Grayling's reckless probation privatisation is a threat to public safety

The Justice Secretary is pushing ahead without parliamentary approval and without any evidence that his plans will work. Labour will call him to account.

Every evening the British public settle down in front of their televisions, tuning into dramas and films set in courts, prisons and the police. All three are deeply engrained in their psyche as a result. They know a judge, police officer, court room or prison cell if they see one.

But out of sight and out of mind, the Probation Service is a much less known branch of our criminal justice system. Ask a random punter on the street and they’d struggle to describe a probation officer’s average day.

Not for one minute does that mean they’re any less important. Given that probation works with guilty criminals not locked up behind bars but living in our midst in our cities, towns and villages their role is arguably even more important. And they make a difference. Evidence shows those in their responsibility are less likely to reoffend than those unsupervised, contributing to making our society safer.

Labour's 2007 reforms  further strengthened the profession, cementing their role by creating local Probation Trusts. We put faith in local expertise and knowledge as best placed to tackle reoffending – allowing local trusts to commission those they see fit to rehabilitate offenders in their area, be they from the public, private or voluntary sector. And that is, no doubt, one of the reasons why the Probation Service was awarded the British Quality Foundation Gold Medal for Excellence less than twp years ago.

But the government has embarked on the biggest upheaval in the 100 year history of probation. And let's be clear - I'm firmly of the view that more needs to be done to reduce reoffending. That's why I welcome government plans to support those on sentences under a year who previously were left to their own devices. But I don't support ministers' broad thrust. Their plans sweep away local probation trusts, and see services commissioned on behalf of local areas by the Justice Secretary from his desk in Whitehall.

Most worryingly, private companies with no track record of work in this area - some currently under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for irregularities with other Ministry of Justice contracts – will be in sole charge of 80% of offenders. Amazingly, the government claims these are only 'low' and 'medium' risk offenders. Yet these are people who have committed crimes such as domestic violence, robbery, violence against the person and sexual offences.

Responsibility for 'high risk' offenders will remain in the public sector, the government clearly not entrusting G4S or Serco with that role. More importantly, separating offenders by 'risk level' creates a wholly artificial divide as, in reality, offenders' risk levels fluctuate in a quarter of cases, meaning responsibility for them would end up chopping and changing between private and public sectors.

This worries experts, as an offender whose risk level escalates is a danger to themselves and the public. This isn't a time for red tape and bureaucracy – the system must respond quickly if public safety is to be protected. Like many experts, I fear the cumbersome model proposed by the government isn’t sufficiently nimble to deal with these dangerous situations. And the Ministry of Justice’s own civil servants agree, which may be the reason Chris Grayling refuses to publish the advice he has received about what could go wrong.

Compounding matters, he is pushing ahead without parliamentary approval, without testing to make sure it works and on an unrealistic timetable. By not testing the plans, there's no opportunity to see what does and doesn’t work, nor iron out any problems. Given that these plans involve offenders living in our communities, to purposely avoid seeing if they work before full national roll-out is reckless.

But the Justice Secretary has nailed his colours to the mast. It happens that his predecessor, Ken Clarke, began pilots but Grayling ditched them in his first week in the job. Instead, he proudly proclaims his disdain for evidence and his unbending belief in his own instincts. This from the man who brought us the failing Work Programme - so bad it's actually better for your employment prospects to steer clear of it. I'm not confident in his instincts – call me old fashioned, but I prefer some hard evidence.

Rushed implementation also comes with risks – just yesterday, chief executives and chairs of three Probation Trusts warned the Justice Secretary the pace of implementation could have deadly consequences

Avoiding parliament is further evidence these plans don't stack up. Chris Grayling is going out of his way to prevent scrutiny, as he knows their half-baked nature will see them shredded by those in the know.

That's why we have secured today's debate in the Commons. Ministers should have to explain their plans to parliament. MPs should have the opportunity to speak about our criminal justice being dismantled, all on the whim of a Secretary of State with a dubious gut instinct approach to policy.

I agree we need to root out better ways of working if we are to get a grip on the revolving door of offending. But I'm not prepared to support plans that are ill-thought through, rushed and risk endangering the public. 

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling speaks during the Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
Sadiq Khan is MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London.
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.