With animosity growing around Grayling's most recent reforms what does the future hold for this century-old system ?
Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary is a minister with a real thirst for reform; since his appointment in 2012 he has toughened regimes, closed several jails and imposed huge cuts to legal aid. However, the impact of perhaps his most significant and certainly most controversial reform is yet to come with the government’s recent initiative to privatise the probation service.
The government’s plans involve the breaking up of the 35 probation trusts which currently exist under the National Probation Service and replacing them with 21 ‘Community Rehabilitation Services’. This is to be done by outsourcing the work involving low-medium risk offenders to private firms or volunteer groups by auctioning off these portions of the current system. Successful bidders are likely to be large private companies who are awarded relatively long contracts. The government hopes to outsource 70% of the current probation service by January 2015.
There are clearly major issues with the current system, 60% of short-term prisoners return to crime within a year of release. Grayling sees this new reform as a way to radically overhaul the system whilst saving money; the government’s hopes are that higher competition between private companies will mean greater efficiency and lower costs. It’s also hoped that splitting up the system will get rid of the ‘back office staff’ that increase needless bureaucracy. Despite this there is a growing scepticism of these untried and untested methods and the feeling that Grayling is desperately trying to push through these provisions without any evidence of their effectiveness.
The loudest cries have come from NAPO, the Probation Officers Union who have already arranged two major strikes this year amidst fears that the lack of formal testing of this system is a ‘recklessly dangerous social experiment.’ The reforms are expected to leave the under resourced public sector to deal with the hardest cases. There are also concerns that private companies will cut corners to save money by employing less skilled staff, leaving the vulnerable unprotected as well as threatening public safety by leaving criminals just out of jail to their ‘own devices’. Having effectively two different probation services at local level seems to be a recipe for disaster with confused accountability, increased bureaucracy and a danger of offenders being able to ‘slip through the cracks’.
It is not just those within the industry that are opposed to the reforms; The Justice Committee, appointed to examine the policy of the Ministry of Justice, have raised serious questions about the reforms in their recent report regarding the heavily criticised ‘payment by result’ system and the overall cost of the reforms.
Labour have been more than forthcoming with their distaste of the scheme, the shadow Justice Minister Sadiq Khan describing it as a ‘reckless gamble with public safety.’ Khan has written to the Ministry of Justice asking that the contracts be held up on the basis it is wrong for a government to make such an important decision right before a general election, making it extremely difficult for Labour to reverse the reforms if they were to get into power.
The fact that amongst all this scepticism and anger the reforms were still pushed through shows the tenacity of Mr Grayling himself. The plans are to go ahead with bidding ongoing, hopefully to be finalised by earlier next year. However, as far as effectiveness is concerned, it is yet to be seen whether the proposals are as dangerous as the sceptics suggest or whether Grayling is correct in standing by his policies amidst such criticism. One thing is for sure, whether for the better or for the worse these developments mark a significant change away from this century old system, a system which regardless of the outcome of these recent reforms, we are unlikely ever to return to.