Three reasons Chris Grayling's outsourcing plan for the probation service is a terrible idea

It's the Work Programme all over again, and this time, damage to public safety is a high price to pay.

Last week, the work and pensions select committee published its second report into the Work Programme. After six months of inquiries, the committee found that it was failing some of its most difficult cases. The central premise of the job finding scheme was for contractors - big companies, small companies, charities - to be paid by their success or otherwise in getting people back to work. You might have predicted what impact this binary target-driven culture would have: the committee concluded that "Creaming and parking" (helping the jobseekers for whom it's easier to find work) was endemic.

Now this is bad news. It’s disturbing because of the resulting joblessness and the increased benefits that’ll have to be shelled out by the state, but it’s perhaps even more disturbing because one of the chief architects of the scheme, Chris Grayling, is now at the Ministry of Justice, and attempting to bring in a similar system with regards to probation. When the Work Programme fails, someone doesn’t get a job. When probation fails, there’s a very real danger to the public.

And that’s why it’s vital for those working in the sector to raise concerns. But there seems to be every indication the minister doesn’t want to hear them - even going so far as to gag staff on social media. Earlier this year, I spoke to senior probation managers about the forthcoming plans for outsourcing. A number of concerns were raised - primarily about the lack of detail.

A couple of weeks ago, Grayling expanded on the plans in parliament. We learned that the probation service, which currently deals with 250,000 cases a year, will remain responsible for the 30,000 high risk cases, while control of the roughly 220,000 low to medium risk offenders will go to private firms and voluntary groups.

There seems an obvious issue here - one which has an uncomfortable parallel with the Work Programme’s struggles. How do you tell if someone is high, low, or medium risk? Are people really that simple? Aren’t these definitions changing all the time? Ian Dunt cites the example of domestic abuse in his excellent piece on the scheme:

Perhaps an offender has a minor conviction of some sort and authorities are aware they have problems at home. They are low risk. Then something changes. Neighbours hear fighting in the house and inform the police. The risk level has changed and it has to be managed accordingly. Supervision needs to increase.

Savas Hadjipavlou, Business Director of the Probation Chiefs Association, tells me:

There’s a difference in relation to accountability. Originally the public sector was simply accountable for everything that might go wrong. There was a suggestion it would have people in outsourced offices - that’s gone away and now a series of triggers are proposed. If the offender is of a certain risk level to go to contracted services there are triggers that mean they come back.

It might sound a decent solution - but there’s remarkably little detail on what these triggers are. The Government’s documentation makes vague reference to a “change in circumstances,” but that’s about it. And what happens when a client is deemed serious enough to be moved back to public sector staff? Will the work done by the private sector providers be forgotten?

There’s a more pressing issue - that of accountability. Bluntly: if the public sector is overseeing things, then whose fault is it if an offender being dealt with by the private sector kills someone? Mark Ormerod, Chief Executive of the Probation Association, tells me:

We understand the provider would be accountable if they hadn’t pulled the triggers. It would come to a review of the case in the way that happens now. The issue we drew attention to is that it’s more likely to go wrong because you’ve introduced an interface. Things go wrong when communication breaks down. And it gets more complicated when some of the triggers have been pulled, and when the person goes forward and backwards between providers it becomes more difficult to assign responsibility - whose fault is it? Risk levels change in about 25% of cases. In some of the cases we’ve looked at, the risk levels change substantially. Low or high-risk cases are easier to manage. They’re the minority though. It’s the bit in the middle where change is dynamic and contextual.

Of course the other thing about this system is that money’s involved: we’ve seen exactly the impact it’s had on the Work Programme. Surely it could mean the providers will be incentivised to pull some triggers and leave others? “Therein lies the difficulty: other factors come into play. They have recognised this - the public sector will be able to carry out renewed risk assessments. It goes back to the point about how the operating model works in practice: it’s difficult to regulate it by contract,” says Ormerod.

Hadjipavlou expands on this:

Originally the public sector could pull in a case - we asked how would they know when they could call it in. This is an attempt to say the public sector doesn’t have responsibility for the whole thing. It places more emphasis on the assessment system. But risk assessment is not that precise a science. The culture will be new to the providers. It’s about looking at the behaviour of an individual intelligently, looking at the person intelligently. Is the risk assessment system capable of that fine granularity?

And lurking beneath the radar is another issue - one that’s rather complex, which is why it’s not received much coverage. Under the Work Programme “Primes” like A4e contract work to smaller providers - “Subs”. There have been problems with this relationship, with dodgy contracts drawn up by the big firms' armies of lawyers, which have lead to the smaller ones losing money and in some cases going out of business. First, there’s a lack of detail here around how this is to be avoided: the proposals don’t even explain how the subs will be selected.

Second, this system is still one of the things the reform has going for it - it will, for example, free up voluntary agencies on crime-ridden estates to engage with people they know and who might respect them a bit more than statutory workers. However, for all their exciting ideas and local connections, you still have to preserve standards. Some expertise will come from the former state workers who take new jobs in the private sector, but the only nod to this issue is a mention of a new “probation institute”. Hadjipavlou tells me: “We’re supportive of the creation of an independent probation institute capable of promoting evidence based practice and standards across the public, private and voluntary providers.”

And there’s one more big problem - quite apart from the fact that there is no data to support the idea (the probation service has met all its targets, contrary to Government figures spun out about how it’s “failing” on the eve of the announcement, to the Mail and others), which is the timeframe. Ormerod says: “The speed at which we’re expected to ready ourselves is just breathless. There is more detail now but that only makes you realise more clearly how much has to be done in a very short timescale."


Three main issues with probation reform then: one, there’s no data to suggest it’s a good idea, two, the timeframe appears to be rushed, and three, there are few safeguards to prevent all the mistakes of the Work Programme being repeated (we’ve not even mentioned the threat of fraud that comes with the lack of transparency surrounding commercial contracts, nor the inflexibility of the Government contractors, as described here). It’s hard not to conclude the reforms are a frantic attempt to put ideology into action before an electoral deadline, rather than any kind of considered response to the problems of reoffending. The Government must tighten up these proposals. Damage to public safety is a high price to pay.
 

Chris Grayling has brought the ideas behind the Work Programme to the Ministry of Justice. 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.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”