Is the privatisation of the Probation service the right option?

This Monday the Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech in which he repeated the conservative mantra of tough on crime etc. It is a part of conservative DNA to be tough on crime and so a reiteration of that stance will come as no surprise to anybody and will be of great comfort to those within the party who think that the conservatives have taken their eye off this issue.

The rehabilitation of offenders was a key aspect of this speech and having been convicted of an offence mechanisms will be put in place to deter the person from committing further crimes. This is a sensible approach because if we do not rehabilitate people the chances are that they will re-offend and will at some point end up in or return to prison having caused harm to the victims of their crimes and costs to society.

The Probation Service is responsible for the rehabilitation of offenders and it has been decided that this service will now be privatised and incentivised by using a Payment by Results (PbR) system to somehow deliver more rehabilitated offenders than the current public service?

There is no specific evidence at this time to say whether or not a privatised Probation Service using PbR can actually produce better results. There are pilot schemes running but no hard results at this stage.

It is probably not a coincidence that the chief architect of this new PbR scheme is Chris Grayling who introduced the PbR workfare scheme while in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions.

A4E are the company charged with delivering the workfare programme who it is fair to say have had a number of  problems and may not be producing the required results.

“In total, A4E has received £45,893,535 from DWP, mostly from the initial attachment fees. The /+cost to the taxpayer per job outcome so far is £13,498.” That is nearly 4 times a much as a single person over 25 can claim as job seekers allowance (71 per week) in a year!

Other notable failed or failing privatisation schemes include:

The court interpreting service which was given to ALS who have now taken over by Capita is proving to be a complete disaster. You can find more information about the interpreting service here.

Privatised hospitals such as Hitchingbrooke and healthcare services in Surrey are running into financial difficulties.

Privatised policing services in Cheshire ran into trouble and the police authority had to terminate the contract early.

The issue for me lies at the heart of the reason for an organisations existence – is it there to provide a public service or is it there to provide a profit? If an organisation exists to provide a public service then it should not be required to make a profit – yes it should be efficient and effective delivering the best value for money that it can but these requirements do not equate to making a profit.

The belief that privatising part or all of a service will make it more efficient and effective is not borne out by the examples above. In particular the A4E workfare programme which utilises PbR is hardly a shining example of the good use of public money.

Instead of rushing ahead with another potential costly scheme the government really should take stock of what is happening.

Is the private sector truly able to deliver cost effective public services bearing in mind that whatever they are paid some of that money has been earmarked as profit and so they are trying to deliver an improved service for less? This is a key question that needs to be asked and answered.

Unless serious consideration is given to this issue the risk is that the privatisation of the Probation Service will prove to be another costly mistake.


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