Wednesday 31 July 2013

Omnishambles Update 12

Lets kick this off with yet another thoughtful blog post from someone who feels that 'outsourcing' or privatisation as I prefer to call it, is not the best way of doing things, and certainly not the best way of achieving cost savings or improved services. 

Writing in the Huffington Post, independent strategic adviser John Tizard says quite clearly that it's time for the tide to ebb in terms of more public sector outsourcing:-    

Whilst acknowledging that there are clear differences between and within Whitehall departments and between local authorities or NHS trusts, in truth the narrative and justification for involving the business sector in public service delivery has never been consistent. I recall arguments such as the need to: increase capacity; reduce costs; leverage investment; address underperformance; source scarce expertise; transfer risk (although actually, ultimate risk is hardly ever transferable); tackle poor industrial relations (and sometimes to take on the trade unions); and in some specific cases, extending choice to service users. Sometimes it has been for ideological reasons.
The reality, however, is that evidence that outsourcing to the business sector is better (or worse) than retaining services within the public sector is often hard to prove, for it's practically difficult to compare with an untested alternative. That said, what evidence does exist suggests at best a very mixed picture and nothing like as glowing a success as some marketing presentations or political promotions might suggest. Some early examples of success are not repeatable. Times and conditions have changed
It is a fact that early outsourcing initiatives often led to significant savings (either through productivity improvements or deep cost cutting) with variable quality service provision - but increasingly and unsurprisingly, the public sector has become more efficient and able to itself improve and reform. It's also easier to measure benefits in services such as 'back office' support than it is in services with more complex services with complex outcomes. And whilst there are some examples of outsourcing of such complex services which have been to be successful many have not. The contemporary public sector leader would be well advised to also consider alternative models of service delivery and not simply to pursue outsourcing as the natural and inevitable model.
He goes on to explain in some detail that things have moved on and the outsourcing argument is now just so 'last year' as a concept, thus only leaving ideology as covert justification. 
Meanwhile, despite the denials, there's clear evidence that Chris Grayling is still intent on pursuing the privatisation of the courts service. There's been a suspicion for some time that he's been trying to charm the judiciary round to his way of thinking, and astonishingly he seems to be succeeding as Joshua Rozenberg writing in the Guardian discovered from a document leaked last month:-    
The very idea that private companies should be allowed to invest in the courts of England and Wales is extraordinary enough. But what is so breathtaking about the judicial response leaked to the Guardian and reported here by Owen Bowcott is that, subject to important safeguards, the judges would be willing to go along with it.
First news that something was afoot came in a deliberately low-key statement to parliament on 26 March from the justice secretary and lord chancellor, Chris Grayling. Explaining that it was necessary to raise revenue and increase investment in the courts, Grayling said he had asked his officials "to consider appropriate vehicles to achieve these aims".
Since running costs are clearly no object when there is money to be made, Ministry of Justice officials chose the Rolls Royce of managements consultants and lawyers, McKinsey & Company and Slaughter and May. We can take it that McKinsey are advising the government on structures and Slaughters are advising on raising capital.
The paper leaked to the Guardian represents the judges' view of how the courts administration service might be restructured. It was signed by Lord Justice Gross, the senior presiding judge, on 8 May.
In it, the judges frankly accept the "weakness of the present arrangements" for running the courts. This is the currently the responsibility of a body called HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), an agency of the Ministry of Justice created two years ago. Uniquely, HMCTS operates as a partnership between the lord chancellor, who is a government minister, and two serving judges, the lord chief justice and the senior president of tribunals.
HMCTS is responsible for administering all the criminal, civil and family courts and tribunals in England and Wales. It has a budget of £1.7bn but recovers only £585m in fees. You can see why the government sees room for improvement.
From the judges' point of view, the problem with HMCTS is that it is a servant with two masters: the government and the judiciary. HMCTS is unable to raise capital and does not enjoy security of funding from a lord chancellor who has many other responsibilities.
So the judges believe that HMCTS is "not an attractive option for the long term — and likely to become increasingly unattractive as Treasury cut-backs and other fiscal constraints have increasing effect".
That is why the judges are willing to support a successor body, which they refer to as "New CTS". As envisaged by the judges, New CTS would be free to attract private-sector capital investment and raise revenue.
It's quite astonishing, but as evidenced by a recent letter to all judges from Chris Grayling and the top judges, they've been thoroughly seduced into the concept that a public corporation could raise money and do things better, but that it definitely wouldn't be privatisation.
I've written quite a bit about G4S recently, but we must try and be balanced so I'm grateful to a reader for pointing me in the direction of this recent article in the Guardian about Serco. I've always felt they were particularly scary having started out out as a branch of the Radio Corporation of America who basically built and operated the UK/USA Distant Early Warning System watching for Russian Ballistic Missiles during the Cold War.
Having changed their name and morphed into Serco, as the article makes clear, there isn't an area of operation that they regard as off limits as they effectively develop into a scary 'shadow state'. Effectively we know nothing about companies like this because all requests for information either to them or government are always refused on the grounds of 'commercial sensitivity' and of course they are protected from the irritation of the Freedom of Information Act.
What this company now runs is truly staggering, they're moving into health and their reach is global:-
But the basic facts are plain enough. As well as five British prisons and the tags attached to over 8,000 English and Welsh offenders, Sercosees to two immigration removal centres, at Colnbrook near Heathrow, and Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire. You'll also see its logo on the Docklands Light Railway and Woolwich ferry, and is a partner in both Liverpool's Merseyrail network, and the Northern Rail franchise, which sees to trains that run in a huge area between the North Midlands and English-Scottish border.
Serco runs school inspections in parts of England, speed cameras all over the UK, and the National Nuclear Laboratory, based at the Sellafield site in Cumbria. It also holds the contracts for the management of the UK's ballistic missile early warning system on the Yorkshire moors, the running of the Manchester Aquatics Centre, and London's "Boris bikes".
But even this is only a fraction of the story. Among their scores of roles across the planet, Serco is responsible for air traffic control in the United Arab Emirates, parking-meter services in Chicago, driving tests in Ontario, and an immigration detention centre on Christmas Island, run on behalf of those well-known friends of overseas visitors the Australian government.
In the US, the company has just been awarded a controversial $1.25bn contract by that country's Department of Health. All told, its operations suggest some real-life version of the fantastical mega-corporations that have long been invented by fiction writers; a more benign version of theTyrell Corporation from Blade Runner, say, or one of those creations from James Bond movies whose name always seems to end with the word "industries".
Until I read this, I hadn't thought of the obvious reference to the Tyrell Corporation and my other favourite film 'Bladerunner'. To be honest, learning that the guy in charge is an evangelical Christian doesn't make feel any too easier about things either.
Finally, news reaches me that the senior management team at London Probation Trust are getting very upset with Napo's campaign leaflets appearing in waiting rooms and other 'offender areas' and ordered their immediate removal.   

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Some Observations 17

I always find it's good to kick off a post by kicking G4S. I'm grateful to the commentator who pointed me in the direction of the embarrassing position the BBC finds itself in by seemingly being about to enter into a large security contract with said company. As this piece on the brilliantly named blogsite 'STOP G4S' outlines, a whole host of the rich and famous are on the case, but we await the Beeb's decision with interest. 

The 'STOP G4S' site is well worth a good root around and I love their style in having produced a wonderful spoof chairman's letter which was handed out to shareholders at the AGM in June. It begins:-

"This has been something of a roller coaster year for us. The publicity we gained from our Olympics failure may have been mostly negative. But it's important we remember that G4S is now a household brand and that our business model of zero-hours contracts, limited communication and maximal outsourcing is now widely understood."

My recent mention of concerns over our sacred NHS finds yet more news of contractors pulling out of the disastrous 111 telephone service that replaced the former NHS Direct one. Apparently, the reason given is 'financial unsustainability' or in laymans terms shit money, a situation with an increasingly familiar ring to it. Coincidentally, my attention has been drawn to this piece on the Guerilla Policy website and a disturbing new book NHS SOS just published.

Also on the Guerilla Policy website is this fascinating post written by founder Michael Harris on the subject of 'shadow politics' and an explanation of 'how outsourcing and privatisation have got their teeth into public services'. Definitely worth reading in full, here's just a couple of tasters:- 

One of the smoke and mirrors twists common in the shadow politics is the nationalisation of private failure, and the privatisation of public success – witness the public bailing out the banks, and the privatisation of the income-generating Royal Mail. To wit: if companies like G4S can’t be trusted to do their job with competence and integrity, it must ultimately be the fault of the state – so further undermining the legitimacy of the latter to the ultimate benefit of the former. 

So – a policy no-one voted for, which the political class itself acknowledges lacks evidence, doesn’t work in practice and which raises significant issues of public accountability, but which carries on regardless, propelled by private interests, lobbying and donations. It’s the shadow politics in action. 

With ever more people finding themselves working for dodgy employers, from Monday it's not going to be as easy to go to an Industrial Tribunal because fees have been introduced by the government in order to discourage vexatious claims. An utterly cynical move by government, I notice that at least one trade union, Unite, intend to pay the upfront fees on behalf of members.

We don't often hear what clients or former clients feel about things, but this powerful piece
'Making Good : The Comodification of Offenders' by Raymond Lunn is quite a damning indictment that should make very sobering reading both by prospective bidders for probation contracts, and Chris Grayling himself. Read it in full, but here's a taster:- 

Over the last few years I’ve been engaging, some things have changed in terms of looking at the rehabilitation of offenders, the crock of shit the government call ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ is now a main stay in terms of the present governments agenda. I don’t feel the opposition are thinking of anything much different either. The ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ agenda and changes are all about opening up the the public services dedicated to protection of the public and reform of offenders to private and charitable ‘enterprise’. This is a red flag if ever there was one! It petrifies the life out of me that people who might be as naive as I was will be taken in, mentors and volunteers to assist some enterprise in their creation of a business in the guise of ‘doing good’. Even though we ex-offenders have important knowledge in terms of experiences and qualified more than any ‘professional’ to understand why we desisted, we are not considered as equals in terms of knowledge and expertise. They want it, they want to use it, they even want to sell it. But not as an equal in terms of being considered valuable enough to pay for.

I’ve never wanted to mentor, I’ve always being about challenging policy, the inequalities and discrimination faced by those who wish to integrate and ‘make good’ – the problem is and my warning to any would-be ex-offender who wants to make good  is to be careful, be wise, value yourself, your knowledge and your narrative. Don’t let anyone make you think you owe them or society. You’ve paid your debt, you owe jack shit, other than yourself. Make good, but on your terms. Check out why they want you, what is their history, I advise anyone getting involved with any organisation, especially if new to check out who the directors of the enterprise are, what do their financial reports say. Some of the ‘enterprises’ will scream and say ‘We’re not for profit’ – you don’t have to be, check the wage structure and shareholder dividends. Look for independent reviews by people who worked there or were service users. Don’t follow the crowd, the ‘in’ crowd. Some, if not all great services are often the quietest, they just get on with it, rather than odiously celebrating their ‘good news’ on social media and ignore the probing and relevant questions!

Finally, here's a wonderful article in The Sun about a TripAdvisor-style website for prisons. One respondent describes HMP Wormwood Scrubs thus:-

"The view from the room was poor and obscured by iron bars. Facilities were rudimentary to say the least - no television, mini bar or ensuite facilities. Due to overbooking I was forced to share with a rather charmless individual by the name of 'Mike the Hatchet' who was keen to know why my stay was so short. I sought out the shower facilities in the morning and had to queue and was then told 'not to bend down for the soap' by a surly member of staff. 

When I went to check out I was interviewed by a panel of three people who asked a lot of strange questions. For some reason my departure was met with unruliness by the other guests who banged their mugs against the iron bars and shouted obscenities. The only plus point was that after checkout I discovered that reception had forgotten to charge me for my stay." 

Monday 29 July 2013

A Call to Arms!

No doubt it will take a few days for the results of the two union indicative ballots for industrial action to sink in. Colleagues in both Napo and Unison will each be having to consider whether they will indeed take action, that might include going on strike, should the need arise.

As is well known, Napo is not regarded as a militant union and has only ever gone in for a token days withdrawal of labour very infrequently. Even then it's usually been a half-hearted affair designed to cause as little disruption as possible. But many are beginning to sense that this is different. This is not essentially about pay and conditions, pensions or workloads, it's about principle and the very existence of the job, service and profession. This is quite unlike any situation we've ever faced before and as a result attitudes to taking industrial action are changing.

By way of illustration, I hope Joe Public will not mind me reproducing their very candid assessment of the situation as published on the Napo forum website:- 

A resounding 92%, in the indicative ballot, have voted to oppose the privatisation of probation. Maybe the turnout figure was not as high as that achieved by the Royal Mail in their ballot – 74% - but it's a rung on the ladder and a time to build support and keep adding to the awareness of how bad these TR plans are – not just in terms of the management of probation services, but the impact they will have on the livelihoods of the current workforce. 

They may still be some staff who are living on Mars and think this change in ownership from public to private is a management transition that is happening above their heads. The truth is some of these optimists will lose their heads in further rounds of redundancies. The private companies are going to make deep cuts in order to make profit. They will cut into the living standards of the workforce, by lowering wages, weakening benefits across the board – from support if you fall sick to poorer pensions and zero hours contracts. These contracts which do not guarantee a minimum number of working hours each week are spreading like wildfire through the private and even not-for-profit sector. Even a charity such as Turning Point has introduced them. There is nothing alarmist in saying that if these privatisation plans go ahead it will be doomsday for your wages, holiday allowances, sickness provision, pay increases - and job security. It can get worse – and it will if left to its own accord.

For the last ten years or so you may have been listening to chiefs and senior managers who, as they have implored you to work harder, have told you that high work performance will protect your jobs and secure your futures. They weren't lying, they were just wrong. They underestimated just how determined the politicians are to see the public services, including probation, largely privatised. Those same managers will now reformulate their words and tell you that the best thing now is to keep working hard and deal with the forthcoming changes as good professionals. They won't dwell on things – in fact they won't mention wages and job security – that affect your standard of living because if these changes go ahead your standard of living will go into free-fall. It is time to stop putting your trust in the management interpretation of events, because they are pretending all will be OK when in truth they know it won't be, but because of pressure from the Ministry of Justice they are too frightened to make a stand and speak out. They will only ever be your managers, never heroes of your cause. 

This is the time to make a stand if you want to stand a chance of preserving your standard of living and strengthening your say in changes that affect you. The results of the ballot are a good statement of intent. You cannot oppose, alone, as an individual, because you would be ignored, brushed aside, in fact your objections won't matter one jot. But when thousands of voices speak in unison, in solidarity, you have a powerful weapon. More of those outside the probation service will prick up their ears and become aware of your discontent. We will gain more support and attract alliances. The general public is increasingly cynical about private being somehow better than public provision. When they realise that these plans to privatise will increase the risk of harm to the public, they will put two and two together – but they won't do this if they see the bulk of probation staff passively going along with privatisation. Probation staff know these proposals are dangerous – don't we all have a duty to the public to be candid and truthful?

The government identifies industrial unrest in probation as high risk factor that may undermine the implementation of their agenda to privatise the probation service. What probation needs most at the present time is not stability – it needs unrest and agitation. 

For the past decade probation staff have worked hard to sustain performance even when resources have diminished. The workforce has taken hits to their terms and conditions and wages have stagnated. And the government's reward for your public service is to basically kick you in the teeth and disown you. The government does not expect you to fight back. If the workforce does fight back the government may be forced into a U-turn or maybe the changes will still be imposed. But if we don't fight our hardest at this critical moment in probation history we will never know whether a public probation service could have been saved.

Here is a comment made to this blog by Tim and I hope he will not mind me quoting it in full:-

I voted 'yes' in the indicative ballot, will vote 'yes' in a strike ballot, and will be on the picket line if it comes to a walk out. I can't afford to lose a day's pay - but then I certainly won't be able to afford living on G4S wages.

I am worried, though, that we're too small a group, and too invisible a service, for a strike to work. If the bin men go on strike, you see the rubbish in the streets. If the teachers take industrial action, parents have to stay home with their children. We all know that what we do is important, even life-saving in some cases - but our successes are largely private and failures very public. And we struggle to articulate what we actually do in a comprehensible way - which has allowed Chris Grayling to paint probation work as simply "supporting" people. No mention of challenging people's beliefs week after week after week - no, just meet 'em at the prison gates and get them a job and a flat and all will be well.

I do think we need to take industrial action, and that it needs to be sorted out quickly given that the third reading of the Bill will be on us very shortly. And I also hope that there is some co-ordination with other justice unions to amplify the message - although we need our very specific cause to be spelled out very clearly.

Unless (straw-clutching time) Mr Grayling gets another promotion in an autumn Cabinet reshuffle, and whoever comes in decides to review things. I can just imagine him trying to crowbar Payment by Results into the Foreign Office... "Now, President Obama, you've had a couple of years to sort Syria out, but it just hasn't happened, and those nice people over at Sodexho reckon they can do it on the cheap."

None of this is going to be pleasant and we are in uncharted waters. But I really do think the time has come for us to make a stand as a profession and in the clearest terms say that we will take industrial action if no plan 'B' is forthcoming. We have no choice really in what will be a noble cause and not one of just self interest, but rather one that seeks to try and protect the interests of the public and clients as well. 

Sunday 28 July 2013

Building Up To a Rant

It's Sunday and I'm sitting in front of a blank screen, confused and with no idea what to write. Ever since Chris Grayling's Commons announcement a couple of weeks ago, the words have been flying off the keyboard, but now I find myself just pondering the whole bloody mess in sheer disbelief really. 

Writing this blog has taken me on quite a journey of discovery and increasing enlightenment. When I started I was angry and wanted to explain why I thought things were going wrong with the job. Then I started explaining what the job was about, and now I find myself embroiled in a battle to save the job from what I have come to understand is a neoliberal conspiracy to privatise every goddamn thing. 

Whatever warm words Sadiq Khan may say on behalf of the Labour Party, in reality there's hardly a cig paper that can separate the whole grubby lot of 'em, Tories Lib Dems or Labour regarding the march towards privatising everything. Our sacred NHS is no longer safe and is being privatised, a dodgy US company now owns blood plasma provision, G4S are running childrens homes for goodness sake, and our national defence infrastructure is about to be sold off. Even the Yanks feel that's a step too far and have issued warnings FFS!  

How can all this be happening, I naively ask myself, when we know the public hates the idea of privatising public services, and especially so if it results in shit companies running them? How is it that in a supposed democracy we do not have a political party that is reflective of the public's utter distaste for what is happening?

It strikes me that virtually every aspect of our national life is being marketised and we are sleep-walking towards disaster. It's no longer trite to suggest that our liberty will soon be affected, along with our health. The alarm bells have been ringing for some time concerning the privatised forensic science services and miscarriages of justice, and we know Chris Grayling would like to do the same with court administration. 

This is all incredibly serious stuff and is inexorably changing the nature of our society. If we needed proof it comes in the form of Transparency International's recent worldwide survey that shows 65% of people in the UK feel corruption has increased in the last two years. No great surprise I suppose in the light of MP's fiddling expenses, journalists hacking phones and police officers selling information. 

But it's much wider than all that and becoming utterly pervasive and corrosive. It's David Cameron refusing to acknowledge any connection with his Australian tobacco company adviser Lynton Crosby in No10 and a sudden change in government policy on plain cigarette packaging. It's Peers selling influence for cash and the tardiness of the Police to investigate allegations of historic sexual offending by public figures. 

Then on top of all this we have scandals with hospital care, abuse in residential care and sheer incompetence by the regulator, all connected to the effects of political decisions on targets, cuts, reorganisations, shit wages and piss-poor training. No heads seem to roll, managers get promoted and others get paid off with vast golden goodbyes. No one seems to take responsibility, no ministers resign and enquiries typically kick everything in to the long grass.

If this is the context, what chance have we really got to row against this tide and preserve a sound, professional, ethical and well-performing public service? One thing I'm sure of is that we have a duty to do all we can both for the benefit of the public and our clients in the face of a tsunami of shit that seems to be enveloping our public life.

Taking strike action would be an honourable thing to do in my view, undertaken with a heavy heart of course, but I don't think history will reflect kindly upon us if we don't, however ill-conceived some may feel such action to be, such as ASPT Chair Joe Kuipers.      

While I'm on a roll and before I finish this rant, I want to mention something else that really annoys me about all this and it's the crimes associated with language, whether through political correctness, cynicism, message management or just plain mischievousness. You know the sort of thing, bus fares don't go up, they are 'new fares'. New 'handy size' means smaller packet. Closure of a day centre suddenly facilitates personalised care packages, all this kind of cynical news management bollocks. It strikes me that the language crimes have to go hand in hand with the political actions. 

This whole subject got an airing recently on a BBC blog highlighting the supposed politically correct, but in reality cynical language used in relation to the care of people with learning disability. A classic example being:- 

One of the unit's ideas was that he should have a person-centred plan. He had to create a wish list, and came up with six things:

  • Live at home with Dad
  • Go on holiday to Somerset
  • Have Christmas presents at home
  • See Toy Story 3 at the cinema
  • Have breakfast in the bacon shop
  • Go swimming at Hampton open-air pool
All six wishes were refused because they were not considered to be in his best interests. To me, that's not a person-centred plan, that's a system-centred plan.

Interestingly, according to this Independent article, the subject has been covered by a recent government report that seeks to ban the use of meaningless statements in government pronouncements:- 

 Jargon: What’s out

* Slimming down (processes don’t diet)
* Foster (unless it is children)
* Agenda (unless it is for a meeting)
* Commit/pledge (we’re either doing something or we’re not)
* Deliver (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts like ‘improvements’ or ‘priorities’)
* Deploy (unless it is military or software)
* Dialogue (we speak to people)
* Key (unless it unlocks something. A subject/thing isn’t ‘key’ – it’s probably ‘important’)
* Progress (as a verb – what are you actually doing?)
* Promote (unless you are talking about an ad campaign or some other marketing promotion)
* Strengthening (unless it’s strengthening bridges or other structures)
* Tackling (unless it is rugby, football or some other sport)
* Transforming (what are you actually doing to change it?)
* Going forward (unlikely we are giving travel directions)

The astute will have spotted that 'Agenda', 'Deliver', 'Tackling' and 'Transforming' are all now  banned terms, so that rather leaves the Ministry of Justice with a bit of a problem with its 'tackling reoffending and delivering the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda' doesn't it?        

Saturday 27 July 2013

Omnishambles Update 11

Lets start this update with some more bad news for Chris Grayling and his plans for privatising the Probation Service. Regular readers will recall that the risk of industrial action was a code 'black' in the official Risk Register, which we are still not allowed to see by the way. 

Code 'black' is the highest level of identified risk that could jeopardise implementation of the whole Grayling omnishambles. Both Napo and Unison have just undertaken indicative ballots of their respective memberships for industrial action, and the results are unequivocal. In the case of Napo, 92% of those who took part voted in favour of taking action that included striking. In the case of Unison, it was 85% in favour of action that included strikes.

This result is pretty unusual for Napo as traditionally they have not had a particularly militant membership willing to strike. This is probably due to the strong professional ethos that probation staff have and sadly a trait that government's have taken advantage of in the past. 

Browsing on the Napo forum pages, I came across the following and I hope the author Joe Public does not mind me quoting in full their analysis of the situation we now find ourselves in as a profession:-
It was only ever a matter of time before neoliberalism got to probation. All the various hoops probation has jumped through in recent years were all preliminary to getting it out of the public sector. I think the government would like to get rid of it lock, stock and barrel, but are worried about public reaction and levels of public trust and confidence if 'high risk' cases were also privatised. 

It has been ideological all along, starting with Labour with the work to be finished by the Tories. I think many in probation were either in denial or were genuinely ignorant of the ideological grand design. So, we had all the garbage about how good performance would safeguard public probation, how by getting lean and mean with staff, costs would be lowered and jobs secured, how cutting terms and conditions – allowances, mileage, subsistence - would save jobs, how making staff redundant would protect jobs. How credulous we were...

The workforce was led up the garden path. And what a bruising path: a bullying target culture, manipulated statistics, and a demeaning crushing of the professional ethic. How good managers were at waving the big stick and yet like frightened rabbits they dare not now put their heads above the parapet to voice opposition to TR which they claim will put the public at increased risk of harm. So we were bullied by the worst type of bully – the coward. I know you, Duende, like a military metaphor: 'lions led by donkeys'.

I don't think there are any protections out there in TUPE. The results of the indicative ballot will be very interesting as to – given their apathetic track record – how many members bother to express an opinion. Probation needs prolonged industrial action, it needs to show a bit of passion and maybe it may just start to register with public opinion what a daft idea TR is. But it is close to the midnight hour!

What the ballot results demonstrate is that with the stakes being so high, attitudes are changing. I'm fairly sure of my ground in being able to say that it's now a forlorn hope on government's part that probation will just 'roll over' in relation to TR. The proposals essentially destroy the service and profession, making colleagues increasingly militant as the details of what is being proposed fully sink in. Remember even barristers withdrew their labour recently for a short time. Make no mistake Minister - apathy and resignation are rapidly turning to anger and action!  

I notice that following my mention yesterday and with exquisite timing, Sir Stephen Bubb, the supremely self-serving cheer-leader for the bosses of the voluntary and charity sector outfits that are bidding for our work, has put in a spirited plea for membership pay rises all round. A former Labour Councillor, but now felt to be close to the Cameron government, he's been variously described as a 'trojan horse' and providing 'charitable astroturfing for government policies'.

It's quite obvious from his utterly self indulgent blog that he has no interest in how charities are cutting employees wages in order to compete for contracts, but classically feels bosses should get more. This guy really does take some believing and I strongly urge readers to keep up with his musings and dining arrangements via his British Library-endorsed blog. Do his members seriously think he portrays an image that appropriately reflects their sector? If they do, then I think it says all we need to know about them and their aspirations.

Talking of image, lets have another pop at Serco and G4S. Why? Because I enjoy it. Firstly, news continues to reach me about the chaos in London and the Unpaid Work contract Serco won last year. This is typical:-

"we do all the breaches for Serco Unpaid Work, complete nightmare as the left arm doesn't know what the right arm is doing, i.e. offenders being turned away from projects because of them being over subscribed and then being told they did not attend."

Here is a wonderful piece about Serco attempting to placate the fears of the voluntary sector from last December on the Third Sector website, complete with a scary picture of boss Gareth Matthews:- 
Just saying Serco's name is enough to send some people in the voluntary sector into a rage. For some, the giant services company embodies everything that is wrong in the new age of contracting, in which charities find themselves competing against the financial might of big companies or becoming subcontractors in a supply chain.

Gareth Matthews, business director for Serco's welfare services, believes that, rather than loathing the company, charities should be grateful for its presence in the social welfare market. He points out that it created the "integrator model" of commissioning, where a large organisation works as a prime contractor, then subcontracts work to smaller organisations in a supply chain.

Overall, Matthews believes that the benefits of working with the third sector outweigh the risks. "The third sector is very innovative," he says. "To be honest, I could spend a decade building up that experience in-house. By and large, I just capitalise on it and it delivers fantastic results."

Yes Gareth, it worked really well on the Work Programme! Anyway, finally on to G4S and their corporate theme song. Yes they do have one and it's just as bad as you might imagine it to be. It can be heard here on the New Statesman website, but if you want to sing along, and I admit I have tried it, the lyrics are as follows:- 

You love your job and the people too
Making a difference is what you do
But consider all you have at stake
The time is now don't make a mistake
Because the enemy prowls, wanting to attack
But we're on the wall, we've got your back
So get out front and take the lead
And be the winner you were born to be
G4S! protecting the world
G4S! so dreams can unfurl

24/7 every night and day
A warrior stands ready so don't be afraid
G4S! secure in your world
G4S! let your dreams unfurl

We're guarding you with all our might
Keeping watch throughout the night

Friday 26 July 2013

Crisis? - What Crisis?

I'm led to believe that down at MoJ/NOMS HQ they are in crisis mode with upwards of 350 staff sweating away trying to make sure the impossible timetable on the Transforming Rehabilitation omnishambles doesn't slip. Apparently Chris Grayling is cracking the whip in an unprecedented manner insisting that he meets his top team at least twice a week! The guy is rattled, and so he should be with yet more bad news to deal with.

As the Howard League points out out, private prisons are now the worst performing in the country according to the latest report issued by the Ministry of Justice. In particular two new establishments, HMP Oakwood run by G4S and HMP Thameside run by Serco are felt to be causing so much concern that each has been awarded the lowest possible ranking. So much for the private sector doing things better, and yet more reason why these two companies are now completely out of the running for any prime contractor probation contracts. No wonder it's crisis down at HQ!

Just to rub salt in the wound, as luck would have it the MoJ have just published another report    into the performance of all 35 publicly-run Probation Trusts with every one achieving either 'excellent' or 'good' status. Frances Crooke of the Howard League sums things up nicely I think:-

"There could not be a more damning indictment of the government's fanatical obsession with justice privatisation than its own performance figures. Last autumn, the Justice Secretary hailed G4S Oakwood as an example of what the private sector could achieve in prisons. We agree. The prison, ranked joint-bottom in the country, is wasting millions and creating ever more victims of crime.

The figures also show that the public sector probation service is turning lives around, protecting victims and keeping costs down. We have the best probation service in the world. So why is the government trying to destroy it by handing it over to private security firms? The Justice Secretary should immediately scrap his politically-motivated privatisation of probation."

The third report published by the MoJ concerns reoffending rates and it's yet more good news for publicly-run probation. As the PCA website states:-

The proven re-offending rate for those starting a court order (Community Order or Suspended Sentence Order) managed by Probation Trusts was 34.3%, down 3.6% since 2000. The average number of re-offences per re-offender was 3.22, down 16.7 per cent since 2000. 

In view of all this, a reasonably intelligent person would ask 'so why is the government breaking up probation and privatising it?' Using some classic client-style distorted reasoning, the Justice Minister Chris Grayling says it's because the reoffending rate for those released from prison having been given 12 months or less has gone up - the group that probation doesn't have anything to do with.

I'm sure at least part of the feverish activity down at MoJ/NOMS HQ is to do with making sure there are enough credible alternative bidders for the 21 prime contract packages, now that the two former 'dead certs' are on the naughty step. As we saw on Tuesday, Chris Grayling had a concerted go at schmoozing the voluntary and charity sector, and sure enough the forever self-serving Sir Stephen Bubb (did you know he's looking for a 'decent' publisher for his book on the history of charities?) pops up with this piece in the Guardian. 

Writing as the official cheer-leader for the sector's CEO's, he takes the opportunity for some special pleading and attempts to make the point that "the voluntary sector is not a cut-price alternative to state provision."  Altogether now, Oh yes they are! 

Lets take a look at a very large and well-known charity Turning Point and how they've been making themselves very competitive in readiness for some cut-price bidding in relation to probation privatisation. Last November they basically announced that the entire workforce of 2,300 would be sacked and immediately re-employed on worse terms and conditions. Why I hear you ask? Because they have to be competitive of course. As this Civil Society article

Only this year, the charity had reported an increase in income and the addition of 182 staff to its rota. In the financial year ended 31 March 2012 Turning Point income grew nearly 5 per cent to £79.3m - largely on the back of new contracts. The vast majority of its income comes from grants from local authorities or other agencies.

The charity said that other organisations it competes against for contracts have already made such changes, and that reducing costs is critical to protecting jobs and continuing its work with vulnerable people. Turning Point said it was seeking to protect as many jobs as possible and that the changes would 'move towards a market rate for employees, one that protects their base pay'. 

As Turning Point themselves make clear, other similar organisations have taken or will be taking similar action to make themselves 'leaner and meaner', but in this case it's worth noting that the Unite union have lodged 300 claims with Industrial Tribunals. 

Meanwhile, MoJ/NOMS HQ are desperately seeking volunteer Probation Trusts to 'road test' various aspects of the omnishambles during August. It's a sad fact of life, but I guess there will be keen takers of such options in order to either enhance their position when the time comes to divvy up posts, or be considered for burnished golden goodbyes. 

I notice that Napo in Devon and Cornwall seem to be the first to register a dispute with their Trust employers over the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda. Judging by his recent tweets, Harry Fletcher would seem surprised that other's haven't as yet followed suit. In fact to be honest the former Napo Assistant General Secretary seems to be rather more bullish than the present union incumbents. 

On twitter he appears to be advocating as many questions as possible being thrown in the direction of employers and the MoJ, for example by challenging the separation of staff into high and low intensity teams. He asks does this raise issues of discrimination, particularly for PSO's? What consultation has there been? What about risk issues?         
In response to suggestions of evidence that some staff are being told that those who argue or cause trouble 'will be the first to go', Harry would appear to be firmly of the opinion that such behaviour would be excellent grounds to start grievance procedures for work place bullying either on an individual basis, or in groups. Go for it he says!

Thursday 25 July 2013

It's Political Stupid!

The march of outsourcing or privatisation of public services appears to have few boundaries, with whole new sectors being announced at regular intervals. Many felt that the announcement by Michael Gove that Doncaster Borough Council was to be stripped of its children's services for at least five years was in effect a trial run for the whole sector. This Guardian article appears to confirm the suspicion and interestingly names Serco as a likely contender for the work:- 

The government is planning to allow outsourcing firms to bid for contracts to manage social services for vulnerable children in England – while dropping laws allowing the removal of companies that fail to do the job properly.
A number of firms have expressed an interest in proposals that would allow them to bid for contracts managing foster care and providing other services for children in care.
A Department for Education spokesperson said that even though some legal requirements would be removed under government plans, inspections and a national minimum standard for providers would be covered by councils' existing obligations. The DfE said it was "nonsense to suggest that private-sector and voluntary organisations cannot provide good-quality services for children" and that the suggested change in policy was first explored under the last government.
This article in Public Finance by John Tizard casts serious doubt on whether the private sector does indeed do things better as politicians of all colours would have us believe:-

Over the last few decades under successive governments, there has been a political and ‘new public management’ view that the use of competition and outsourcing of public services is intrinsically a ‘good thing’ that will result in savings, better performance than the public sector can produce, and often a greater choice for the service user.  Actually, the evidence to date has been very mixed and I suggest that in future, and without firm evidence, such assumptions are best avoided. 

Public services are not the same as consumer services, especially when they are funded wholly or in part through public expenditure and/or have a wider public interest than simply serving an individual user. Unfortunately we are guilty of having introduced the language and some management approaches of the retail sector into public services and not always appropriately.

The Best Value Social Value Act places a specific duty on the public sector to secure wider social, economic and environmental outcomes when procuring public services.  Unfortunately however, and all too often, the emphasis has typically been on lowest cost and attempts to transfer risks to the provider (often spuriously) rather than securing public value. Again, perhaps inevitably, there is a strong sense of price driven procurement  being adopted in this period of austerity simply (or primarily) as a means of reducing public expenditure.
In this Guardian article, whilst acknowledging that the whole political love-in with outsourcing, or more accurately privatisation, remains intact, the lack of accountability is set to become a big issue:-

In politics, ideological conviction remains intact. Tory commitment to 'the market' is untouched and shrinking the state and outsourcing the state go hand in hand. Labour, so keen on contracting when in power, is still on board. Contractors retain their friends in high places, including NHS England. Their lobbying power is formidable.
And yet they may still be facing a moment of vulnerability, even danger – at least in balance sheet terms. If £1 in £3 of public service spending now goes through contractors, you see ratios of up to 75% in contractors' dependence on the state (not just UK central government of course). Tony Travers of the London School of Economics calls them 'para-statal', not so different from arm's length bodies or quangos.
When the Treasury publishes its 'Whole of Government Accounts' you won't see Serco's debts and turnover though, in theory, its revenues from government ought to be detectable. Should it, as an entity, feature in any account of the state – and 'account' could mean what it pays its chief executive, its governance and its costs. Why should NHS foundation trusts have to conduct their business in public, when Virgin remains so opaque?
It's a question that gets asked more insistently, not least by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Shouldn't its pursuit of the 'public pound' carry it deep inside Capita?
Then there's the ever present issue of contractors just fiddling things:- 

The Institute for Government (IfG) pursues a parallel track in its report on outsourcing, its principal concern whether what gets confidently described as markets are in fact being rigged into cartels and even monopolies. The National Audit Office's recent study of the 'market' for delivering high-speed broadband to rural areas in the UK is emblematic: local authorities arranging the service find their choice of provider is BT, BT or BT. The IfG provides welcome detail on competitive conditions in employment services and social care.
But the report's authors end up wondering who ensures contractors behaved fairly or competitively. The regulators of competition in private markets in the Office for Fair Trading and Competition Commission (their own performance variable shading into indifferent) have never really interested themselves in the huge expansion of public service contracting. Whitehall departments have, typically, neither the skill nor the inclination to 'manage markets' and – certainly in front of the PAC – often end up as shills for their contracting companies.
Oddly, this report – like that of DeAnne Julius for Labour - leaves open the big question. It's one that has never been answered as outsourcing has grown in recent times (though its progress has been a lot more up and down than the American-inflected market enthusiasts of the Thatcher era would ever have imagined).
It's this. On a genuine like for like basis, do private companies provide a better service – defined qualitatively or by price? Perhaps no such general formula is possible, perhaps too much depends on the detail of commissioning or the specifics of the sector (social care will always be very different from bin emptying). But the absence of the algorithm makes the entire debate somewhat flaky – and prey to the ideologues."

Exactly, this whole probation privatisation omnishambles is political ideology full stop.

To round this up, I'd like to quote in full an impressive anonymous comment from a reader the other day, which I think pretty much sums things up:-

Private companies per se are not the enemy, but it is increasing difficult to see them as the friend of employees. There was a laissez faire time when private companies ruthlessly exploited their workers, indifferent to their employees need for a safe workplace and a decent standard of living. Later, for various reasons, the behaviour of employers improved and there was a social contract between worker and employer in place, so there was a better sharing of the wealth created. And of course the state postwar became a large scale employer. All in all standards of living rose, there was increased job security and following a career spent in the public services, or with the major employers in the private sector, there was a prospect of a decent pension for many, albeit not gold- plated. However, with neoliberalism the social contract has been torn up and for ideological reasons, the private sector must now be the preferred provider of all services. 

I think it is quite logical to see the private sector as the enemy of many employees and you could equally say the same about public employers, because unless you are near or at the top of the tree, all we have seen in recent history is a gradual erosion in wages and conditions of employment, with some of the worst features of Victorian times making a comeback, such as zero hours contracts, lack of protection if you fall ill and enveloping fear of unemployment and poverty. None of this has been caused by the banking crisis and the ensuing austerity, though it has provided good political cover for what is an ideological shift rightwards – shared by ALL the political parties. There is no counterbalance because the trade unions are weak and relatively ineffective.

So yes, the private sector continues to generate wealth, but it's a wealth that goes to the modern-day robber barons. We are going backwards in terms of prosperity for the many. These forces are now working their way through the probation service. I don't know how the delivery of such services will look in, say, five years, but one thing I think is certain is that those delivering the services will be economically poorer than their predecessors – except of course those who occupy the elite positions, because they must be rewarded for their ruthlessness and indifference to those they marshal and dominate, using fear as the primary incentive in fractured and atomised workplaces.