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.