Of course this year will see things warming up significantly on the political front and we all have to hope that at long last the Liberal Democrats will see there is far more more political mileage to be gained from distancing themselves from their Tory coalition partners over TR than there is in supporting such an obvious omnishambles.
Maybe the penny will finally drop that this almighty slow train crash that is TR is not the usual kind of government policy cock-up that ends up costing the taxpayer millions of pounds. What is being proposed will certainly do that, but also put the public at serious risk and there will be casualties. Politicians who support these daft and dangerous plans for the break-up of a world-class public service must be prepared to face the wrath of the public when someone inevitably dies as a result.
At this point it's probably worth reminding ourselves of what the Lib Dem position used to be when they were not in government, and it's very neatly covered in this blog post by Rob Allen back in October:-
He might well have been perfectly comfortable, as many were, with Kenneth Clarke’s original proposals to reform Probation. While extending competition, the core propositions, as Clarke put it, were a stronger role for public sector Probation trusts to commission services to meet local need and circumstances. “Trusts” the Consultation paper said, are best placed to work with courts and with local partners to design and commission services jointly.” Responses to the Consultation showed general support for devolving commissioning responsibility and budgets to Trusts. There was widespread support for local partnerships, between Trusts, police and local authorities.
One would expect Clegg to be considerably less comfortable with Chris Grayling’s altogether more reckless and centralising approach which is to do away with the Trusts altogether.
After all, the Lib Dems voted against the Second Reading of the Offender Management Bill which Grayling relies on for the powers he needs to sell off Probation. In the Second Reading debate in December 2006 Clegg described the Bill as a highly disruptive distraction from the real challenges in reducing re-offending. “By chopping and changing the organisation of the probation service yet again, the Government are in danger of ignoring the bigger issues at stake, which go beyond the managerial fiddling with the service.”
Seven years on, Clegg might argue that the government of which he’s a part has indeed gone beyond managerial fiddling into whole system redesign. But much of his analysis of the measures in the Offender Management Bill carry as much weight now as they did then; not only that “dogma is being attached to the headlong rush to much greater contestability” but that “the constant, almost Maoist, institutional revolution as the probation service struggles to do its work is hardly conducive to raising professional standards”.
Indeed what Clegg said in 2006 applies with even more force to the proposals which he appears now signed up to: “this is daft and monopolistic privatisation, because it is the worst combination of administrative monopoly and centralisation in Whitehall and unaccountable, fragmented, private sector activity at local level. Far from being a blow for a liberal vision of a de-monopolised probation service, it is arrogating new powers to the centre and increasing the monopoly of decision-making power given to the Home Secretary to chop and change the probation service at will.” This was Clegg's verdict on proposed outsourcing via local Trusts, not on the direct central contracting now in train.
In another blog post yesterday, Rob Allen goes on to highlight the political realities faced by all parties, but especially Labour, in trying to come up with criminal justice policies that try to be both sensible and politically popular:-
2014, the last year before the general election, will see political parties developing their policies on, amongst many other matters, criminal justice. What will the Labour party come up with? Will they revert to an old Labour position, concerned as in their 1992 manifesto, to improve prison conditions, promote non-custodial sentences for non-violent crimes and take steps to eradicate the discrimination in sentencing policy which particularly affects women and ethnic minority offenders? Or will it be the tough on crime approach adopted by new Labour which saw prison numbers leap from 61,000 when they entered office in 1997 to 85,000 thirteen years later?
A glance at their 2010 manifesto drafted by current leader Ed Miliband, shows a compromise between the two approaches .On the one hand there are commitments to expand community payback for criminals who don’t go to prison, to increase alcohol treatment places and introduce a Restorative Justice Act to ensure its availability wherever victims approve it. On the other hand, the manifesto promised to create 94,000 prison places by 2014, a number way in excess of the present prison population.
Denied by the electorate the opportunity to implement these measures, early signs were that as leader of the opposition Miliband wanted to break from the immediate past and support Ken Clarke’s more moderate approach to penal policy. But he could not pass up the opportunity to savage Clarke’s plans for greater sentence discounts for early guilty pleas and since then Labour’s attitude to punishment has been ambivalent.
The party has never accepted, for example, that the indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for public protection (IPP) was an unjust folly and indeed seem unsure how far they dare stray from the Howard /Straw doctrine favouring the incapacitation of both dangerous and persistent offenders. With Straw standing down as an MP and his successor David Blunkett at least somewhat repentant about his shocking tenure at the Home Office, there is perhaps a chance for Miliband and Sadiq Khan to escape the historic influence of these big beasts and chart their own course on sentencing policy.
As for the Coalitions’ Probation reforms, the current leadership is equally compromised by the past. While The Independent may have reported that Khan would rip up contracts with private companies put before him to sign, he will have little choice but to honour those already in place. Straw had to do so in respect of private prisons despite his description of them, when in opposition, as morally repugnant. Khan, by contrast, is on record as basing his policy on what works, rather than dogma, and claiming that the nine new private sector prisons provided by the Labour government have played a successful role in the prison system. Even the spectacular failures of G4S and Serco seem unlikely to shift Labour’s fundamentally blue approach to private providers.
Meanwhile that well-known vehicle for Tory propaganda the Daily Telegraph recently indulged in an unashamedly piece of media news manipulation in support of the MoJ case for TR with this story:-
The probation service has been branded “not fit for purpose” after allowing a dangerous paedophile, who was released from prison early, to abscond from his accommodation and go on the run.
Mark Sleman, 42, was initially jailed for nine years in 1994 for the sickening kidnap and attempted rape of a ten-year-old vicar’s daughter. Despite being described by the judge as a “cold, callous psychopath” and being diagnosed with a personality disorder, Sleman was allowed out of prison early. But he had to be returned after breaching the terms of his licence by going on the run in order to go to a nightclub.
In 2008 he was given a seven-year prison sentence for robbing a homeless man at knifepoint, but astonishingly was again released early before completing his full sentence.Now, the family of his original victim have reacted with fury, after the probation service allowed him to abscond from his accommodation for a second time and disappear.
The story generated quite a response from readers when it turned up in the comments section a day or two ago:-
I wonder who would be less concerned if indeed he had of been released after completion of his entire sentence with no supervision what-so-ever? Approved premises are not prisons and probation staff are not prison officers. They have their specific place in a multi agency criminal justice system. Unfortunately, this article only serves to highlight just how little the general public really understand the role of the probation service and the work it is charged with carrying out.
I really wonder at the lack of self-respect shown by journalists at the Torygraph - surely they can't be happy just churning out blatant Government propaganda like this? And how can the headline say "branded not fit for purpose" when there is no reference to this in the article at all? Still, at least we know how Grayling is spending his holidays - feeding stuff like this to his take scribblers in the right-wing press.
This man has been at large since last August and only now gets this Telegraph treatment. Cui bono? And we know who. The language in the article is so tendentious: why was he 'allowed' to abscond and the police are 'desperately' trying to find him. Worthy of tabloid journalism at its worst.
My points are:
1. Wholesale destruction of a highly regarded public service is barely an issue for the media; no-one gives a shit. It took much searching to find the stories posted in past months.
2. Type in "probation not fit for purpose" (per above story) and you'll immediately get nigh on 100 high profile returns through a search engine for this.
3. Is this the power of Telegraph links? Is this the power of negative press? Is this the power of victim-centric stories? Is it that 'probation' has no meaning unless or until the public can blame 'probation'. Who said "not fit for purpose"? In what context? Who cares? No-one... so what does this tell us about our role?
4. The story (as many have pointed out) is factually inaccurate, gives a wholly inaccurate account of the role of probation; but very accurately represents the fear and despair of a distraught and devastated human being who needs someone to blame.
5. Perhaps this highlights the professionalism & vision demanded of the VLO - yet another probation role.
6. It certainly is a prime example of journalism by a blinkered, self-satisfied wannabe hack who has no concept of the trail of damage their story will have left behind...
2014 is undoubtedly where we largely leave behind the academic arguments over whether there is any merit at all in this TR ominshambles, and it just becomes purely political. It's simply a bad, crazy idea borne of seriously misguided political dogma and it's damn well time the Lib Dems did the decent and sensible thing and kill it off!