On Sunday, our probation service was privatised. In a £450 million a year sell-off, 70 percent of it was flogged to private corporations, who will now monitor the behaviour of all low and medium risk offenders. But despite this being the most profound example of privatisation within the justice system in recent history, the media attention it has garnered has been relatively meagre.
Perhaps because we've heard so much about privatisation we're starting to tune out. It's less upsetting that way. But what this particular sell-off means in practice is that, rather than having trained and experienced public sector workers to deal with individuals who are potential threats to society, we will be placing the responsibility of rehab with profit-driven companies.
Over half of the new contracts will be led by Sodexo – a company that, in its previous incarnation as Sodexho Alliance, was plagued by allegations of institutional racism – and Seetec, a firm accused of fraud over its delivery of employment services to disabled people. Not only do these companies have no background or track record in probation, the scheme is unpiloted. It's never had a trial run.
The question remains, then: how has this sell-off taken place with so little fuss? It may be that probation has always been a "secret" service. In turn, it is overlooked by politicians, the public and the media. It doesn't get mentioned on Question Time because it's boring, bureaucratic and effects parts of society that remain largely invisible – namely, prisoners and offenders. However, with reoffending at a historic high – nearly three quarters of young offenders reoffend within 12 months of their release – probation is something that must be taken seriously.
Probation is a lifeline. Without it, there would be widespread disorder. I spoke to a young man called Max Brooks* – imprisoned for offences including graffiti, drug possession, robbery and unlawful wounding – who says his probation officers have been an irreplaceable source of support for him. "I've had nothing but positive experiences with both of my probation officers. I know that they are in it for the right reasons," he explains. "They understand the importance of communication and feedback. I have a really strong personal relationship with them."
Brooks has been on and off probation for several years, and currently attends probation once a week. However, by the end of February, he will only have to go in once every three weeks as he has made good progress. When I ask what he thinks will happen after privatisation, he becomes visibly nervous. "Well, I'm classed as a high-risk fucker, so at least I won't be under the responsibility of a company," he exhales, laughing. "But I do feel sorry for people that are. I doubt they'll do anything to rehabilitate or reform you. It'll be more of a box-ticking thing – a data collection check. Money is their motive."
Brooks is not the only one to express doubts. Since the decision to privatise probation, the government has received criticism from all sides. Not only did the probation union, NAPO, launch a high court challenge against the scheme, the House of Commons Justice Committee published a report which raised grave concerns over public safety, unmanageable workload, IT failures and staffing levels. In spite of this, the coalition has turned a blind eye to criticism and pushed ahead with the sale.
While the formal takeover happened on Sunday, the initial plans to privatise probation were put into place in June last year – when the Coalition decided to split the entire probation service two.
The existing National Probation Service remained in charge of high-risk offenders, but low and medium risk offenders became the responsibility of Community Rehabilitation Companies. Since Sunday, these Community Rehabilitation Companies have been taken over by private companies. Charities will continue to work alongside them, but private companies will be in charge of all of the individual areas. In layman's terms, the "high-risk fuckers" have stayed in the public sector, while the less risky ones have been moved to the private sector.
Jim Brown, a probation officer working in the North of England, experienced the early stages of privatisation first-hand. "The whole thing was completely barking," he tells me. "Names were essentially pulled out of a hat and one probation officer joined Community Rehabilitation Companies while others stayed in the National Probation Service."
He says the worst is yet to come. "Private security companies simply don't have the expertise or experience to cope with offenders," he explains. "You need skilled people to know when they are going to kick off. These changes are putting the public at risk."
Brown has grown increasingly disillusioned in work that previously brought him immense satisfaction. "As soon as I walked into a probation office, I knew it was what I wanted to do," he says, describing the work placement he was given while studying social work at university.
"It's a tremendous job because you have an unrivalled position to help people in crisis. When they leave prison and their lives are turned upside down, you have the opportunity to help them," Brown enthuses. "Not only can you can make sure the right people go to prison, you can stop the wrong people from going inside." As it stands, the Coalition have gone ahead with their plans despite delaying the training programmes that were due to take place before the 1st of February.
If that already sounds chaotic, consider too that the Chief Inspector of Probation, Paul McDowell, decided to resign on Monday due to a row over "conflict of interests". A couple of months back, his wife had been recently promoted to Managing Director of Sodexo Justice Services – the company in charge of most of the private probation contracts. However, presumably being forced to admit that work might "come up" over morning muesli, McDowell stepped down.
Sodexo and Setec have already been advertising jobs with drastically lower rates of pay than qualified probation staff currently receive. In the past, probation officers might have needed a degree in criminology or social work or something similar but now private companies will be employing far less skilled employees, saving themselves a few quid. But while down-skilling might be cost-effective, it probably isn't quite as risk-effective. Employees who have been shown the ropes on a five-day training course in Stoke-on-Trent might not be the best people to rehabilitate potentially dangerous ex-offenders.
It's worth remembering that outsourced criminal justice services don't have the greatest track record, either. When G4S and Serco overcharged the Ministry of Justice for millions on electronic tagging contracts , they had billed them for criminals who either weren't tagged, in prison or, in some cases, even alive.
Fortunately, Chris Grayling eventually called in the Serious Fraud Office to investigate both of these companies. In due course they were prohibited from bidding for the probation work, but there's no law to stop one of the current private probation companies selling on the contract to them if they so wish. But who will be surveilling these companies to keep an eye on what they're up to?
"We're going to need an army of bureaucrats checking up [on the companies] to make sure they're not fiddling," argues Brown. "The lack of transparency and accountability of these outsourcing giants means that it is often difficult for the general public to know what is going on behind closed doors."
There are also holes in the logic of the decision to put low and medium-risk offenders in the novice hands of private companies, while the more menacing offenders stay under public sector supervision. Especially when you consider, as Brown points out, that the most serious offences committed by people on probation tend to be carried out by low and medium risk offenders. "The high risk ones are monitored so closely that they're not able to go out and commit mayhem with an axe," he says. "Whereas the low and medium risk ones are much freer."
This latest privatisation move from the government will wreak all sorts of havoc, but there is another key change that has come into place since Sunday, too. Those who are sentenced to less than 12 months in prison will now have to attend probation for a year thereafter. So, someone who is imprisoned for, say, two weeks for stealing tampons will now have to report to probation for a year afterwards or risk being sent back to prison. This will undoubtedly lead to increasing numbers of people being sent back to an already buckling prison system.
"The changes have had a devastating affect on the morale of the workforce," says Brown. "Sickness rates have rocketed, people are applying for new jobs and begging for redundancy. They are at their wits' end. They want out," he says, almost shouting. He's angry because his entire vocation has been shattered. The trust between probation officer and offender might have taken decades to build up, but will no doubt be undone far quicker.
It looks like the changes are here to stay, too. It's going to be hard for any government to wriggle out of a ten-year contract that has guaranteed companies profits. What's more, if any future government does choose to withdraw from the contract, they will have to pay each individual contractor £400m of taxpayers' money. This is known as the poison pill clause.
That this catastrophic sell-off has slipped under the radar suggests that, unlike, say, the Royal Mail – whose gold and red crown signifies something quintessentially British – probation affects the kind of people we only give a toss about if they're in some tabloid horror-story, or painted as scrounging circus characters in a television programme. They're the people of Shit Britain, the mould sporing on our sacred land.
"Over the years, I've always been astonished at people's ignorance," says Brown. "You go to a party and quite intelligent people ask what you do and they just haven't even got a clue as to what probation is." And of course, it's precisely this ignorance that has allowed the Coalition to do whatever the fuck they want with a service they have no in-depth knowledge of. We are yet to see exactly how these mass privatisations are going to pan out in the long-term, but from the present vantage point, it doesn't look pretty.
* Names have been changed
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