PROBATION services can be added to Royal Mail, rail, water, electricity, gas and other privatised public industries to have promised so much and delivered so little.
As with all industries flogged off by the Tories to their friends in the City, pre-privatisation propaganda justified the partial handover of probation services in England and Wales by promised future savings through private-sector efficiency. However, last night’s BBC1 TV Panorama programme lifted the lid on the price paid for transferring public finance to private “community rehabilitation companies.”
No less than £4 billion was found hanging from the branches of the government’s magic money tree to pay 21 private companies to supervise all low and medium-risk offenders, leaving the public National Probation Service to deal with high-risk cases.
The sorry tale related by Panorama reveals private companies cutting corners to maximise income by taking on more clients than they could safely manage.
In the scramble for favourable results for which to claim income, inconvenient failures by clients to attend for probation appointments — no fewer than 15,000 over 16 months — were simply ignored. One employee reports being instructed by MTC Novo management, responsible for most probation services in London, to delete records of missed appointments.
Missed appointments constitute a breach of probation conditions and should be followed up firmly. Privateers’ cavalier disregard for this requirement has brought serious consequences, with Panorama drawing attention to inadequately supervised offenders carrying out fatal attacks.
It spotlights, possibly because of a misplaced aspiration to balance, two deaths — one of an 18-year-old young man whose killer had missed eight appointments when supervised by private company Working Links and the other a five-year-old boy whose mother wasn’t informed of her new boyfriend’s violent past by the National Probation Service.
As has become common in similar cases where agencies fail in their duty to guarantee public protection, the Ministry of Justice reiterates the difficult-to-justify declaration that this is its top priority.
Having made one dubious statement, the ministry follows up with another, claiming that substantial evidence shows private companies and the National Probation Service working closely together to ensure offenders have the most appropriate level of supervision.
Such complacency lays bare government intent to ride out the storm over private sector incompetence and to press ahead with its reckless privatisation obsession. This approach is increasing concerns even from within the Tories’ parliamentary ranks, with Commons justice select committee chairman Bob Neill MP urging the government to publish a review into the effect of its “reforms” on probation services.
Chief Inspector of Probation Glenys Stacey points out too that she investigated MTC Novo last year, demanding an action plan, and is about to revisit that inspection.
Even the government admits to problems, with Justice Secretary David Lidington bleating about “unforeseen challenges” and the 21 new community rehabilitation companies blaming supposed teething problems.
There is nothing unforeseen about the pattern of lower numbers of experienced staff because of redundancies and serious personnel turnover, overburdening of current staff members, high levels of staff sickness and an obsessive pursuit of cash-linked targets.
Probation officers’ union Napo warned that these would result from privatisation.
Partial privatisation, including government lavishing of public funds on the private sector, has had a knock-on low-morale effect on the National Probation Service.
This situation cannot last. Government ministers must bow to the inevitable and work with probation professionals to end this privatisation nightmare.