A phoney war
Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939 following the Nazi invasion of Poland but failed to engage in any substantial military activity until German troops marched into Belgium on 10th May 1940.
This period is known as the Phoney War and newsreels suggest that the government spent it mainly informing the British people how to build air raid shelters and telling them to always carry their gas masks.
Many probation trusts feel that the government plans to privatise 70% of the service amount to a declaration of war.
They too must feel that we are in a period of Phoney War.
It is the nature of modern government that bursts of frenetic activity – the announcement of policies and the publication of white papers – are interspersed with downtimes as the responses to publications are analysed and the finer details worked out.
Information is scarce
The dramatic changes proposed for the probation service have yet to receive any detailed planning. Indeed, we still don’t know how many probation trusts there will be, how many Contract Package Areas and the nature of the relationship between the future statutory probation service with its responsibility for risk and the new providers who will be delivering interventions to reduce re-offending.
We are expecting some answers to these questions in the middle of May but MoJ officials have already intimated that the detailed framework of how the new arrangements will work will probably only be finalised in negotiations between successful bidders and central government.
This Phoney War intermission which started on 22 February (the deadline for responses to the Transforming Rehabilitation consultation paper) is an extremely difficult one for probation trusts and their leaders.
They are faced by a triple challenge:
- They must continue to deliver their existing service (whilst implementing substantial public spending cuts).
- They must plan for how the future version of the much-reduced statutory probation service will operate.
- They also need to explore any possible ways for them to be involved in the delivery of interventions which will be outsourced by March 2015.
The extent of this triple challenge was made clear to me last week when I attended a briefing day for those trusts who are intending to spin out as mutuals to compete for the new outsourced services. [For anyone that doesn’t know, the seven areas are: Cumbria, Lancashire and Merseyside; Dorset and Devon & Cornwall; the East Midlands REACH service (run by Leicestershire & Rutland probation); Essex; Kent and Surrey & Sussex; the London Probation resettlement services known as RISE; and Warwickshire/West Mercia.]
These trusts are severely hamstrung in their planning my two main factors:
- The lack of detailed information about the outsourcing.
- The general perception that while the Cabinet Office is very keen on probation service mutuals, the Ministry Justice is ambivalent at best.
Just as in the first months of 1940, this Phoney War is characterised by rumour and mis- (not to mention dis-) information.
Most probation trusts and would-be providers (from both the private and voluntary sectors) are engaged in a frenetic speed dating process where they size each other up as potential partners.
At the same time, great attention is paid to rumours emanating from the MoJ – the latest of which suggests that the number of probation trusts and of Contract Package Areas may both be somewhat larger than originally thought.
Probation trusts and would-be providers are all left with the same quandary:
how to develop clear models of operation which are flexible enough to adapt to the next pronouncements from the MoJ – rumoured to be scheduled for 16 May.
We must wait and see how successful probation leaders have been in their efforts to influence government plans.
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