Probation should help the public, not profit
Probation services are responsible for the rehabilitation of offenders once they are released from prison, working to reduce reoffending rates and maintain public safety. However, in February last year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling pushed through the sell-off of 70% of this long time public service – the most extensive privatisation in the criminal justice system ever. As a result, ill-considered and reckless moves towards privatisation have jeopardised the quality of probation work - which have worsened accountability, stretched workers and increased dangers to public safety.
What you need to know
Two private firms – Sodexo and Interserve – own the twenty-one new ‘Community Rehabilitation Companies’ (CRCs), contracted £450 million in 2015 to provide probation staff supervising 200,000 low to medium risk offenders. The remaining 30% of probation services which deal with high risk offenders have been kept in state hands, under the National Probation Service (NPS). But despite this extensive sell-off of our justice system, it went largely unnoticed under the public eye. According to Dr. Gill Kirton (professor of employment relations at Queen Mary University), the sale slipped under the radar because probation services only affect a minority of our population: “It’s not like the junior doctors. These people are not commonly seen as heroes. It doesn’t have that feeling of working for the public good in quite the same way”.
- In 2013, the Ministry of Justice rated all 35, then publicly owned, probation trusts in England and Wales as good or excellent.
- In 2015, 8,600 highly skilled public sector jobs were privatised.
- Union surveys show more than half of those working for private firms in the probation sector are now looking for new employment.
What are the effects of privatisation?
Probation services were working well under public ownership – in 2013, the Ministry of Justice rated all probation trusts in England and Wales as good or excellent. But despite this, the services were privatised in 2015 without pilot schemes and in the face of widespread opposition - supporting evidence that the sell-off was motivated under purely ideological terms.
Manipulated data and loss of accountability
This May the National Audit Office – the independent Parliamentary spending watchdog – warned that the government has no way of knowing how well CRCs are performing, due to a failure to collect accurate information. Its recent report demonstrates that some of the new CRCs may be withholding, or even manipulating, data from government agencies – making it impossible to properly assess their performance. In fact, under current provisions, no data will emerge until late 2017. The report states that it “as a matter of urgency” that data is made available to support existing contracts.
Charlie Falconer, Shadow Justice Secretary: “With prisons in crisis and now the probation system seemingly failing to effectively rehabilitate offenders, we need a serious study of how private companies running prisons or probation report their success or failure to the public. They should be open, transparent and should publish fully accurate and reliable data. Any suggestion that CRCs are withholding information from the National Probation Service should be investigated thoroughly.”
The NAO report also revealed that most companies were awarded contracts without any prior experience in the public sector, and that a number of them were only set up just before the deal. Many of the CRCs therefore had no track record from which they could be assessed for suitability. Alongside this, the government did not pilot their services before signing off the sale.
Private profits over public safety
Conflicting interests - between public service and profit motives - also threaten public safety. For example, private firms are paid per task performed rather than depending on whether reoffending rates go down. As a result of this, private companies may avoid working with some offenders, who need the most support, because this could cost them more. CRCs are incentivised to be more engaged in box-ticking exercises than producing real results – results needed to reduce reoffending and keep the public safe.
Worse working conditions and lower staff morale
A report released earlier this year by Dr. Gill Kirton (Queen Mary University), which surveyed staff in CRCs, demonstrated that many staff have expressed concerns about increasing risks to their safety in working conditions. Since the sell-off, for example, working practices have become more isolated. Alongside this, open-plan offices have been introduced in many of the centres, meaning that probation officers often have to conduct sensitive interviews with offenders in front of their colleagues. Job cuts are also on the horizon – last year Sodexo, which runs 6 of the new CRCs, announced plans to lay off 30% of its probation officers. Union surveys have now shown that more than half of those working for CRCs are looking for new employment.
Stretched National Probation Service
Kirton’s report also discusses the impact of privatisation on the National Probation Service, which is still publicly owned. Now left to deal only with high-risk and harrowing cases, increasing levels of stress and mental health problems have been reported among staff – who used to have more of a balanced caseload.
Anonymous NPS worker: “I am concerned about my physical health … as well as my mental health. I have come back after two weeks off sick because I was concerned for my colleagues who are already in a very small team and were having to cover my cases in my absence. I did not return because I felt better.”
Impact on women
In a workforce that is 70% female, the sell-off of probation services has disproportionately affected women. Alongside strains in the CRCs and NPS, new structures have also resulted in less flexibility, and workers being relocated at further distances from their families.
Dr. Gill Kirton, Queen Mary University: “An assault on the public sector is effectively an assault on women and women’s equality. It’s another story of the undervaluation of the work that women disproportionately do.”