Privatising probation service will put public at risk, officials tell Grayling
The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has been warned by his most senior officials that plans to privatise 70% of the probation service lack support, are being pushed through on an aggressive timetable and potentially endanger public safety, leaked documents show.
They also warn that promised cost savings are unlikely to be achieved.
The official internal risk register for Grayling's "rehabilitation revolution", which he has so far refused to publish, warns that there is a more than 80% risk that his proposals will lead to "an unacceptable drop in operational performance" triggering "delivery failures and reputational damage".
The cost of failures in the probation service have been illustrated by cases such as those of Anthony Rice, who sadistically murdered Naomi Bryant in 2005, after being released from prison on a life licence, and Daniel Sonnex, who tortured and murdered two French students in 2008 after blunders in his probation supervision.
The warnings are contained in a document marked "restricted policy", prepared for the Ministry of Justice board responsible for the rehabilitation programme. It also says there is a high risk of insufficient support within the probation service to push through the changes.
Grayling's proposals are the most radical in the probation service's 100-year history. They involve abolishing the existing 35 public probation trusts and replacing them with 21 government companies, which will tender out the supervision of all medium and low-risk offenders on a payment-by-results basis.
But the officials warn that it is likely that the transfer of 70% of probation work to the private and voluntary sectors will fail to deliver the promised scale of savings.
A second leaked document, dated June 2013, on the future of the much smaller public probation service that would be responsible for the remaining 30% of work with high-risk offenders and public protection cases, shows that it faces cuts of 19% by 2017/18.
The shake-up would result in reallocating the supervision of 250,000 offenders, moving 18,000 staff to new employers and the appointment of 22 senior management teams. The plan is to put the changes in place by October, so the new service is up and running by the general election in 2015 – "a complex, large-scale change programme to be completed within an aggressive timetable," the risk register notes.
The disclosures come as peers prepare for a key vote on Tuesdayon Grayling's offender rehabilitation bill which provides the legal framework for the proposals.
Among the concerns expressed by the authors of the risk register are the "considerable challenge" of closing down 2,000 separate computer packages and moving to a single shared services computer system.
The document also reveals that while many probation trusts are continuing to voice concerns about the proposals, nearly all are actively making preparations: "Our concerns focus on some trusts whose senior staff seem less able to make the transition themselves. Although these senior staff recognise their responsibility, as public servants, to manage the process of change, there is a difference between managing change and leading it."
The risk register uses traffic lights to describe the risks facing the programme, coding each risk factor as green, amber, red or black, but makes no assessment of the financial risk of not delivering the programme to the agreed timescale, quality or cost.
It appears that detailed Treasury approval for the proposals will only be secured after the framework bill reaches the statute book.
The senior MoJ officials rate the risk that a campaign against the proposals will delay or block them in parliament as a "code red". They reveal that the bill being debated in the House of Lords this week has deliberately been kept slim to "minimise the dependence of the reforms" on the passing of the legislation. Media messaging is also being used to "keep key elements of reform at the top of the agenda".
The register also makes clear there are anxieties at the highest level that not enough private sector and voluntary organisations will bid for the work (code red) and that once privatised the supervision programmes will be ineffective or fail to meet the required quality.
The highest rated concerns – code black – detailed in the document are:
• There is a more than 80% risk that an unacceptable drop in operational performance will lead to delivery failure and reputational damage. The report says the failures could be caused by industrial action, falling staff morale, staff departures or probation leadership disengaging.
• There is a 51% to 80% risk that insufficient support for the proposals by probation management and staff will lead to failure to implement the changes properly and on time.
• There is a 51% to 80% risk that cost savings will not be met.
Harry Fletcher, a criminal justice expert, said the documents showed that the plans were ill-thought through and potentially dangerous: "Probation's sell-off is being carried out too hastily, there is too much risk. It is highly likely that service delivery will collapse and public protection will be undermined. The government must think again about the future of its successful and efficient probation service."