Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Case for Change

With all this talk about the impending demise of the probation service as we know it, I thought it might be interesting to see who is in favour and what their reasoning might be. How well argued the case for change was. 

An internet trawl located this piece written a year ago and penned by an anonymous inmate for the prisoners newspaper 'Inside Time'. It makes fascinating reading from what might be termed a 'consumers' point of view:- 

"The government’s plan to privatise the Probation Service-or at least parts of it-should be welcomed by every one victim of its incompetent staff. The recent self-serving statements by the usual vested interests of those opposing privatisation is typical of many probation officer’s detachment from reality, including the truth, so often lacking in reports they prepare on prisoners and those requested by the courts for pre-sentence hearings. In its statement, the Probation Chiefs’ Association, at no time say why in their reports (and any other work for that matter) are to be preferred over those written by privately-operated probation services. However, they give no reason why they shouldn’t be good, if not better in terms of accuracy, than those written by public-sector probation staff.

Just as some people are totally opposed to privately-operated prisons solely for doctrinaire reasons, the same irrational thinking applies to probation bosses. While happy to mouth parrot fashion the usual warnings about “profit making”- as though profit was something unseemly- probation officers are happy personally to profit from the inefficiencies of their present out-dated working practices because it keeps them comfortable in a job. In truth, they fear the demanding degree of personal responsibility and accountability which private sector operators noticeably impose on their employees.

Presently, when things go disastrously wrong, when probation reports (rarely produced on time) are more works of fiction than fact, when all too subjective “professional opinion” is the sole determinant of whether a person goes to jail pr remains incarcerated, then such failings are too readily swept under the carpet. A privately-owned service would be more critical of such failings because it is far more performance based. It is quality and not quantity which determines this higher level of professionalism.

Performance means being judged on successes which include reducing re-offending and not just resorting to the knee-jerk expediency of re-calling a person to prison. Presently, this is regarded totally as a failure by the prisoner to abide the terms of his parole licence. But to what extent does it really reflect the probation officer’s inadequate supervision? For them, it is always the prisoners fault."

Really warming to the theme, the author goes on to heavily criticise probation officer's judgements where risk is concerned and advises all inmates to study their OASys closely and to complain vociferously if they don't agree with it. By the way, I'd certainly endorse this piece of advice, not least because most OASys assessments on prisoners are in fact completed by prison officers nowadays. The article continues:- 

"But carrying on regardless isn’t an option in the face of the present economic situation. Unlike the string of amusing “Carry On” films, there is nothing funny about money squandering, self interested time-serving entity which masquerades under the collective title of the “Probation Service.” Of course, in defending the present status quo, the rent-a -quote mouth pieces representing prison chiefs and their subordinates will prattle out the usual dire hell and brimstone warnings against the self evident need to inject a competitive element into the provision of a probation service.

This is nothing less than would be expected from any public-sector monopoly. It’s one which believes the already over-burdened tax payer owes them a living. Yet, if they are really that good at what they are doing, why not form their own privately run operation? As if- cows really would fly because before these people put their money where the mouths are. To continue chucking money at a public sector monopoly which long ago confirmed its inability to deliver in an accurate, timely and cost-effective manner is a mug’s game. Now is the time to prove the critics wrong.

The same concerns were expressed about privately-owned prisons. Sadly for its critics there hasn’t been a Strangeways-type mass disturbance - despite much wishful thinking by some POA members. In fact, so successful has the private sector been that the government now plans to have a total of 42 prisons run by various companies; a massive increase on the 11 so far privately operated. For taxpayers and prisoners alike, it’s a win-win situation. The former save money and the latter enjoy a more relaxed and liberal regime. Much has already been learned from the way the private sector can operate cost-effective prisons with greater efficiency. Therefore, prisoners should welcome the same benefits to be offered by the probation services eventually privatised throughout England and Wales.

And the sooner the better."

Not a ringing endorsement for the present publicly-run probation service then, but as I recently reminded a reader, due to the nature of our work, we do not enjoy universal support. I particularly like the author's whole-hearted encouragement of privately-run prisons:- "For taxpayers and prisoners alike, it’s a win-win situation. The former save money and the latter enjoy a more relaxed and liberal regime." So, there we have it - one very happy customer indeed. 

Fresh from cosying up to G4S, former prisoner Ben Gunn doesn't have a fundamental issue with the privatisation of punishment and is quite sanguine about the rise of the likes of the private security giants. I think we can assume what his views are regarding the current probation debate:- 

"Not everyone is as sanguine over a future where giants such as G4S dominate. Probation officers in particular are taking to the streets in mass outraged mobs….Well, putting down the recall forms long enough to hack out a tweet or two, at least. And the objections seem to be wildly ideological, reducing to “private=bad, public=good”. And crazy libertarian that I am, such ideology doesn’t interest me one bit.

Public services are rarely better than private ones – if at all. The people who make up the organisations can be as lazy, useless or professional as anyone in the private sector. The difference is, a lousy public sector organisation that fails to deliver doesn’t go bust, it just keeps wasting the public’s money. If a private company consistently did badly, it would go bust and open the way for a new competitor.

The criminal justice landscape is changing and ideological objections seem to be futile. It is a fascinating time, where adaptation and flexibility may signal the survival of the best old ideas and practices and the demise of the useless.

Adapt or die. And I’m adapting like hell. And sharing space with G4S is a portent of very fluid times."

But what about a view not so close to the consumer end as it were? How about from the No 10 policy end of things in the form of Ian Birrell, former speech writer to David Cameron and writing recently in the Guardian. The piece entitled 'Chris Grayling takes one step forward on probation, then one giant step back on jails'  although mostly concerned with the spectre of a new Titan jail, touches on privatisation of probation:-

So this week it was gratifying to see the justice secretary announce his genuinely held desire for a "rehabilitation revolution". As he said, it is madness to carry on with the same old systems in the hope it might lead to different results. He plans more supervision, mentoring and help with substance abuse for short-term prisoners, who have the highest rates of recidivism. Hugging hoodies remains the right idea.

Grayling is sensibly extending payment by results – rewarding private bodies and voluntary groups able to prove they can make a difference. The probation services, while often wrongly maligned, will benefit from competition – although there are justified fears that a handful of private behemoths will sweep up the contracts while failing to improve services, as in some other parts of the public sector.

The case for PbR and decimating the probation service covered in just one sentence and one naive belief that we 'will benefit from competition'. 

1 comment:

  1. Not much reasoning there, Jim. Mostly dogma, rhetoric and ranting coupled with some clear misunderstanding around what we do and how and why we do it (and who are these folk to cry foul about vested interests?).

    One additional point I think needs raising. The idea that 'the private sector' will write better reports that 'the public sector' shows a misunderstanding regarding what actually happens when public sector services are privatised. The funding stream changes, the governance changes and the 'top table' may change (usually to include people with no knowledge of the industry) but, in simple terms, the people who did the job before continue to do so after the privatisation process is completed. In short, whoever writes the reports today will be writing them tomorrow. The only likely change would be that tomorrow, the people will have to write more reports in less time and with less training; hardly a means be which quality is assured.