It’s not that often that probation hits the front pages, and when it does it’s usually because we’re accused of not having done something and effectively get the blame for not having prevented a horrible murder.
Chris Grayling should take careful note of today’s Guardian front page, because when things go wrong as a result of his omnishambles, this is where the story ends up.
Now interestingly the warning comes not from the usual suspects like Napo - in fact there’s widespread unrest amongst the ranks regarding their poor handle on PR generally since the departure of Harry Fletcher - it comes from the Chairs of three Probation Trusts no less:-
Three leading figures in the probation service have warned the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, he must delay his probation service privatisation plan for at least six months or face inevitable protection failures and risks to public safety, the Guardian has learned.
Their chilling warnings, in three separate private letters to Grayling, have been delivered in the past few weeks by the chairs of the Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire probation trusts on behalf of their organisations, which manage offenders released from prison and those serving community sentences.
Robin Verso, the Warwickshire probation trust chairman, has told the Tory minister that the risks involved in the current timetable for outsourcing 70% of the probation service’s workload are unacceptable: “Our assessment is that performance is bound to be damaged and that public protection failures will inevitably increase.”
Gillian Wilmott, the chair of the Derbyshire probation trust, spelled out her fears that the fragmentation of the probation service would lead to “more systemic risks and more preventable serious attacks and deaths”.
Jane Wilson, chair of the Leicestershire and Rutland probation trust, told Grayling that the current timetable, which includes imposing a deadline of April 2014 to transfer staff out of the public sector, was “unrealistic and unreasonable” and has “serious implications for service delivery and therefore increases the risk to public safety”.
MPs are to debate the radical probation shakeup on Wednesday and probation officers are due to stage a 24-hour strike on 5 November in protest at the privatisation of the 101-year-old public service.
The Leicestershire and Warwickshire probation trusts have called on Grayling to delay the timetable by at least six months. Wilson said that in the “view of senior professionals that even with additional administrative resource” there was “insufficient time to ensure the safe and robust transfer of all cases. Offender managers will be required to manage the transfer of cases on top of their existing busy workloads whilst at the same time, their managers and the management structure will also be changing.” She says there have already been serious delays in providing basic information such as data on staffing.
It strikes me that this action by a few Trusts is long overdue and could be described as ‘better late than never’, because up till now they’ve been remarkably reticent to say anything publicly, despite being independent bodies. We’re all aware of the exception provided by Avon and Somerset PT under the leadership of the redoubtable Joe Kuipers, but oh how things could have been so different if Trusts under the banner of the Probation Association had been more vocal earlier on.
We know there are major concerns about the speed with which the TR timetable is being driven and Joe Kuipers has in the past voiced serious worries about the ability to maintain ‘business as usual’ with key staff departures and low morale. On this point it was interesting to see a couple of recent tweets by a senior manager in Birmingham:-
After relatively positive performance last month, Sept’s figs are not good. Totally gutted. Need to get to bottom of problems and fast.
staff morale and motivation is, almost universally, at rock bottom. Very hard to maintain performance in such circumstances.
Of course it’s hard to maintain performance - the service is being destroyed!
Anyway, we are where we are as they say, and a few Trusts at last breaking ranks, along with at least 13 Police and Crime Commissioners flagging up serious concerns about the whole omnishambles, will help set the scene for the House of Commons debate tomorrow.
Not willing to go public for obvious reasons regarding their own current difficulties with the government, this tweet from Frances Crook is revealing in relation to what the police view of TR is:-
Top cops have told me that the greatest threat they face is the Gov dismantling of #probation, they expect chaos & a crime wave
Talking of Frances Crook and the Howard League, she not only uses twitter to say something useful in my experience, her organisation is extremely adept at providing quality briefing papers ahead of Parliamentary debates, such as in relation to TR on Wednesday. It’s an excellent summary of the key issues and there really ought to be no excuse for any MP not reading it. The following sections should provide a taster :-
There has been a significant delay in the passage of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill through Parliament. The first reading of the Bill in the House of Commons took place on 9 July 2013, but a second reading is yet to be scheduled. Whilst the Howard League welcomes the delay to the privatisation of probation, such a long time period between debates suggests that there are major problems with the proposals. The Howard League is concerned that the Ministry of Justice is attempting to implement the proposals without adhering to proper Parliamentary process. For example, during the third reading of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill in the House of Lords, an amendment successfully moved by Lord Ramsbotham, stated that “no alteration or reform may be made to the structure of the probation service unless the proposals have been laid before, and approved by resolution of, both Houses of Parliament.” The government ignored this amendment and on 19 September officially announced the launch of the competition for contracts. If implemented, the reforms will be one of the biggest changes to our justice system in a generation but there is very little detail about how it will work. Risk is key to the Transforming Rehabilitation proposals – who will supervise people under sentence will be determined by their risk level, with high risk cases remaining in the public sector and all low and medium risk cases (the vast majority) being transferred to private providers. Despite the central importance of risk levels to the proposals a risk assessment tool is yet to be published, or possibly even developed.
Furthermore, probation officers are currently being asked whether they would prefer to stay in the public sector or move to one of the 21 “Crime reduction companies” (CRCs), but they are not being provided with any information with which to make this decision. Probation officers do not know who their employers will be in a CRC , what kind of work they will carry out or what terms and conditions they will be expected to work under. It is unacceptable to put forward radical plans that are central to public safety with so little detail about how it will work and how it will affect the people involved. The probation service has offered to manage these people without additional resources but the government has rejected this proposal, preferring to inject additional public money into private companies to set up a whole new system.
The proposed payment-by-results system poses a particular threat to the supervision of women. Probation interventions for women are usually successful because they are small, local and holistic - they look at each woman as an individual with problems and needs rather than simply as an offender. This approach has a proven track record in helping women turn their lives around as well as reduce reoffending. Under the proposals it is likely that these types of services will eventually lose funding completely. Private companies are very unlikely to subcontract with many women’s services as they are small (and will therefore not provide services across an entire contract area), and more expensive than non-gender specific services. the Howard League is concerned that women will be assigned to community interventions designed only for men with detrimental consequences for their safety, levels of offending and the health and wellbeing of the women involved. Some of these concerns were echoed by the Justice Select Committee’s recent inquiry into Women Offenders.
After much delay the Ministry of Justice published its review of the women‟s custodial estate on 25 October 2013. The review stated that two of the 12 women‟s prisons would close and that all remaining prisons would become resettlement prisons. As there will be 21 contract package areas but only 10 remaining women’s prisons a substantial number of female prisoners will be released into an area different to the prison. The review contains no information on how the resettlement prison system will work for women. Female prisoners are being shoehorned into a system designed for men.
PS - For more about the position of women under the TR omnishambles, see today’s piece by Kazuri Homes on the Russell Webster website:-
The reality is there is a surplus of space in the female estate so rather than take this opportunity to incentivise the market to come up with innovative alternative to custody models, they will pass the risk and the responsibility for rehabilitation to outsourced providers.
Only the usual suspect prime providers have the financial resilience for contracts up to £15m in value. The promise that small VSOs will play a part in TR is a sop. “Capacity building” by paying 3SC, ACEVO and others vast amounts for upscaling , spin outs and social enterprise is pointless. The only way this will happen is by becoming part of a supply chain. No bank or social investor will underwrite the risk for a new CRC or a spinout.
The stock take admits that women’s hubs and one stop shops have been successful in reducing reoffending but their funding is to be cut from 2014.
We will lose the women’s champions in probation trusts, the women’s one stop shops and the alternatives to custody pioneered by the third sector.
Can you see Serco paying premiums for crèches and trauma informed, gendered provision?