The Shadow State: probation chiefs voice doubts about outsourcing

Payment by results might work, but not the way this government is doing it, writes Alan White.

The Daily Mail carried an excoriating attack on the probation service last month under the headline "Nearly 50,000 criminals spared jail offend again within a year: MPs claim 'shocking' figures show failure by probation officers". Priti Patel MP was quoted:

"There is clearly a problem with the probation service which is not working well to deal with this issue".

The story was based on the Ministry of Justice's quarterly reoffending statistics. The only problem was that this short-term picture didn't show reoffending has in fact slightly decreased, every year, since 2000. And the figures included criminals who had received sentences under 12 months, for whom the probation service has no statutory responsibility.

Did the briefing for this story come from the opposition? Surely not: Patel is a Tory. One couldn't help but notice these lines:

"Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is set to announce within weeks that charities and businesses will be brought in to tackle entrenched reoffending as part of the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. Yesterday he said the majority of probation work would be outsourced."

Yes, the Government is laying the ground for another outsourcing "revolution". Grayling was, of course, the man who initiated the Department for Work and Pension's Work Programme, which operates on Payment by Results (PbR) lines. There's been much made of the Work Programme's failings: perhaps most relevant is the argument that it was simply wheeled out too quickly in comparison with Labour's New Deal.

I'm bemused after asking Mark Ormerod, Chief Executive of the Probation Association, about this latest initiative. What's the next step in the process? "Well," he replies, "a Government announcement would be helpful. We've been waiting for a response to the consultation since June. It's not even clear who's supposed to implement what, but we know it's supposed to happen in 2014/5. We're not opposed to the idea of PbR, but it doesn't seem very far away and the only way we can see it happening is some kind of central contracting process but that cuts across a tremendous amount of work that's being done at a local level."

And there's another reason it may play out this way: PbR requires contractors to put money on the table themselves at the outset (I've previously written about how this has put small charities out of business). Sebert Cox, Chairman of both the Probation Association and Durham Tees Valley Probation Trust, tells me it's likely to put off smaller charities: "We're lead to believe, by ministers and officials, that they want voluntary organisations to be an integral part of delivery. What I can tell you from a local perspective is that there'll be few small voluntary organisations that could become involved. They don't have the money – they're squeezed because of the climate in which we live. One has to be sceptical about who'll be coming forward to do this." Despite claims that the Work Programme won't be the model, it seems inevitable the likes of G4S and Serco will once again step into the vacuum.

Various sources have given a vague idea of how the changes will be implemented – it appears as if the outsourced work will be targeted on those serving 12 months or fewer; giving them mentors to make sure they have homes, are signed up to drug-treatment programmes and are generally supervised as they make their way in the outside world. But it seems odd that those with a serious stake in how the changes are enacted know little more than these basic details.

"There were some proposals put in the consultation paper, but how it'll mesh together isn't clear," says Ormerod. "We have concerns about the splitting of offender management and with the Probation Chiefs' Association we put in a joint response to the consultation paper, saying if you have different organisations responsible for it you lose accountability and transparency. You have that potential situation where various organisations look at each other and say 'I thought you were responsible for that' or 'That's not in our contract.'"

Savas Hadjipavlou, Business Director of the Probation Chiefs Association, expands on this: "If you compare probation work with other areas that have been outsourced, it tends to work where the business is transactional and clearly defined – things like civil service pensions. If you look at probation work it involves the courts, the police, local mental health services, drug addiction workers, local authorities – half a dozen agencies at least have to come together. We're talking about behavioural change and monitoring: the idea it can be easily mapped into a simple PbR model is rather difficult to understand."

He sees the probation officer's primary role as pulling together the contributions of these other agencies. "You have to preserve that, as against the purity of the PbR model which says you're not interested in the contents of what's done, you're only going to pay for the result. We've been looking at how you assess risk and it's a volatile process. It's not a precise science. High risk people can be low risk if they're taking their medication, if they've got mental health problems that are managed and so forth – that takes us back to measuring success. All those who go into prison with a Class A drug problem, for example, have a reoffending rate of 90 per cent. Government aggregates large groups and looks at the average but no sensible way of looking at success would do it by that measure."

For Ormerod this leads to a central question – how can you pay by results, when the results are so hard to measure? "With the Work Programme, getting someone in a job stops benefits being paid so you get an immediate cash reward. The immediate aim with this is to close prisons because you've got reoffending down, but that's a very protracted cycle. We're talking about making a long term behavioural change – there's no point saying we'll pay you after a week. It's a far more inchoate environment in terms of working out whether success has been achieved and then saying we can pay you something." And this begs the question of whether the programme will end up being PbR in name only, in fact tending closer to a conventional outsourcing project; thus negating the transparency the Government hopes to introduce.

Like many public service leaders, none of the people to whom I spoke had an issue with the fundamental idea of PbR. But when it's being introduced in such a chaotic and seemingly rushed fashion, they can hardly be forgiven for wondering if ideology is trumping pragmatism.

Chris Grayling arrives at the Guildhall to attend The Lord Mayor's Banquet. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue