Along with the 'go home' advertising vans, it's yet another example of how the inexorable approach of the 2015 General Election is beginning to concentrate the minds of politicians, like Chris Grayling talking here to the Daily Telegraph yesterday:-
But there is rising tension within the Coalition over issues including free schools, green levies and the Human Rights Act, while the Tory grass-roots are growing restless, especially in the rural shires that are still the party’s heartlands.
With a general election just 18 months away, the Justice Secretary is relishing the opportunity to take the fight to his Liberal Democrat Coalition partners and Labour.
So it is against that background that Mr Grayling sets out a series of unabashedly traditional Tory views which he and his colleagues on the Right of the party hope will form the heart of the manifesto at the 2015 election.
He trots through quite a list of policies designed to provide plenty of deep blue water between the Tories and the rest, but eventually gets to probation and rehearses the familiar mantra. I'm sure it will be news to most probation officers though to learn that under TR:- "It’s about giving a lot of people in the probation service much greater freedom to do the job."
This week, Mr Grayling himself will face industrial action. On Tuesday, unions are due to hold a 24-hour strike over proposals to privatise the probation service.
Under the plans, probation trusts will be abolished and the supervision of 225,000 low and medium-risk offenders will be transferred to “community rehabilitation companies” on a payment-by-results basis.
Leading figures in the probation service have told the Justice Secretary that he must delay his plans for six months or risk public safety.
Mr Grayling, however, insists that their concerns are unfounded.
“I think this is a token gesture,” he says. “We are trying to do the right thing. Yes, there will be some redundancies, but actually this not about wholesale staff changes. It’s about giving a lot of people in the probation service much greater freedom to do the job.
“I hear people say about our reforms [that] they’re going to endanger the safety of the public. They are not. Far worse is the risk to the public posed by the current system.”
Under the plans, offenders serving sentences of less than 12 months will be supervised on release for the first time.
New figures from the Ministry of Justice show that in 2011-12, 2,838 of the 29,691 repeat offenders released after serving short sentences went on to commit serious crimes.
They included 356 offenders who committed violent or sexual offences, and 2,482 who committed “serious acquisitive crimes” such as robbery. The total over the past decade amounts to 35,835 offenders.
Mr Grayling says: “The figures for serious crime by people who get no supervision post-prison are truly shocking. I regard it as a national scandal those most likely to reoffend are walking out of the front door of a prison with £46 in their pocket and effectively nothing else.
“It is a cycle that goes round and round. Even Jonathan Aitken [the former Tory MP convicted of perjury] when he came out of prison said that for him the most difficult part was knowing what to do when he left.”
Mr Grayling says: “The focus I’m trying to achieve is all about greater mentoring, someone who meets them at the gate who already knows what their issues are, who has booked them into rehabilitation, who has identified somewhere they can live. That’s the way to sort out reoffending.”
Anyone who watched the House of Commons opposition debate on the TR omnishambles last week will have quickly realised just how weak and unconvincing the government arguments for change are sounding. Not just that, but clearly they are ill-thought-out, discriminatory, risky and grossly unfair to a successful public service.
As the debate developed, the obvious answer to the problem Chris Grayling endlessly goes on about emerged from the well-prepared opposition contributions - give the work to the probation service. It is so obvious that surely even the Liberal Democrats will eventually decide to call a halt to this madness, exercise their considerable muscle and, albeit a bit late in the day, inject some common sense into proceedings.
Just as a reminder, here's what the Probation Chief's briefing paper says on the matter:-
The highest reoffending rates (57 per cent) are found among those on short-term prison sentences who currently have little or no contact with Probation Trusts. We welcome Government proposals to introduce support for this group (and have long asked for funding for Trusts to carry out this work). Indeed trusts have sought to work with the police and other local partners to provide through Integrated offender management arrangements for prolific and other high priority offenders.
We have argued that rather than dismantling Probation Trusts, which have demonstrated high performance and continuous improvement, the Government should instead consider building upon their existing structure, through for example giving Probation Trusts greater flexibility and commissioning functions. This would enable Probation Trusts to continue to build effective partnerships and service agreements with private, voluntary and cross-sectoral organisations and encourage innovative pilots, such as local PbR linked commissioning of rehabilitation services.
The Government ruled out, against the weight of the evidence, the option of giving Probation Trusts the responsibility to deliver probation supervision to those released from short-term prison sentences, who currently receive no probation supervision. Probation Trusts have the existing skills and expertise to deliver high quality probation services to this cohort.
Back in July when the Guardian published details of the leaked TR Risk Register, I said it would be sensible of Chris Grayling to be considering a Plan B:-
All this is in the government's own words remember and is an absolute gift to doubters and trouble makers both in the Commons and Lords to make mischief and really slow things down. The time for plan B has arrived and a sensible Justice Secretary would now be looking to find a way out of the mess he has found himself in.