Saturday, 25 November 2017

Biting Off More Than Can Be Chewed

Another day and another article, this time from the Economist having a stab at pointing out how some public services just don't lend themselves to privatisation. It also highlights how widespread is the general ignorance about probation - "Previously, public-sector trusts supervised about 220,000 ex-convicts a year" - ex-convicts? - oh dear..... 

Britain privatised part of its probation service. What happened next?
The experiment has shown the difficulty in contracting out some public services

Joanna Williamson worries that she has become a box-ticker. She is a probation officer. But when chunks of the service were privatised in 2015, her bosses became more concerned with meeting targets that have little to do with helping former offenders. The number of cases she handles has soared and safety standards are slipping. The shift has taken its toll on morale. Many colleagues of Ms Williamson have left. She has an eye on the door.

Ms Williamson (not her real name) is on the front line of government reforms to rehabilitation. They were part of a drive to improve public services through competition, but have become a case study in the difficulties of contracting out. Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, has pointed to many flaws with the new system. Meg Hillier, the chairwoman of the parliamentary public-accounts committee, has said there is a danger that the Ministry of Justice has “bitten off more than it can chew”.

The reforms were ambitious. Previously, public-sector trusts supervised about 220,000 ex-convicts a year. The new system added some 45,000 short-term prisoners, and split offenders into two groups. Those deemed to be a high risk to the public were left under the state-run National Probation Service. The rest went to private contractors known as Community Rehabilitation Companies. These companies are paid for each offender they supervise, with deductions if they miss targets, such as filing resettlement plans on time, and bonuses if they reduce reoffending.

The first tranche of reoffending data, released in October, is mixed. It shows that 13 of the 21 contractors have managed a statistically significant drop in recidivism, compared with 2011 levels. But, based on preliminary data, only three are on course to cut the average number of offences per reoffender, another target.

Comparing their performance with that of the public sector is tricky, because of the different profile of the offenders they deal with. And reoffending rates may not be a good way to measure success, says Julian Le Vay, a former finance director of the prison service. He points out that they started to fall before the reforms, dropping by two percentage points between 2010-11 and 2014-15. The average number of offences per reoffender rose from 3.3 to 3.7 in the same period. It is unlikely that these changes reflect the work of the prison and probation services, says Mr Le Vay.

Other targets create unwelcome incentives. Contracts dictate that providers must complete prisoners’ resettlement plans, but not how thoroughly they must fill them in. In one inspection Dame Glenys found blank plans being filed. That means the contractor is paid in full, but it fails convicts on their release. Similarly, a probation officer who supervises clients sloppily is less likely to notice breaches of the release agreement, such as missing a scheduled meeting. But firms see their pay docked for such breaches, so some may be tempted to turn a blind eye. Gabriel Amahwe of MTCnovo, a probation firm, wishes that the contracts were more flexible. That would allow staff to tailor plans more closely to their local area.

Another problem is estimating the workload and pay for contractors. At first private firms were expected to get around 70% of the offenders. In fact they took only around 40%. As a result, cash-strapped contractors have made cutbacks. Some probation officers now meet clients in libraries and church halls, which lack safety features, such as panic buttons, and private areas to discuss sensitive topics, like child custody. More supervision is done by phone, which makes it harder to gauge offenders’ emotional state. Some contractors are piloting assessment by unmanned electronic kiosks.

Moreover, a family conflict or alcohol problems may push an offender’s risk level from medium to high. That means a disruptive transfer from a private contractor to the state-run service, explains Richard Garside of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, a think-tank. A parliamentary justice committee has set up an inquiry into how to improve rehabilitation. But don’t expect any easy fixes. As Mr Garside puts it, probation delivers “complex services to people with complex problems”.


Interestingly, I notice Julian Le Vay recently made this observation on his blog site:- 

Nothing To See Here
Difficult times at the MoJ - everything going badly, less money every year, everyone saying you're not doing enough to put things right. Still, David Lidington and his Perm Sec, David Heaton, have found a solution: just don't tell anyone what you're doing. I was searching the other day for the usual Departmental and Agency Plans and Strategies spelling out what they aim to do, the key dates, key targets, how they money will be used - and they no longer exist. All there is now is a super-bland statement of nothing much 'Single departmental plan: 2015 to 2020'

As for Parliament, that great bulwark of our liberties, they simply haven't noticed. Too busy 'taking back control', I expect...

Julian Le Vay

I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.


  1. There was a time a PO could put their name to an article proud of their work. Today a pseudonym in order to protect themselves. Staggering state of affairs and when you read more use of public spaces to interview there is no surprises to guess what areas that is likely to be. WL MTC et al

    1. Not a guess 10.14! Plenty off news coverage in the guardian online ( kirstey brewer letters ) and local papers that this is happening now in working links. Weston super mare in a library and not denied by working links! Scum.

    2. Working links have definitely bitten off more than they can chew. They are currently dealing with a larger than average number of SFO's. The fact that they have cut staff down to the bone should act as a wake up call you would hope! They need qualified and experienced staff to deal with the medium risk donestic violence cases and manage risk. PO's need to be able to devote more time to these unpredictable people. Middle maanagers are spread over multiple office bases to save more money. Supervision thin on the ground and certain managers have zero experience and brought in to manage targets by sending snotty e mails on a regular basis to harassed staff. Let us not forget 300 plus women die each year in U.K at the hands of an abusive parner or ex partner. Latest SFO. I wonder how many cases the OM had? Was he or she a PO or PSO? If caseload was over what it should be then working links should be faced with serious questions. They should be taken to court and asked to justify how they can safely manage all these DV cases when they have cut maingrade staff by over 50%. Too many for remaining PO's so PSO's increasingly carrying multiple DV cases also. Utterly disgraceful and beyond contempt when lives could have been saved over the last 3 years in Wales and South West. The most uncaring organisition.I have ever heard of. NAPO will need to give their members some massive support in WL because from what I hear the few staff left are in dire straights. Many have left or in process of leaving and more will surely follow unless CRC's go back to public ownership or are taken over by someone who actually knows what they are doing and gives a damm. Managers who sit back and ignore the situation will ultimately pay the price, whether that be their reputation or job or both. They should be sticking up for their staff and grow a backbone.

    3. Napo Sw is well led and saturated with members of staff in situations caused by Working links abuses.

  2. I hear this went well...

    Hundreds of probation officers have appealed against the jobs assigned to them under a new system due to contract out most probation work from next year.
    The National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) told the BBC that 119 of the 553 appeals had been successful.
    Probation in England and Wales is being split between a new public body, private companies and voluntary groups.
    The justice secretary said the number of appeals was a "tiny fraction" of what he had expected.
    Chris Grayling said the reforms were needed to cut costs and reduce reoffending.
    The 553 appeals were from the 18 trusts, out of 35 overall, from which Napo has so far obtained figures.
    The number is expected to increase significantly as more staff are told where they will be working under the plans.
    Napo, which represents more than 7,000 probation staff, is concerned about the process for allocating probation officers to their roles.
    As part of the government's reforms, some £450m worth of contracts have been offered to private and voluntary sector organisations.
    This covers the supervision of 160,000 low- and medium-risk offenders a year on a payment-by-results basis.
    The contracts will be spread across 20 regions in England and one in Wales.
    A new public sector National Probation Service will deal with high-risk offenders.
    Some probation officers are being told they will be working for the out-sourced companies and others will be employed by the National Probation Service.
    Napo's deputy chair in Gloucestershire, Joanna Hughes, said the process for allocating jobs had been "divisive".
    "It's not going to create a good atmosphere for reducing reoffending, for protecting the public," she said.
    BBC File on 4 has also learned that 10 of the 33 most senior probation officials are planning to leave the service when the probation trusts they lead are abolished.
    The Probation Chiefs Association said it represented "hundreds of years of experience" that would not be put to use under the new structure of supervising offenders.
    Thousands of members of Napo staged a 24-hour strike in November over the planned changes and the union is considering legal action against the government in a bid to stop the reforms.
    However, Mr Grayling is determined to press on with the changes, which he expects to be fully in place by April 2015."

  3. "The cash-strapped contractors ". Can't quite believe they are cash strapped. No one knows presumably how much or little money they have made from our taxes . Chances are they're not cash strapped , just not raking it in quite to the extent they had hoped for. FOI requests would not be able to reach as far as the private contractors' balance sheets would they? This assertion that my CRC employer is cash strapped, no one seems to question it, not even a critically analytical investigative journalist from the Economist, seemingly. The assertion is definitely a wel worn one in our team meetings here in London CRC. No money to cover long term sick leave, working "under capacity " is a favourite phrase, no money to employ admin staff , site management staff. I'm sure they would have us all on an office cleaning rota if they thought they could get away with it. £2000 penalty for every case that is not "released" on delius on the day of actual release. If it slips your mind to do that on the day, feel guilty. You are costing the company money. Cash strapped? I don't believe it. Mean , secretive, exploitative? That's more likely.?

  4. Anon 1723 here in CGM we feel your pain - recently been told if we don't meet our SL10 targets ( UPW ) we could end up in competency regardless of the fact that in some clusters the UPW managers are useless and offenders constantly get sent home as there are no supervisors !!.
    How do these companies say they're cash strapped when we now manage more offenders on Adult ORA PSS custody cases than we ever have.

    1. Most UPW Supervisors are on zero hour contracts now. CRC's cannot afford to offer contracts so haven't enough contracted staff to run the units. Another result of cost cutting. Most UPW Managers are being told to get paid projects at all costs, Magistrates have lost confidence in UPW, how much time left for Community Payback in this environment?

  5. I'm glad the mags and judges have lost confidence in UW, though not enough of them have and those that have have been an awful long time about it. Are sentencers still stuck because of the need to provide a punishment as part of their sentencing? In our CRC we still get people put on UW who have so many other probs that they could not possibly be expected to comply. The judiciary should take the PSR authors by the hand and visit some sites. They should interview staff and service users and evaluate what they see. Then they should refuse to sentence to UW until the projects are funded adequately, the staff are remunerated properly under decent employment circs and the work is meaningful. Common y'all. Let's each of us take some responsibility for the resistance required.

  6. But didn't the companies have to undergo "due diligence" checks & show they were robust & had guaranteed access to specified £millions of resource in order to be solvent for the duration of the contracts BEFORE they were gifted the off-the-shelf CRCs for £1. That money was over & above the fee-for-service (ffs) or payment-by-results (pbr).

  7. "The Commons public accounts committee established that the contracts included a £300m plus “poison pill” clause guaranteeing bidders their expected profits if the 10-year contracts were cancelled after the general election."

    The CRC owners made sure they were secure even if they don't give two hoots for the staff.

  8. Think one of the problems is that some are sentenced and tick the box for UW only.
    UW is surely one of the most expensive areas of Probation. Think the CRC's are well awsre of this and wouldn't surprise me if having a hand in the lack of confidence behind closed doors.

  9. You must remember this, a [Judas] kiss is just a kiss... MoJ briefings at the start of the whole debacle:

    "Why ‘CRC’?

    • Shape their identity and ways of working. Managers and staff transferred into CRC’s will set their business plan and start the process of innovating and improving service delivery prior to award.
    • De-risks competition. By prefiguring the transfer of staff and assets it provides bidders with total clarity on the assets and liabilities they are inheriting. This shortens the latter stages of competition, and reduces the risk that residual uncertainty puts bidders off or reduces the risk premium they price in to their bids.
    • Ongoing control. The Authority would retain a ‘golden share’ in each CRC such that we could resist any action by the majority owner that was felt to undermine our ability to bring the company back in house and/or sell it on again at contract end."

  10. Some words from Ian Austin MP during debate in October 2013:

    "I support using private and voluntary sector expertise and investment where it works, and I believe that the principles of competition and contestability drive up the quality of public services and can reduce costs, but the Government are planning to invest in a completely untested payments-by-results model and do not have a clue if it will work. First, they have no evidence that it will work in practice. Nowhere else in the world uses a payment-by-results model, and the Justice Secretary cancelled pilot schemes in his first week on the job.

    Secondly, the Government have no clue how many low and medium-risk offenders will go to private companies. This is key to the Government’s plans, but parliamentary questions have revealed they have no idea how many of the 260,000 offenders handled by the probation service are low, medium or high risk. We need to remember that low risk does not mean no risk. Figures show that the majority of serious offences committed on probation are committed by low and medium-risk offenders. Those are the basics and they should be absolutely clear. Instead, the Government are intent on splitting the probation service, and introducing bureaucracy and delays that could lead to mistakes.

    Thirdly, the Government do not even know if the scheme will save money. They are investing in a completely unproven scheme, instead of tried and tested local probation services. That is not good enough when the cost of failure is more criminals committing crime on our streets. That is exactly why chairs of probation trusts told the Government yesterday that the plans will lead to

    “more preventable serious attacks and deaths”."


  11. I greatly value your blog, even though (or because!) I disagree a fair bit.You should really put evidence to the current Justice Committee inquiry on probation, it's so important they get a view from the front line, and you have plenty to say.

    1. HMParliament has long showed they are not seriously interested in CJS or they would have stopped TR "dead in its tracks" with amendments to ORB 2014 or as soon as the reality showed.

      Their latest pathetic response is a motion for debate (not a Bill) from the Justice Select Committee that ignores Probation work altogether.

      Why waste more time?

      Kenneth Clarke has just implied that English and Welsh CJS policy has been driven by what sells newspapers for decades.

      For all Clarke's efforts there are still IPPs banged up THIS MORNING ten years after they were sentenced to a few months prison.

      Meanwhile us in the commentariat prattle on.

    2. Julian, thanks for commenting.

      Increasingly, it's not me that's having a lot to say, but rather the many hundreds of contributors. Giving anonymous evidence to the JSC is not easy and would have little impact. I believe my contribution can be most effective by continuing to provide an information-sharing platform for all those concerned about probation and it's seemingly inexorable demise. As always, we welcome discussion and debate and are more than happy for you to chip in as you see fit.


  12. Up to you, but the Committee have taken anon evidence in the past and wd understand why. On Adrew's comment, part of the reason Plt does not focus on probation is they hear lots of first hand experience on prisons but rarely on probation, this wd be a chance to give that front line view and place it on record where it wd be published for all to see.

    1. Responding to Julian Le Vay

      I am pretty sure that even were I still working to earn a living, that I would not have remained as a probation officer employee for one day after the National Probation Service and Community Rehabilitation Companies were formed on 1st June 2014, resulting in my contract of employment, without my explicit agreement, having been transferred from a probation Trust.

      As a holder of a qualification that allowed me to seek work as a local government social worker, I had choices that many other more recently professionally qualified probation officers were denied by Governments of the 1990s. It is understandable that many others felt their best short term employment interests lay with firstly seeing how things worked out in practise after the predicted dangerous split.

      By the time I had retired in October 2003, I had already endeavoured to engage with parliamentarians in a multitude of ways and rarely even got a hearing. The influence of Napo diminished after one Minister decided we were dinosaurs and individually and collectively our respect diminished once we could no longer establish liaisons with lay magistrates - they were the people that initially encouraged the growth of probation officers by their use of us in ways beyond those required by legislation.

      Latterly such engagement invariably resulted in frustration & and finally I was literally shooed away in the central lobby of the House of Commons in February 2014 by my MP (admittedly a Grayling disciple). She had tried to tell me, that having that day consulted senior personages in Essex Police, Probation and County Council, that the split could be successfully and safely undertaken in Essex, which was her prime concern.

      However, were I still employed - I guess that if I had sufficient energy and time I would still be keeping my MP up to date with details of the disasters Parliament is enforcing on the people of England and Wales.

      This review gives one more opportunity, but as I said earlier such is the lack of understanding of members of the Justice Committee about how the CJS is interdependent, one agency upon another, that probation & the wider CJS do not even get a mention in the jolly Neill's motion about prisons, I have low expectations

      I shall read that debate with interest but doubt many MPs will have the integrity to speak honestly or intelligently about the detail of the failures of probation which should already be well known by all in parliament, without the need for further enquiry.