We all know bears crap in the woods, so I guess it's no surprise that the Daily Telegraph has warmly welcomed Chris Graylings's announcement of Probation's demise yesterday:-
"Mr Grayling was accused by the probation union Napo of displaying an ideological hostility to the public sector. Yet his approach is reassuringly pragmatic: he is promoting this policy because he thinks it will work. The aim is to harness the expertise and efficiency of the private sector to overcome the barriers to rehabilitation. It is on the Left, wedded to delivery solely by the public sector even when it fails abjectly, that the ideologues are to be found. Mr Grayling has produced the sort of imaginative thinking needed to bring about the public service reforms taxpayers are entitled to expect. He also showed that uncompromisingly Tory policies can emerge despite the constraints of Coalition deal-making – Cabinet colleagues should take note."
I love that bit about him being "reassuringly pragmatic: he is promoting this policy because he thinks it will work" - that's alright then, and just look at his track record with Payment by Results when he was at the DWP. In answer to difficult questions yesterday about how it will all work, I note that his stock answers included a touching belief in the 'ability of the contract to cover everything', you know just like with Welfare to Work contracts or the West Coast Mainline even. By the way, for a good resume of how contractors can fiddle and defraud under PbR, look here.
As expected, NAPO were able to remind Chris Grayling and the Daily Telegraph that if there are to be any accusations of an ideological nature, they fit far more comfortably at the door of the government:-
Harry Fletcher, Napo Assistant General Secretary, said: “This decision is astonishing. The Probation Service in England and Wales met all its targets during the financial year 2011/12. Indeed last year it won the prestigious British Quality Foundation Gold Award for Excellence, was commended on its work and told it was probably the best organisation to provide these services. This move, therefore, is purely ideological. It is being rushed through without proper thought to the consequences. Issues of accountability have not been dealt with. The policy flies against the government’s localism agenda; the government is proposing that the Probation Service is reorganised twice in six months, which is impossible; issues of transfer and pension deficits have not been resolved; there is no plan for dealing with the escalation or decline of risk of individual offenders. If this plan proceeds it will be chaotic and will compromise public protection”. He added: “Some ministers may claim that the Probation Service is a failure because of high reoffending rates amongst short-term prisoners; but Probation has no statutory responsibility for supervising anybody sentenced to 12 months or less. Reoffending rates for the individuals that Probation does supervise are much improved; those who participate in programmes have a reoffending rate now of 35%. This is a success story that the government should be building on, not destroying”.
So, what sort of landscape is 'bold' Chris Grayling taking Probation into? He wants to involve the private sector in order to drive costs down, supervise more people for less money and reduce reoffending. We're all going to remember that Chris when the inevitable happens. Going on the track record of Welfare to Work, PbR is virtually a charter for companies to fiddle money out of the government. And look what targets in the NHS did at Mid Staffordshire, or cost cutting with Railtrack did. That's a bit extreme you might say, but just in case people have forgotten, in our line of work on occasion people die or are seriously injured as a direct consequence of action or omission.
You see the problem with Probation and matters of risk is that measuring it is not a science. I know management and NOMS have spent the last few years pretending that it is with OASys, but the reality is that a low risk client you shunted off to a private contractor just might go out and murder their partner tonight. The answer that 'but they were low risk' will seem a little lame the following day and you'd better have your ducks in a row for the Serious Further Offence Enquiry when minor lapses in procedure are identified. You will have to adequately explain the absence of a crystal ball that showed risk had suddenly increased.
I would venture to suggest that when such incidents occur, as they inevitably will, it is not going to play well in the press or indeed with the wider public. However, hopefully the Minister will be prepared for the reputational damage that will result, both personal and departmental, and indeed have a set of scapegoats lined up ready, if not willing, to take the wrap. (G4S and Serco particularly take note). In fact it's all neatly summed up by that wonderful line in 'Yes Minister' when the Permanent Secretary responds to his Minister's decision "Oh, how brave Minister!"