Comment Blog 20 May, 2019

Why the renationalisation of probation isn’t the end, but the beginning

Probation is in crisis after four years of a poorly-implemented and poorly-managed part-privatisation programme. This was the message – and motive - behind the Ministry of Justice’s announcement earlier this week that probation services currently being delivered by private firms are to be brought back into the public sector within the next two years.

The reasons behind this decision are apparent. A series of reports over the past few months, including from the National Audit Office and Chief Inspector of Probation, have shone light on a probation service that is failing to deliver effective, efficient, and value-for-money services to almost a quarter of a million offenders and ex-prisoners. Inspectors spoke of overworked staff, destructive cost-cutting efforts brought about by forecast losses of almost £300 million, and a mixed-delivery service in which private and public providers fail to work together in a cohesive manner.

Yet renationalisation isn’t a magic wand that promises to solve all of these problems. The issue isn’t just who delivers probation, but that the current design of the service isn’t fit for purpose. As far back as 2011 (three years before the privatisation process began) reoffending rates had already begun to creep up.  Today those rates remain incredibly high – almost 65 per cent of offenders serving sentences less than 12 months reoffend – and recent Ministry of Justice policies aiming at reducing the number of people serving short custodial sentences are only going to put more pressure on probation officers as the number of offenders on probation increases.

As Reform’s recent report on public procurement, Please procure responsibly, made clear, public service commissioning is challenging and the potential risks if done incorrectly are significant, not only for businesses but more importantly for the citizens who depend upon public services. Probation has proven what the consequences of bad outsourcing can be.

Lessons must be learnt from what went wrong with the rushed and poorly designed outsourcing process in 2014 that allowed one Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) – Working Links – to collapse in February 2018 after operating at a loss for several years, and the remaining providers to run-up substantial losses. From the use of an inappropriate payment model (“Payment by results”) to predictions around profit margins and caseload levels that were wildly inaccurate, and finally to a chronic lack of funding that left private firms with no option but to cut-corners (such as shifting from face-to-face to telephone interviews), the warnings are stark.

However, whilst privatisation is a convenient piñata on which to blame the problems currently experienced by probation-service users, the reality is that renationalisation is only part of the solution. Many of the problems outlined above will not suddenly disappear just because probation is back in the public sector.

Public service commissioning applies not only to services that are outsourced, but those that are delivered inhouse, and the period between now and the end of the current probation contracts in December 2020 will prove vital to ensuring that whatever the next model of probation services looks like, it works more capably than the current model. This will entail allocating more funding to ensure that probation officers can dedicate time and resources to difficult, high-risk cases, and involving the third sector to a greater extent to better utilise the expertise and local knowledge of charities and social enterprises.

The initial plans are promising. Engagement between the Ministry of Justice, private and third sector providers, and citizen voice groups is crucial in designing a new service that meets the needs of the service users. However, how these ideas are transferred from paper to practise is going to be fundamental to the success of the new programmes. Government needs to recognise what went wrong during the commissioning cycle in 2014 and ensure that the renationalisation of probation is seen as an opportunity to drive system-wide reforms during the forthcoming procurement process, rather than being simply the solution itself.