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The entire probation service needs bringing back into public control

STEVEN WALKER takes a look at Chris Grayling’s disastrous probation overhaul

THE news that 80 per cent of the probation service will be brought back under public control has been welcomed across the sector and by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) trade union.

But this won’t happen until the end of 2020, when much could change, and it still leaves a fifth of the service in the hands of profiteer private hands. 

The grim consequences of “Failing” Grayling’s privatisation in 2014 has just been revealed, showing what happens when profits come before people.

The number of people dying while on probation in England and Wales has risen by almost a third in three years, analysis of official figures shows. 

Campaign groups said there had been “institutional indifference” towards offenders released from custody. 

The BBC’s shared data unit analysed Ministry of Justice data from 2015-16 to 2017-18. 

It found that 966 deaths of offenders were recorded last year compared with 752 in 2015-16; about one in three of those deaths were self-inflicted; and in 2014-15 there were 558 deaths — but that was before 40,000 extra offenders were brought under supervision following Grayling’s hapless changes when he was justice minister. 

In 2014 the arrangements for managing offenders were overhauled, with the probation service split in two. 

A new state body, the National Probation Service (NPS), which has eight divisions, was set up to supervise high-risk offenders, with 21 privately run community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) supervising low- and medium-risk offenders. 

In March, the chief inspector of probation said the new system was “irredeemably flawed.” 

Howard League for Penal Reform chief executive Frances Crook said homelessness, cuts to the voluntary sector and the spread of drugs such as spice may have contributed to the rise in deaths. 

She said: “Whereas before we had a successful publicly run probation service with qualified and trained staff who saw their mission as befriending and turning lives around, we now have a fragmented service with a tick-box culture where some people have not even met face-to-face.”

Freedom of information requests have forced the Ministry of Justice to release private internal audits of the service run by private outfits such as Sodexo, Purple Futures and Working Links. 

These reveal 11 red warnings on a green, amber, red traffic-light system used for the 37 audits applied to 21 regional CRCs. 

The National Audit Office (NAO) noted that of 37 audits in 2017-18, none received a green (fully compliant) rating and in only five they received amber/green ratings. 

Grayling’s widely derided changes to the supervision of a quarter of a million offenders in the community were rushed through at breakneck speed, taking “unacceptable risks” with taxpayers’ money the NAO said.

In Scotland, the work of the probation service is devolved to local authorities’ social work departments, which are not required to record a cause of death for offenders under their care. 

Figures for 27 out of 32 councils that responded to a BBC freedom of information request show that there were 556 recorded deaths across Scottish councils since 2014-15. 

Similar records from the Probation Board for Northern Ireland began in November 2016 and show a rise in deaths from 14 to 21 since then. 

Rebecca Roberts, head of policy at campaign group Inquest, said: “There’s been complete institutional indifference towards the lives and deaths of people following release from custody and a total lack of visibility and investigation. 

“Deaths have been rising year after year and we need more scrutiny on why this is and what can be done to prevent these deaths in future.”

In yet another damning report on Grayling’s so-called Transforming Rehabilitation strategy, MPs on the public accounts committee said the overhaul had left the probation sector in a worse state than before. 

The changes failed to achieve expected reductions in reoffending and left services underfunded, fragile and lacking the confidence of the courts, the MPs said in their report. 

Action taken to tackle the problems will cost £467 million, the report said, adding: “Inexcusably, probation services have been left in a worse position than they were in before the ministry embarked on its reforms.” 

Probation services south of the border deal with more than 250,000 offenders, including those preparing to leave jail, former prisoners living in the community and people serving community or suspended sentences.

Under the proposed new system, 10 probation regions would be created in England, with each containing an NPS division and a CRC. 

In Wales, the NPS would assume responsibility for the management of all offenders. The Grayling changes failed to reduce the average number of reoffences per offender: instead they  increased by 22 per cent between 2011 and March 2017. 

The number of offenders recalled to prison for breaching their licence conditions went up by 47 per cent from January 2015 to September 2018.

The criticisms made in the latest annual report of the probation chief inspector Dame Glenys Stacey that the privatised model was “irredeemably flawed” vindicates Napo’s claims that the current CRC contracts have significantly failed in a number of key areas, including public safety, and have only been sustained due to numerous taxpayer-funded bailouts as the operational costs increased well above the contractors’ original expectations.

Napo general secretary Ian Lawrence said: “We are obviously disappointed that there is an intention for some probation work to remain in the private sector. Napo will continue to campaign to ensure that all of these services and our members who provide them are eventually transferred back into the public sector and that we will step up our efforts to secure pay parity for all probation staff. 

“This victory has not given us all that we want and, while this news will be welcomed by Napo members and other stakeholders, the campaign for public ownership is not over yet.”

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