The Guardian today:-
That’s the inescapable conclusion from the online survey of more than 1,300 service employees that we carried out just before probation was split in 2014. The National Probation Service (NPS) is responsible for the supervising the most dangerous offenders, about 30% of the previous probation workload, and community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) are responsible for the remaining 70%. While the NPS remains within the public sector, CRCs were contracted out to a range of different organisations in February 2015, including some large multinational private companies as well as smaller third-sector organisations.
For most of the probation officers we heard from, this was the end of the probation ideal: the marketisation of probation has introduced an unwelcome dynamic. Staff in our survey were unequivocally opposed to most of the government’s proposals and felt anger, betrayal and sadness about the destruction of a unified, public probation service.
These staff expressed strong concerns over introducing a profit motive to offender management, with some referring to the bad practices that saw G4S and Serco referred to the Serious Fraud Office in 2013 over their dealings in criminal justice. They were also concerned about the erosion of probation values in working with offenders and about the willingness and ability of the NPS and CRCs to communicate with each other effectively.
The break-up of the probation service was perhaps one of the most dramatic and radical of the wide-ranging reforms to the criminal justice system introduced by the coalition government , including significant cuts to the legal aid budget and the charging of offenders for appearing in court, which began this year.
Respondents had a clear antipathy to the involvement of the private sector and, though to a lesser degree, the third sector. The private sector was regarded as being inevitably responsible to its shareholders and the need to make a profit. This was seen as one of the major reasons why it could not provide an appropriate service.
There was no agreement with government assertions that the marketisation of services would improve innovation via the discipline of competition, with this idea regarded as ideological and without any empirical foundation.
Our respondents queried how innovation would be possible in the new fragmented probation landscape. One officer said there was no evidence to suggest the service would be improved. “We believe it will be to the detriment of the current good practice. I accept that there is always room for improvement but we need some evidence to convince us that the government’s restructure will do that.”
Another put it even more succinctly: “I can’t see that the shambles that looks to be unfolding will deliver good standards of probation work any time soon.”
Interestingly, respondents were no more kindly inclined towards the new National Probation Service, despite it remaining in the public sector as part of the civil service. There were concerns about individuals’ ability to dissent where necessary.
Much of the future of probation work is unknowable. There is some hope that probation staff, both in the NPS and CRCs, will hold on to their values, and that some of the alternative humanistic voices that were present in probation before the split will be retained despite the new structure. But there is significant concern that such voices will be lost.
There is a more general question as to whether the destruction of the unified probation service is a symptom of a wider assault on the public sector and public sector values, and a rewriting of the responsibilities and ethos of state provision in criminal justice.