Comment: The probation service is a success story – so why is Grayling privatising it?

What do you do with a public service which is enjoying considerable success and just won the British Quality Foundation Gold Award for Excellence? The answer, obviously, is to scrap it and open it up to private competition.

Justice secretary Chris Grayling is implementing the wholesale privatisation of the probation service.

Quite why is anyone's guess. The probation service has managed to get reoffending rates down to 34.2% after a decade of steady year-on-year decline. It is a minor success story in a difficult area of public policy.

Grayling has blamed the service for the persistently high reoffending rates of those in jail less than a year. The only trouble with this argument is that the probation service has no responsiblity for this area and hasn't done for nearly three decades. The part of the system which isn't working is precisely the bit which the probation service does not control.

To his credit, Grayling has been fairly explicit about his plans. The probation service will be reduced to dealing with the rump of its current caseload. They currently deal with 250,000 cases a year. They will remain responsible for the 30,000 high risk cases but control of the roughly 220,000 low to medium risk offenders will go to private firms and voluntary groups. It's equivalent to the policy initiatives which will soon prove catastrophic for the NHS and are already proving so in welfare.

As ever, privatising a public service raises two serious problems: fragmentation and perverse incentives.


"It's hard to describe preventative activity," Paul Senior, a former probation officer and now a professor of probation studies at Sheffield Hallam university, says. "Lots of it is observing, monitoring. You knew something was happening. Maybe there was an increase in drinking or a family member comes to chat you. You could see escalation going on."

This is the fluid process by which risk categories change. It is a process Grayling's black-and-white system does little to recognise. Offenders, who often live uniquely chaotic lives, do not just sit in one risk category. They drift across them, up and down, depending on circumstance. Risk is dynamic.

Take domestic abuse. Perhaps an offender has a minor conviction of some sort and authorities are aware they have problems at home. They are low risk. Then something changes. Neighbours hear fighting in the house and inform the police. The risk level has changed and it has to be managed accordingly. Supervision needs to increase.

This was relatively simple. You had one agency separated into probation trusts across the country in regular contact with the police. Now these will be split into areas synched up with the government's crime commissioners (remember them?) with contractors employing an array of subcontractors. The police will be far more wary of sharing intelligence with Serco or G4S than they are with fellow public services.

Furthermore, the level of joined-up service required to reduce reoffending rates is quite extraordinary. We know well-paid work is the best route to staying out of crime, but at least two-thirds of ex-offenders have the literacy and numeracy levels of an 11-year-old, making them virtually unemployable. Seventy per cent of the prison population has two or more mental disorders. The vast majority of those on short-term prison sentences have significant problems with substance misuse. Trying to provide a joined up service with all these factors is extremely difficult for one service, it will prove much more difficult for a collection of private firms, charities and subcontractors spread across political regions dictated from Whitehall.


Penal experts struggle to identify the causal link between interventions and behavioural change because of the range of variables which can also influence behaviour. This is impossible to recognise in a payment-by-results system. So instead, providers will receive payment only if they can show the work has directly resulted in reductions in reoffending. Many experts believe this is an impossible standard to demonstrate.

The first attempt to create this new system began in early 2010, via a programme run by Sodexo Justice Services, a private contractor, in conjunction with HMP Peterborough. The non-compulsory system was funded by the National Lottery and social impact bonds. The National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) believes it is costing £5 million and that the government will repay the investors with a significant amount of interest if reoffending rates are reduced by at least seven per cent against the predicted score. But we won't know if this has worked until 2015/16. We are stumbling in the dark, with no evidence that the current course will get us where we want to go.

Furthermore, because the scheme is voluntary, only the most motivated offenders will go, providing the best of all possible test scenarios for a government which has already made up its mind.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) even recognised that payment by results can lead to perverse incentives which hit targets but do not achieve desired outcomes. One way this happens is by private firms concentrating on offenders with lower reconviction rates, as health providers will focus on cheap, easy operations and leave all the difficult stuff to the NHS. But the MoJ green paper offered no information about this could be avoided. They're sticking their heads in the sand.

What works

The solution is to use prison only a last resort for minor crimes – reserved for particularly dangerous individuals. Last year 55,000 individuals were jailed for six months or less. It is an extraordinary waste of public money (£45,000 per person per year), but it is also ineffective.

Community sentencing provides a much higher success rate. Parliamentary answers show those sentenced to less than 12 months imprisonment have a 61.1% reconviction rate within one year. The reconviction rate for those given a community order is just 36.4%.

But instead of following the data, Grayling is pursuing ideological interests. He could have taken the part of the system which was failing and apply the thinking and process which were in force in the bits which were working. Instead, he has scrapped the bits that are working and handed over the most problematic part of the system to a free market experiment which has no data to support it. It's the behaviour of a zealot.

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