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.
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.