restored to public control.

“If it is clear that the CRC contract is failing and has been subject to one, two or more adverse reports from the Inspectorate then I’m in no doubt whatsoever that the minister should strip the contracts.”

With the NPS unlikely to be able to cope with the influx in its current state, the Napo boss said elected regional mayors and police and crime commissioners could take over the reins.

He spoke to London Mayor Sadiq Khan about such a prospect after the inspection report into probation services in north London was published last year. The mayor was receptive. Publicly, he said he would “continue to make the case to the Government that responsibility for probation services in London should be devolved to City Hall”.

While City Hall could provide the probation services itself, taking expert advice on the best model of offender supervision to use, it could also commission a CRC to do so – but not to decide how they should be delivered, Mr Lawrence told me.

“They should not run those contracts. You cannot expect people who are making a profit from justice to take a detached view about what is the right system to use [to supervise offenders].”

He believes the CRCs’ lack of accountability could also be addressed in this way.

“They’re only accountable to their contracting body, the MoJ, which means that there isn’t the level of scrutiny that there ought to be,” he said.

“The Government holds the contracts and pumps more money in. Why? Because politically it’s a minefield. There’s not going to be one Government minister who’s going to stand up and say this has failed because, as soon as they take the contract from one, if one of these hands the keys back, it could have a domino effect.

“Because the CRCs have concluded – and I speak to some of the owners quite regularly – that there’s no money in it for them. They’re not in this because they have a deep vocational perspective on rehabilitation, they’re in it so they can get their feet in the door for other contracts in government – employment, training etc. You hone it down so only a few contractors have got the expertise, no matter how badly they perform, then they get more money and they get more contracts. The public doesn’t get to see how this is run, where the money comes from, how they can justify giving these people that sort of cash.

“And our members’ work is effectively subsidising these private companies.”

The MoJ press office told me that CRCs are accountable to HM Prison and Probation Service (an ‘executive agency’ of the MoJ) and “improvement plans can be triggered” if they fall below contracted performance levels. “CRCs can be required to pay financial penalties if performance targets are not met,” it added.

Mr Lawrence said he understands that any penalties incurred by CRCs have been waived by the Government for this financial year.

“It’s a system that needs to be pulled into accountability.”

Offenders carrying out ‘Community Payback’. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr

The traditional role of the probation worker was to ‘advise, assist and befriend’ offenders through one-to-one contact and mentoring.

Today, much of their time is spent directing offenders on to programmes considered relevant to addressing their behaviour, with form-filling replacing individualised support.

“The ‘befriend and assist’ approach is what gave rise to ‘probation officers are just woolly social workers, care-free liberals who don’t get tough on the causes of crime’,” Mr Lawrence said.

“But it was a more holistic approach where the majority of a practitioner’s time was spent 80% on actual supervision and 20% on bureaucracy. Now the position is pretty well reversed. It’s become a very much tick-box culture, a risk-oriented process and many officers don’t have enough time with their clients to actually spot the nuances and changes in behaviour.”

So, does probation need to return to its roots?

“We need to look at restorative justice as opposed to the old probation model going back and the punitive model now,” he said. The plight of victims has been overlooked and I would like to see a probation service that provides a greater level of victim support.

“When I read accounts from offenders who have been able to turn their lives around, often it is having a degree of interface with the victim’s family or other people who have come from similar circumstances.”

Mr Lawrence said work to reduce reoffending has to progress beyond a focus on the more punitive elements introduced in the 1990s, when a retributive element was introduced to community sentences.

“What can we do to encourage people within the system to interface with communities in a far more positive way? Depending on the offence and risk, there’s got to be some reparation so I don’t knock the idea that people pick up the dog’s turd or clear the parks. That’s part of it, but it can’t be all of it. It’s about making a difference. It has to go beyond the punitive.

“We’ve got to start taking rehabilitation seriously.

“Otherwise this crisis in our prisons will be in total meltdown in five, ten years and the only solution will be for the Government to build titan prisons like they do in America.

“Let’s open this up and get a bigger public debate going about what the taxpayer wants from its justice system.”

Follow me on Twitter for prisons and criminal justice updates @Hardeep_Matharu

[Main photo credit: Stefano Cagnoni]