Friday, 8 February 2013

Another West Coast Mainline

So the government have changed their minds regarding proposals to scrap the current school examination system, only some 5 months since the idea was championed by the education minister Michael Gove. Apparently this was as a result of significant opposition from his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, oh and the unions, teaching profession, regulator, Wales, Europe and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. 

Rather than beat the government up over another 'u-turn', we should applaud them for bowing to commonsense and so avoid another 'West Coast Mainline'. The idea was rubbish so it was binned - result! Surely we need to build a similar case that can demonstrate that plans for the probation service are yet another 'West Coast Mainline' waiting to happen. We have to build a a broad-based consenus in order to achieve the same end.

It's been heartening to see that the BBC1 documentary 'Out of Jail and on the Streets' screened on Tuesday night has been well received. In particular many people have been talking about Vicky and her client Roger. In many ways it represented 'old-style' probation practice, but just as relevant today as in times gone by. The thing is there won't be any scope for dealing with Roger as Vicky did under privatisation and I think the public understands this. I'm sure it was no coincidence that this blog recorded a significant increase in hits after the documentary was screened, along with the No 10 petition which now stands at a healthy 17,662 signatures. 

We've got to do more though to stand any chance of being able to try and save our probation service and change government thinking. I was recently reminded that the other major u-turn by government concerned the plan to sell off our publicly-owned forests. It took a massive internet campaign by 38 degrees, 'people, power, change' and a petition of some 600,000 signatures. I notice that there is the beginnings of a suggested similar campaign, but it only has 60 votes! Can I suggest that readers do their best to boost this in order to try and harness the massive potential represented by 38 degree supporters?

It's also encouraging to see that Early Day Motion 622 has attracted 118 signatures, but it's got to be worth trying to get more MP's to sign up as the wording is relatively innocuous:-

"That this House welcomes the news that the Probation Service in England and Wales won the British Quality Foundation Gold Medal for Excellence in 2011; notes that no Probation Trust is deemed to be failing or in need of improvement; further notes that each Probation Trust in England and Wales is meeting its target on the production of court reports, victim satisfaction and the successful completion of orders or licences; and acknowledges the achievements of the Probation Service in England and Wales for carrying out its work efficiently and effectively."

For an excellent analysis of where we are heading in terms of privatising the probation service, I suggest this article by Zoe Williams and published yesterday in the Guardian:-

"This is all based on the principle that the public sector is inherently inefficient. Hand it over to private companies and they will swoop in with their efficiency, their economies of scale, their incentives and their competitiveness, winnowing it down into a dart of perfectly targeted public spending.

In practice, when they say efficiency, that generally means lower wages. When they say economies of scale, that generally means constructing the contracts in such a way as to leave only the largest companies eligible to bid for them. When they say incentives, look closely and you will mainly see perverse incentives. And when they say competition, what you're actually left with is four or five – sometimes only three – companies, who barely compete with one another at all but instead operate as an unelected oligarchy.

Most public services are not about producing microchips, they're about human relationships – care work, parole, job-seeking, even assessing whether or not a disabled person is really disabled; they are about one human being spending time with another. The economist Ha-Joon Chang's famous example of the pitfall of efficiency is that it mainly means making things faster – and yet if you played a minuet at three times the speed, would that improve it?

What happens when these firms, with their inexorable expansionist logic, bite off more than they can chew? We pay anyway. We paid G4S; we will pay it again when its prisons catch fire. We will pay A4e when it finds no jobs, we will pay Serco when its probation services fail. We will pay because even when they're not delivered by the public sector, these are still public services, and the ones that aren't too big to fail are too important. What any government creates with massive-scale outsourcing is not "new efficiency", it is a shadow state; we can't pin it down any more than we can vote it out. All we can do is watch."

Sign the petition here.
Vote for 38 degrees campaign here. 

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