Many parts of the privately controlled arm of the probation services are in abject chaos, writes IAN LAWRENCE
IN FEBRUARY 2014, the former secretary of state for justice Chris Grayling handed over the contracts for the management of so-called “low and medium-risk offenders” to 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) to untested providers such as Working Links, Interserve and Sodexo.
Grayling boasted that his “transforming rehabilitation” programme would revolutionise offender intervention and create the opportunity for the privateers to demonstrate their innovation and efficiency.
The truth, three years on, is that despite a series of independent reports by HM Inspector of Probation Dame Glenys Stacey — which indicate that the state-controlled National Probation Service (NPS) is just about maintaining the required operational standards expected of it — many parts of the privately controlled arm are in abject chaos.
Not that the picture in the NPS is exactly rosy, with a litany of problems including massively depressed pay rates with little progress in negotiations, unrealistic caseloads and staffing shortages causing stress and high levels of sickness absence in some divisions.
This increases the possibility of “high-risk” offenders not receiving the requisite levels of supervision often delivered through already under-resourced multi-agency public protection schemes.
The situation has been exacerbated with the post-privatisation edict that the NPS must produce (short format) reports for court sessions so quickly that vital information about risk of harm from clients and child safeguarding issues can often be missed.
Napo and the other probation unions have also demanded a meeting with HM Prison and Probation Service supremo Michael Spurr about the proposed privatisation of night supervision in approved premises despite two recorded murders on or outside of two locations in England within the last 12 months.
In another recent development, Napo has unearthed a major administrative scandal in the NPS as a result of unfit for purpose payroll and pension services provided by the privatised shared service arrangements (SSCL).
This has resulted in new trainees being without pay for several weeks, local managers not being aware of new starters, non-payment of additional allowances and, in recent weeks, a failure to properly deduct employee contributions to the local government pension scheme.
Napo has reported the NPS to the Pensions Ombudsman and has writen to Prisons and Probation Minister Sam Gyimah asking why his offi cials clearly lied to him earlier this year when he denied Napo’s claims about the problems in SSCL.
If all of this was not bad enough, the revelation that failing CRC contractors have received a £22 million handout from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to keep their operations afl oat this year has caused serious anger among Napo’s members in the private sector.
Clearly that “magic money tree” was given a good shake for that one; but this is nothing compared to further research of the European Journal (OJEC) which reveals an additional bung of jaw-dropping proportions of £277m of taxpayers’ cash for the CRC empire over the next four years.
This, despite another HMI Probation report showing that nationally the much-vaunted Through the Gate support programme, designed to encourage short-term prisoners to receive post-sentence housing and employment support, might as well not exist.
Despite the MoJ publishing performance reports showing that many CRCs are doing well, the probation inspectors have continuously found a very different story on the ground.
In the most recent report covering the Gloucestershire area run by Working Links (now itself a subsidiary of the Germany-based asset-strippers Aurelius), inspectors found that the CRC had not been able to implement its own operating model, caseloads are dangerously high and there is no end-to-end offender management as promised in its own bid.
Instead, cases are moved to different officers to meet operational needs which goes against all the principles that underpin desistance.
In what is right up there in terms of damning reports, the inspectorate has called for both Working Links and the government to take urgent remedial action to resolve the issues.
Against the backdrop of savage staff reduction programmes, a loss of morale and inept providers whose inexperience has now been exposed, together with missold contracts, it’s difficult to see any hope of a solution beyond the contractor handing back the keys.
The key themes of the HMI Probation reports are echoed across other CRCs in England and Wales. Dangerously high caseloads, increasing levels of staff sickness and a lack of staff to meet unsafe operational models suggests that someone should intervene now.
Napo is calling on the justice select committee to announce a full parliamentary inquiry into the shambles, but short of a Labour government being elected, which has pledged to renationalise the service, there is now a compelling case for the failing CRC contracts to be put under special measures.
This must include the intervention of regional mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners to ensure some real accountability until such time as the service can once again be restored to full public control.
The privateeers won’t much like that prospect; but as far as Napo members are concerned perhaps they should bite the bullet and accept that, in reality, probation is just not their bag.