The privatisation of many of our nationalised industries isn’t something new. It’s also not something that hasn’t been picked up by the media and, as a Labour Party activist, I have spent a number of years campaigning against the privatisation of our NHS, our schools and Royal Mail. However, the privatisation of the probation service is one which has gone under the radar for many people, yet the reality is it should be as much as a concern to anyone on the left of politics as the other services I have mentioned. In fact it should be of huge concern to anyone who has a belief in our criminal justice system, the need to rehabilitate and reform criminals and the need of a preventative approach to tackling crime.
Before Chris Grayling made an even greater mess of our country’s transport system than it was in before, he was in charge of probation and he didn’t fair any better on that front either. In what can only be described as an ideological move, the then Secretary of State for Justice split the probation service in two, with 70% being given to 21 private companies called Community Rehabilitation companies (CRCs).
In truth, Grayling and the Tories probably wanted complete privatisation but even they recognised this was going to be impossible which is why the remaining 30% stayed in the public sector and was badged the national probation service (NPS). The idea being that the NPS would still deal with the probation of high risk offenders and the CRCs taking on low and medium risk offenders. The first and most obvious problem with this, of course, is that risk isn’t a constant, it isn’t static. However, if you are a CRC you hardly want to admit that you can’t cope with a probationer and that they in fact need to be referred to the NPS.
Chris Grayling also brought in the ‘through the gate’ strategy which was certainly good publicity for the government, saying that offenders would get support the moment they left prison. However, in truth it was anything but a success – despite Grayling’s claims. First of all, there was a gap in the law that stated if you came out of a prison term which was less than twelve months you didn’t require any probation at all. Grayling claimed CRCs would take care of them, only they never did. Equally, the definition of supervision meant only receiving a phone call every six to eight weeks, hardly thorough!
Each CRC was given a 5 year contract, however, they soon found that the probation service wasn’t profitable. Not a huge surprise. The government was determined to see this new system succeed and guaranteed these private companies hundreds of millions of tax payer’s money so that they didn’t walk away. Funny how a government that keeps telling us we need to tighten our belts can find this sort of cash when it’s being used to fund their own privatisation agenda.
In fact, the CRCs returned to the government that had changed its mind – wanting to give them hundreds of thousands of pounds not to. All while other vital services, including the criminal justice system, were being cut. Prison officer numbers were reduced by 5,000 during Grayling’s time as minister for justice.
The whole nature of the probation service has been changed. Talking to people who have worked in the service for thirty years, they spoke of a time when the whole idea of probation was based on the idea of advise, assist and befriend. Now those on the right of politics will call this ‘wishy washy’ and ‘left wing’, but the reality is probation shouldn’t be seen as a punishment, which it now is. Rather, we need a way of supporting offenders to get back into society and reduce the chances that they re-offend. If we want to cut down the amount of re-offending and therefore the amount of crime, then this is a hugely important element of it.
The next Labour government must act to deal with the destabilised probation service, as well as the other issues that Grayling’s cuts to our prison service and courts have made. We must ensure that we bring all of the probation service back into the public sector and that the truly National Probation Service can look over all cases.
If you need another reminder of this government’s failures in probation, you only have to think of the pilot scheme they ran which involved probationers only having to put a card into an automated machine every six weeks. Hardly what we want from a 21st century probation service which should truly be there to advise, assist and befriend and not be used as a tool to punish.