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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.