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6 March 2019

Dear God, can’t someone do something to distract Chris Grayling?

He burned through more than £200m of taxpayers’ cash in one news cycle.

By Helen Lewis

What has Chris Grayling got on Theresa May? It’s a question to which I return every time a new, extravagant incompetence of his is exposed – ie about once a fortnight. Did they commit a murder together 20 years ago? Perhaps they robbed a bank and Maysie unwisely let him hide the loot until the heat was off? Maybe he has nude selfies of Sir Graham Brady?

The only counterpoint is… well, just imagine a bank heist superintended by Chris Grayling. He would turn up late (shouldn’t have used Southern trains). He’d hire a getaway car from a guy who didn’t own any cars. And his master locksmith – returning for one last job, guv, honest – would have been recalled to prison already under Grayling’s disastrous probation reforms.

Still, last week was a brisk one, even by Grayling standards. On 1 March, it was revealed that the government has agreed to pay Eurotunnel £33m over a botched no-deal ferry contract and that the National Audit Office (NAO) had condemned “extremely costly” failings in prison privatisation. These were both Grayling projects: the first in his current role as transport minister, and the second from his time at justice. Ending the probation contracts early will cost around £171m, according to the NAO, meaning that Grayling burned through more than £200m of taxpayers’ cash in one news cycle. That certainly puts anyone else’s bad day at the office into perspective.

The ferry saga at least has the benefit of being comic because no one got hurt. Fearing the collapse of negotiations and a disorderly exit from the European Union, the Department for Transport tried to create extra freight capacity for channel crossings. The  urgency of Brexit – created by the decision to trigger Article 50 without a proper plan – left no time for the usual tender process.

It turned out that one of the three chosen suppliers, Seaborne Freight, had no ferries. It had, in fact, never run a ferry service. (There was nothing wrong, said Grayling, with helping “a new start-up business”.) The terms and conditions on its slapdash website appeared to have been copied and pasted from a takeaway service. “Thoroughly check the supplied goods before agreeing to pay for any meal/order,” it demanded. Good advice. When all this came out, Seaborne lost its contract.

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No money was lost on this farrago, Grayling told MPs at the time – as if the civil service’s precious time is not costly. Oh, and the £800,000 that the NAO found was spent on external consultants. (Still, when you’re burning £200m on the regular, what’s a few hundred thousand?) Then, of course, Eurotunnel wanted to know why a ferryless start-up had received a government contract when it had been overlooked. That’ll be £33m, please.

The probation cock-up is more serious because it affects real lives. At the height of austerity, Grayling was keen to offer up his department’s budget for cuts. Probation was duly slashed into two halves: low- and medium-risk offenders went to 21 community rehabilitation companies, while the high-risk cases stayed with the National Probation Service across the country.

How did the new private companies staff up? By poaching state employees, depriving the high-risk side of the operation of years of expertise. Just as private hospitals cherry-pick straightforward operations, while leaving the complex cases to the NHS, the probation bifurcation should have presented a flattering picture of capitalist efficiency. How pleasing for a Tory minister to report. Except the companies involved quickly complained that the contracts weren’t profitable and they were struggling.

In July 2018, the current justice secretary David Gauke – the fifth incumbent in less than four years – announced that eight of the 21 companies would have their contracts ended two years early. Although Grayling’s system was about “payment by results”, the government would waive £115m of penalties for missed targets by these companies, because… well, because what? Truly, this is the joy of outsourcing: the private companies can keep their profits, but the taxpayer is always available to eat their losses.

These are not partisan points. An internal assessment by the Ministry of Justice in 2013, seen by the Observer, warned of “potential for service delivery failure increase” and “operational confusion”. This has come to pass. The overall number of people caught reoffending dropped by 2.5 per cent between 2011 and March 2017, but the number of offences per reoffender increased by 22 per cent. Because probation was extended to those jailed for less than a year, recalls to prison increased by 47 per cent.

In December 2017 the chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, said the reforms had created a “two-tier and fragmented” system, with nearly 40 per cent of offenders supervised by phone rather than in face-to-face meetings. Reduced staff numbers meant some junior officers were supervising 200 cases. In 2018, the justice select committee, led by Conservative MP Bob Neill, found that “hard working and dedicated staff are doing their best with a probation system that is currently a mess”.

Time and again in this government, we see the same pattern. A faith-based approach to policymaking (see also: Universal Credit) where critics are dismissed, evidence is rejected and the whole process is needlessly rushed. A naive belief that the private sector is always better (see also: Southern trains) even when there are examples of state companies, or public-private partnerships, working well (see: the East Coast Main Line and TfL). And, of course, the disastrous presence of Chris Grayling.

As a Theresa May loyalist and Brexiteer, he appears to be unsackable. All that remains is to distract him. Please. Can’t someone in the civil service send him out for a tin of tartan paint or a left-handed hammer?

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash