Another day, another report saying that outsourcing is going wrong and that civil servants are simply not up to the task of writing the contracts. This time it’s the independent think tank the Institute for Government as reported here in the Guardian:-
The government has been told to pull back its large-scale programme to outsource public services, including probation services, because it does not have the skills or information to prevent it being overcharged by big private companies.
A damning report into the government’s privatisation programme by the influential, independent thinktank the Institute for Government has called for an urgent review of the programme and said many of the “markets” being created for public services are reducing competition and choice, rather than enhancing them.
The thinktank has highlighted a wide range of problems with the government’s programme of privatising public services, including:
- Big suppliers may be “carving up” public services in specific geographic areas and preventing smaller firms from getting business, because the government doesn’t have enough information about who is providing different services in particular areas
- Whitehall doesn’t have the skills to design and manage complex contracts
- The pace of outsourcing means civil servants are being stretched to the limit and mistakes are being made on drawing up contracts that are resulting in poor services and value for money
- A lack of expertise in running complex outsourcing has resulted in an inability to negotiate the best deals with suppliers
- Too many services are focusing on people who are easy to serve, while those with more complex needs are being “parked”
The thinktank says the government must slow down its plans to expand markets in public services and says it should conduct an “urgent, cross-government review to ensure public services are truly competitive – and not dominated by a few providers”. It has also contacted the Office of Fair Trading about greater scrutiny of major outsourcing contracts at an early stage.
With impeccable timing in the wake of Chris Grayling’s announcement last week concerning G4S and Serco, the report notes that there is no real alternative contractor able to deliver electronic tagging. This piece in the Independent neatly sums up the position:-
The report comes just days after the Government placed all the contracts held by two of the UK’s largest outsourcing firms, G4S and Serco, under review, after an audit showed they had charged for tagging criminals who were either dead, in prison, or never tagged in the first place. The two firms are the major private players in both the privatisation of the criminal justice system and the Work Programme. Experts say it is difficult to see how any further large-scale outsourcing of police, probation or prison projects can succeed without their involvement.
The IfG warned there were significant concerns over their dominance in the market. “A number of large providers now deliver a wide range of services, commissioned by separate government departments in particular areas of the country,” the report warns. “This allows these providers to undercut competitors making them attractive to commissioners.”
As the article makes clear, there are particular problems in relation to privatising the probation service and the report is forthright in it’s recommendations:-
The Ministry of Justice has announced plans to open up 70 per cent of the probation service to outside providers. But the IfG warns that re-offending outcomes – by which providers will be paid – are very difficult to measure and in most circumstances cannot be controlled by one provider alone.
Some senior officials told the IfG that they feared private companies would be less well placed to integrate with other services (like mental health agencies and the police).
Recommendation: The MoJ should not outsource probation contracts all at once – but roll them out and assess each one over time. The department should also demand high levels of transparency and publish data not just on their key performance indicators (including reoffending rates) but also on the contracts they have let to specialist providers of services like drug treatment or mentoring support.
All this comes on top of the revelations by a whistleblowing former employee of G4S, Nigel Mills as reported in the Daily Mail last week. According to the article, the whole scandal blew up basically because of a complaint by this chap who brought it upon himself to highlight what we all know to be the case, namely that much of the equipment is crap and often doesn’t work properly. It would appear that the MoJ were the only people seemingly oblivious to some very inconvenient truths as detailed by Mr Mills:-
“The state of the company’s equipment makes it impossible to monitor a tagged person’s movement properly. Equipment failures allow tagged offenders to escape the authorities unnoticed - but also incorrectly identify when breaches have taken place. Innocent ex-prisoners have been returned to jail for breaches of their curfew that did not take place. Employees used computer shortcuts to avoid calling offenders who had apparently breached curfews. Multiple requests were made for tagging orders for a single criminal which could cost taxpayers millions.”
On Monday the Justice Affairs Select Committee published a report on women offenders post Corston Report and the Chairman Sir Alan Beith didn’t mince his words regarding the MoJ’s proposals for probation and how they will affect women:-
“The Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have clearly been designed with male offenders in mind. This is unfortunately symptomatic of an approach within the Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service that tends to deal with women offenders as an afterthought.”
It should be noted that when plans were announced recently for the re-rolling of 70 prisons as ‘resettlement prisons’, conspicuously it did not include any female establishments.
HM Chief Inspector of Probation Liz Calderbank has just published her last annual report before stepping down as HMI and has concerns:-
“The changes rely for their funding on the economies to be introduced by contracting out a large proportion of the work currently undertaken by Probation Trusts and are going to be implemented in a very short time, allowing little opportunity for the development of a shared working culture. Both the scale and the pace of the change is considerable and we are concerned, as an inspectorate, that it is taken forward and implemented without any drop in the quality of work already achieved.”
Finally, I see that Sue Hall, Chair of the Probation Chief’s Association, was speaking recently at a Howard League event and according to twitter accounts, was quite forthright in what she had to say about the impending omnishambles:-
“Community sentences made big improvement in reducing crime, so it’s wrong to abolish probation”
“Massive reorganisation will be a bureaucratic nightmare and cost millions”
“Decision to dismantle probation based on ideology not evidence”
Could she now please get invited onto Channel 4 news and tell Jon Snow all this?
PS The PCA have issued a press release ’drawing attention’ to the IfG report. Come on now, we can do a bit better than that, can’t we?!
Courtesy of Jim Brown at On Probation Blog