IF LABOUR’S manifesto commitment to review the role of the private sector in rehabilitating criminals was welcome, yesterday’s clarification from the shadow justice minister was better still.
Richard Burgon made clear to probation officers at their conference that this will not be one of the pointless “reviews” we’ve become so used to.
The likes of the McNulty report on our rail industry, which lackadaisically listed chronic problems caused by privatisation and went on to recommend more of the same, or the Competition and Markets Authority’s investigation into the rigged energy market which spent two years looking at how customers were ripped off and then suggested price comparison websites could solve all our problems.
No: Labour will take the bull by the horns and look at “how and when it can bring probation back under public control.”
Probation union Napo general secretary Ian Lawrence has already outlined the damage caused by an “ill-conceived social experiment that [has led] to public safety risks, a deterioration of quality and effectiveness, and a profit motive at odds with the service’s values.”
As in the closely linked example of privatised prisons, running probation for profit raises predictable — and predicted — problems: it will always be in the interests of a for-profit provider to cut costs, leading to cuts to staffing numbers and downward pressure on pay.
Along with other essential public services, the privateers awarded contracts in the sector have the government over a barrel: the market cannot simply eliminate poor performers.
Admitting that you’re releasing dangerous individuals into the community isn’t much more appetising for a government minister than allowing a rail franchise to collapse and cause transport chaos: so the grasping profiteers have their mouths repeatedly stuffed with public money that could be better used investing in the service and the staff than lining shareholders’ pockets.
Napo’s members report impossible caseloads, so a job which should be based on long-term work with prisoners to help them reintegrate into society and cool-headed assessment of who does and who doesn’t pose a risk to others turns into a scramble to jump through hoops.
It’s a grimly familiar complaint because it reflects what we have seen across the public sector, in prisons, in the NHS, in social care, in local government, in education.
These sectors have varying levels of private-sector involvement, but the government has imposed a market-driven model on them all.
This is the consequence of four decades of neoliberalism: an ideology rooted in the premise that profit is always the best motivation whatever the line of work and that the market is always the most efficient motor of progress for every conceivable task.
The result is a full-blown crisis across the country as corners are cut, staff are worked to the bone for a pittance and users are left to suffer.
The Conservatives who continue to peddle this catastrophic folly are the real extremists: insistent that the project must continue, whatever the human cost, and that it will somehow all work out eventually, however much evidence piles up to suggest their medicine is killing the patient.
Either that, or the ruin of our public services doesn’t bother them so long as their hedge-fund donors are making a packet.
It’s time for a change. Labour’s commitment to return service provision to the public sector is plain common sense. But it should go further.
The privateers who have grown fat off public subsidies while running our country into the ground should not be permitted to keep their ill-gotten gains.
There should be no compensation for the loss of contracts they should never have been awarded and companies which have fleeced the taxpayer must be made to pay us back.