The end of the probation service

It sounds like a good idea - putting people who deal with offenders, both in prison and out of it, u

In the 1994 smash hit Speed, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock play a police officer and a teacher trapped on a school bus that has been rigged with a bomb by a madman. If they allow the bus's speed to slow to less than 50mph for one moment, the bomb will explode and they and a party of appealing schoolchildren will be blown to smithereens. The bus smashes through traffic, shops and cafes. Good citizens flee in terror. Our heroes aren't perturbed by the havoc they cause. The accelerator must be held down at all times to prevent a greater carnage.

Tony Blair and David Blunkett are the Reeves and Bullock of British politics, although admittedly without the looks and toned physiques. They must hold the populist accelerator to the floor at all times. If they once doubted that disaster would follow the smallest relaxation, the mad reaction from the press and public to the accession of eastern European states to the EU will have taught them the terrible political cost of easing the pressure.

The contradiction of securing your own safety by inflicting havoc on others is as glaring in the populist politics of race and crime as it is in Hollywood action movies. I suspect that people will soon be looking back at the immigration "debate" of the past six months and wondering what the hell all that was about. (Where are the Slav and Magyar hordes who were meant to descend on Britain?)

To ask such questions is to miss the point of populism. The successful populist must be constantly on the move. He must live for the early-evening news headlines without a thought for the consequences. He must cultivate the appearance of frantic business to impress upon "the people" that he is attending to their every fear and desire. Like a corpse left on the gallows, the career of Beverley Hughes, the recently departed Home Office minister, is a warning to ministers who think they can relax.

As with race, so with crime. The history of the National Offender Management Service (Noms), the latest in an apparently unending list of "radical reforms" to the criminal justice system, shows that there is no way of stopping the populist merry-go-round. Given that we are living through the first significant fall in crime in a hundred years - down by one-third since the early 1990s - there doesn't seem to be much call for radical reform, in theory at any rate. In practice, politicians are unable to claim credit for a safer country in media that would crucify them for being complacent if they dared state the truth plainly. Although the economic recovery explains most of the decrease - the unemployment and crime rates mirror each other - it is also the case that crime prevention has played its part.

Politicians know that a public that has been obliged to turn its homes into prisons by fitting bars to windows and deadlocks to doors is unlikely to greet news of crime's fall with appreciative applause. It is more likely to be living in fear. Ever tougher measures must therefore be unveiled monthly, whatever the cost. Populism has already brought a havoc to the criminal justice system which may soon make this spring's immigration crisis look like a minor disturbance. New Labour's response to the coming chaos is to reorganise the deckchairs.

I know that bureaucratic rearrangements are as dull as other people's children. It is only when your own workplace is being turned upside down that they become matters of intense interest. But the failures of the civil service reorganisation have baleful consequences for wider society. The chaotic launch of the Child Support Agency all but blew the chance to force absent parents to pay for the upbringing of their children. The failure in the late 1990s to introduce a computer system into the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate that could do any- thing as complicated as work worsened the asylum backlog and led to ministers inciting a poisonous racial hatred as cover for the civil servants and private contractors who allowed control of the borders to collapse.

There are many in parliament and the criminal justice system who predict that the Noms will soon join these disasters and become a byword for Whitehall ineptitude. Connoisseurs are noting that all the classic signs are present. There has been no consultation. No one in government can answer the most basic questions about it. Intelligent outsiders, whether from the Labour, Liberal Democrat or Tory parties, are unanimous in their criticism, but are ignored by Whitehall.

Superficially, the case for Noms appears reasonable. From 1 June it will begin the merger of the prison and probation services into a single entity. On release, a convict will pass from one worker in the organisation, the prison warder, to another, the probation officer. The management of criminals will become a seamless whole. There is even a handy populist touch. The probation service, viewed as a home for men with beards and women with dresses from the Monsoon sale, will lose its bleeding-heart image when it is abolished and lumped together with the prison service.

Like postmodern theorists who believe you can change the world by changing language, postmodern government is convinced that it can change society by reorganising the administration. It can't. The criminal justice system has already been pushed to the edge of the cliff by a decade of populism, and Noms could send it over.

The crisis in the prisons can be evaded, but cannot be solved. In 1990 the prison population stood at 50,000 and was regarded as a public scandal by Labour and Tory politicians alike. A concerted effort at real reform reduced it to 41,000 in January 1993. Then Tony Blair imported the politics of Bill Clinton to Britain and began a war on crime with Michael Howard. The culture of the courts changed beyond recognition as judges and magistrates followed the Downing and Fleet Street mobs. In the past decade, the number of people imprisoned for the minor crime of shoplifting has increased tenfold. The proportion of people imprisoned for indictable offences has risen from 6 to 15 per cent in the past decade at magistrates' courts and from 49 to 64 per cent at Crown courts. Today the prison population stands at 75,500. By 2009, it will reach 93,000, according to the Home Office. Except that it can't. Gordon Brown won't keep spending more public money on building more prisons that can't rehabilitate offenders. Eighty thousand is your limit, he's told the Home Office.

The obvious thing to do would be to ban the courts from sending minor offenders to jail, or declare an amnesty. But that would be taking the foot off the populist accelerator.

The alternative would be to divert offenders from prison to the probation service, which has a slightly better record in putting them on the straight and narrow. (Fifty-six per cent of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release, compared with 44 per cent of people who complete a probation course.) But this option, too, is ruled out because the government plans to abolish the probation service and repeat the worst mistakes of the past decade.

The failure of pretty much every government computer system can be blamed on ill-thought-through dealings with the private sector. To cite one of many examples from the world of crime, the probation service received £70m extra in 2002. Barely a penny got through to front-line services. A fair whack was wasted on the privatisation of probation hostels, which managed to increase the cost to the public by 35 per cent; the rest went on bureaucrats, who when given the chance will always reproduce at public expense. The number of civil servants in the probation service headquarters in Whitehall went from 90 to 460 in two years. To meet the cost of privatisation and bureaucratic empire-building, probation offices are being closed, legal visits are being cancelled and reports for the courts on offenders are not being written.

Noms will extend privatisation by requiring clusters of prisons and probation offices to compete for business with the private sector. It will also add another layer of bureaucracy.

Chief probation officers warn of "the likely loss of senior managers who, seeing no future in the new structure, may look for alternative employment at a time when they are most needed to deliver changes". Harry Fletcher, whose union, Napo, represents the rank and file, warns of an explosion in the prisons in time for next year's election as more and more inmates are crammed into fewer and fewer cells.

Hollywood has nothing on Whitehall. At least in Speed the leading actors tried to find a way out of their crisis. In Britain, the governing class keeps careering on because it has lost the will and the ability to confront the populism it has incited.