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Decision to reverse disastrous probation experiment has come too late

The recent announcement that probation services are to be brought back under public control marks the end of a disastrous and costly experiment which may have damaged efforts to reduce reoffending.

Robert Buckland, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, told Parliament yesterday that the Government will retake ownership of services such as rehabilitation and providing former offenders with unpaid work.

This follows last year’s announcement by the Ministry of Justice that the supervision of thousands of offenders will return to the National Probation Service (NPS).

Both decisions mark a shocking about turn by the Government, reversing botched attempts by Buckland’s predecessor Chris Grayling to break up and privatise the probation sector.

Under the controversial Transforming Rehabilitation programme, launched in 2014, probation was separated into the public sector NPS which managed high risk offenders, while a network of private organisations known as Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) were responsible for the bulk of the work – managing tens of thousands of lower and medium risk criminals.

Probation is a vital element of the criminal justice system, and if run effectively can play a role in enabling an offender to move on, putting a life of crime behind them and becoming a useful member of society. The alternative, of course, is to have people leaving jail, finding themselves unsupported and caught in a revolving door of criminality and custody – a situation that has no benefits for offenders, victims or society.

Privatisation was a huge leap of faith

Privatisation of any aspect of the criminal justice system was a huge leap of faith, and if done at all it should have been as part of a gradual and carefully considered process. However, the changes made under Transforming Rehabilitation were rushed through, with less than two years from launch to the conclusion of the programme, while the new CRCs were put in place following pilots which were given just a few months to run.

Other newly established Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) and I argued at the time that probation was far too important an issue to be left in the hands of a network of private companies, but we were side-lined throughout.

This was the first time every PCC in the country, regardless of political affiliation or lack of it, wrote to the Government indicating a deep concern with the reforms, but our views were ignored.

Meanwhile, probation staff themselves – who should have been considered as experienced experts in their field – were treated appallingly. There was low morale, and many felt marginalised and left the profession, meaning that when the programme launched, neither the NPS nor the network of CRCs had enough staff to do their jobs properly.

Payment by results system flawed

A payment by results system was set up for the private companies, but again this was flawed. The metric was set too low, so CRCs couldn’t make enough money, depended on Government bailouts for survival and eventually – as happened to the company covering the South West – went bust.

The abolition of the old probation trusts meant that local rehabilitation services essentially stopped, meaning low to medium risk offenders were left with a much poorer service. The much trumpeted ‘through the gate’ system which the new programme was supposed to deliver – providing offenders with mentoring and help accessing a range of essential services from education to housing – simply never happened.

This means that prisoners are often dumped outside the gate upon release with their £46 discharge grant in their back pocket and no support. In some cases, local charities – such as those commissioned by my own office – have stepped in and attempted to fill the gap, but there are limits to what they are able to do as this is work that should be provided by the state.

As a result, rehabilitation has suffered terribly for the last five years. Metrics intended to show that the new programme was working were not detailed enough, and as a PCC I haven’t been given meaningful data on reducing reoffending rates for my area since 2015.

I am glad that the Government has finally seen sense on this issue and returned probation to the public sector, but it has come far too late.

This U-turn has cost the taxpayer billions, and I worry that nobody will be held to account for it. We now need a public enquiry to take place examining why these decisions were made, learn the lessons and make sure this costly white elephant is not allowed to happen again.


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