Thursday saw the publication of "Improving Prison and Probation Services: Public Value Partnerships" (see here for your very own copy), the latest glossy pamphlet about the proposed introduction of contestability/privatisation into the Probation Service. It begins to read like a prospectus, extolling the virtues of private enterprise over the dinosaur of public servants. Maybe this is the first draft of the catalogue for the closing-down sale of the nearly-100-year-old Probation Service?
There are some bizarre things about requiring Probation areas to double the proportion of services that are contracted out, but on a voluntary basis (my emphasis) - which is it, guys? A voluntary requirement makes as much sense as a chocolate fireguard. I'm also a bit alarmed by the specific focus on faith organisations - what happens to people who don't happen to share those beliefs? But the main contention I have with the document is its claim that contracting out services will lead to an end to the "one size fits all" approach to offender management.
Firstly, this betrays an ignorance of what probation officers do. We work very hard to match the right things to the right people; if we put offenders onto the same offending behaviour programmes, that reflects the fact that the Home Office has set targets for the number of completions, and not necessarily a belief that they are right for each individual. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren't; the fact that there's limited room for manoeuvre here is not the fault of the probation officer. We try very hard to make the standard programmes relevant for each individual, but we're constrained by instructions handed to us by the people who are now telling us to work around them.
Secondly, the contestability/privatisation agenda will not, actually, end up in a situation where an individual officer can make decisions about what is right for an individual offender; we won't see a whole raft of different options coming onstream, or a smorgasbord of possibilities to choose from, even though this document tries to propagate this illusion. It will actually mean Service Level Agreements struck at senior levels to replace existing options, not a greater amount of choice. The PO at the ground level will simply be forced to amend their report proposals from Unpaid Work to "100 hours of SERCO Service to the Community", or whatever. This does not mean choice! Rail and bus privatisation did not mean a choice between companies for the consumer: only one company operates the route I have to take to my office, so they get my custom. The same is true with contestability/privatisation: it means taking public services out of the hands of publicly-accountable people and placing them into the hands of private companies whose duties are to their shareholders.
The document claims that this is all in the interests of driving up performance. I have no problem with that; in fact, I'm very much in favour of improving standards and the way in which we work. But it's predicated on the same dogma that has sustained this Government for over nine years, that private is best; it's a position that has been shown to be untrue in so many different cases that I'm, frankly, astonished that it's still being pursued. But it is. It will end up costing more, without any significant improvement in performance (and in all probability lower), across an increasingly fragmented and confused sector, with increased room for abuse of the system. We've seen it so many times before.
Over 700 responses were received when a consultation document was sent out earlier in the year; all but two of them were negative about contestability/privatisation. The message was clear: if you want to improve performance standards, you need to provide proper resources, ensure that those at the front line feel valued and supported, and give them time to react to changes before dunping a whole load of new ones on them.
I don't have an objection to working with different agencies and companies (although I do have a problem, ideologically-speaking, with the public good being farmed out to private profit); in my day-to-day work I have regular contact with central government agencies, local government, charities and even private companies. But I do object, in the strongest possible terms, to this hacking away approach, taking chunks of the public sector away and handing them out to the highest bidder, whilst the unprofitable core (and most difficult) tasks remain to an undermined, under-appreciated and demotivated set of staff.
Labels: Offender Management Bill