Monday, 10 September 2012

Smoke and Mirrors

I notice that the Prison Reform Trust recently published a report 'Out for Good' that essentially makes the very sensible case for encouraging each prisoner to take responsibility for their individual release plans. Who could possibly argue with that? Or indeed the exhortation that government should ensure that all departments and local authorities help provide accommodation, training, alcohol and drug services etc. Blimey, if they did that, we'd all have a chance of being effective!

The Probation Service hardly gets a mention at all, a deliberate act of omission I venture to suggest in order to pander to the current government's well-publicised intention to farm much of it's work out to the private or third sector. Indeed it's noteworthy just how many third sector contributors there are to this report, which of course serves as a very useful showcase at a critical time in terms of government decisions relating to our future. 

Almost as a 'throwaway' suggestion at the tail end of the report is the idea of the government creating a Payment by Result contract centred around prisoners taking responsibility for their re-integration back into society. Apparently prisoners would be asked what agency they felt had been the most help to them, with further commissioning decisions being influenced as a direct result. An intriguing concept, extending as it would the notion of customer satisfaction within the criminal justice system! 

Payment by Results is the coalition government's new wonder answer to everything, in fact just like the Private Finance Initiative was to the last Labour administration. Of course the latter has proved to be an utter disaster, saddling schools and hospitals with massive debts for overly expensive buildings that are now proving impossible to alter due to the terms of the contract. 

When the PbR idea was first floated at HMP Peterborough, I was initially enthusiastic, particularly as the project was aimed at prisoners serving 12 months or less, a group for whom there is no statutory involvement by the probation service. It also envisaged the harnessing of capital provided by charitable groups as a new funding source. But so attractive is the idea proving to politicians as being the next 'magic bullet' that the idea is being rapidly promoted everywhere and before any research as to it's effectiveness is concluded. 

In effect Payment by Results is just a new 'smoke and mirrors' way to run public services. Yet another futile attempt to get more for less and not unlike the barmy dutch auctions for running railways. Go-Ahead is but the latest private train operating company to plead inability to perform under the terms of their contract due to 'changed economic conditions'. Now as it happens, that is precisely why Payment by Results will not work. 

PbR in the criminal justice system is predicated on being able to prove that there is a causal link between agency intervention and a reduction in criminal activity. Just that in itself is a bit of a nebulous construct to prove of course, but assuming something can be fudged, it just might 'work' during a period of falling crime. In such a scenario, all can bask in the glow of claiming that PbR does in fact deliver. The trouble is that all agree crime is actually rising due to the economic downturn. In such circumstances it not only becomes a tad difficult to claim success, it also becomes nigh on impossible to make any money. 

I'm reliably informed that at HMP Armley in West Yorkshire, the much-vaunted first PbR within a public sector prison has comprehensively faltered because all the third sector partners pulled out of the 'beauty' parade, so convinced were they that there was no prospect of making any money at a time of rising crime.          


  1. Whilst I agree with your main point that PbR is in danger of becoming the answer before we even got to ask the difficult questions, you misunderstand the nature of the measurement. For Peterborough at least it is relative performance that is measured - i.e. compared to a control group (measured over the same time period). To that extent it doesn't matter if crime overall goes up so long as they do better than the control. There are plenty of tricky issues around measurement - but overall rising crime is not one of them.


  2. P.S. I don't know who your 'informant' is on the Yorkshire front, but you need to get a new one. The bigger issue is securing funding and then no prospect of payment for at least a couple of years.