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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Think Tank urges complete privatisation of probation

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Reform Think Tank urges complete privatisation of probation with local devolution of offender management to Police and Crime Commissioners.

Rehabilitation devolution

Reform are the latest Think Tank to urge devolving responsibility for offender management to Police and Crime Commissioners. Their recent (May 2016) report: Local commissioning, local solutions: devolving offender management joins recent contributions on the same theme from IPPR and Transform Justice.

The reports’ authors, Kevin Lockyer and Richard Heys, argue that offender management services should be designed and delivered at a local level since they need to be integrated.

They say, quite rightly, that evidence shows that a consistent approach to case management is more effective in managing risk, develops more positive offender engagement and is more likely to reduce reoffending than an approach in which case management responsibilities are shared across more than one person. They advance the case that an offender’s journey through prison and probation should be as seamless as possible – the right services, delivered at the right time, in the right place.

The authors put their case in the context of the Government’s plans to devolve greater powers to local areas and give prison governors operational autonomy, starting with establishing six Reform Prisons this year. Their reforms are also backed up by a £1.3 billion investment in modernising the estate by building new prisons and closing old and inefficient ones. Nonetheless, Reform argues, this programme does not go far enough, fast enough. An integrated system which puts rehabilitation at its heart cannot be adequately achieved whilst the system remains driven by the centre and pre-occupied principally with managing the prison population.

Who are Reform?

Although Reform emphasise their political independence and the fact that they are a charity, it seems fair to say that they have close associations with the Conservative Party – they were founded by a Conservative MP and their current director, Andrew Haldenby, worked in the Conservative Research Department and is a regular contributor to the popular Conservative Home blog.

It’s quite common for Reform to advance views in keeping with the latest thinking among Conservative-minded politicians and thinkers which always makes their reports worth reading.

Local commissioning, local services

Reform argues that offender management services need to be commissioned and delivered locally, by commissioners who can make well-informed decisions about where money is best spent to achieve reductions in reoffending and reflect local priorities.

They say that Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) occupy the right place in the system to fulfil this function, arguing that they are sufficiently local, and have direct accountability to the electorate in the communities they serve. They also point out that PCCs can claim a democratic mandate to change criminal justice services in order to reduce crime.

Privatising probation

Reform’s proposed solution is that PCCs should take responsibility from NOMS for commissioning all prison and probation services as well as taking responsibility for commissioning drug and mental health services for offenders to enable genuinely joined-up solutions to be configured at a local level.

Reform says the best way to achieve this would be to disband the recently created National Probation Service (responsible for supervising high risk offenders) and transfer responsibility for the management of all sentenced offenders to the 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies (responsible for supervising low risk offenders).

They also argue for the creation of a new delivery vehicle to drive local service integration. Local Rehabilitation Trusts (LRTs) would bring together one or more prisons, with CRCs and other offender services to enable the provision of end-to-end services. LRTs would offer commissioners integrated solutions, aimed at reducing cost and improving outcomes.

Finally, they argue that the Government should also create a new Criminal Justice Regulator, with responsibility for setting and monitoring standards, ensuring value for money and encouraging competition. As with other public service regulators, they would intervene in cases of poor performance. The regulator would replace the current complex and overlapping system of multiple organisations, providing clarity and consistency.

Reform private probation

Reform’s conclusion is that taken together, these changes would create an offender management system which was genuinely local and genuinely accountable. With empowered local commissioners and providers able to take rational and informed decisions to deliver better outcomes.

Analysis

Well, no-one can accuse Reform of tinkering round the edges of the offender management system. This is more revolution than reform.

One point in favour of a fully privatised probation service is that it would do away with the artificial fault line created by the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms which have caused so many difficulties in the new split system.

However, very many commentators (including me) would see this approach as throwing petrol on a burning house; re-re-structuring a probation service which is still struggling to find its feet following the biggest change in the service’s 107 year history.

The suggestion that CRCs should take over the whole probation service seems to based solely in the ideology that private is better than public on principle.

In the same week that this Reform paper was published, the fifth and final report on the implementation of TR was published by the Probation Inspectorate which concluded that the current quality of work delivered by CRCs was poor and needed to improve rapidly.

There are strong and valid arguments for devolving justice to a local level, but only a very tenuous case for privatising the probation service to achieve this devolution.

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4 thoughts on “Think Tank urges complete privatisation of probation”

  1. Russell – for the record, the report does not argue from a position that the private sector is better “on principle”. The report argues strongly for local commissioning and effective service integration. That is the basis for arguing that the NPS/CRC split should be removed. Nowhere does it say that any particular ownership model for CRCs is preferable to any other. It does, though, recognise the fact that CRCs exist and if you want to deliver a better-integrated, locally commissioned offender management system, you need to work with the landscape as it currently exists.

    1. Hi Kevin
      That’s a fair point. My view is that to put the public probation service out to tender to CRCs at the moment would amount to privatisation of the whole sector in practice.
      I do agree that there is value looking forwards rather than backwards but don’t see Reform’s proposal as realistic at this time. I don’t think PCCs are yet equipped for the role you propose – apart, perhaps, in areas such as Greater Manchester.
      Very happy to agree to disagree and thanks for your comment
      Russell

    2. “It does, though, recognise the fact that CRCs exist and if you want to deliver a better-integrated, locally commissioned offender management system, you need to work with the landscape as it currently exists.”

      Why Kevin? The landscape that existed pre-TR wasn’t broken and yet it was demolished.
      The trusts had something that more closely approximated what your recommendations suggest, so why are you not more openly critical of the current shambles if you aren’t supportive in principle of private over public ownership? Instead you endorse more being put in the hands of the private sector CRCS which have achieved nothing more than asset stripping the trusts.

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