UK probation outsourcing ‘irredeemably flawed’, says inspector

By on 04/04/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Former UK justice secretary Chris Grayling, who drove through the failed probation outsourcing project (Image courtesy: International Maritime Organization).

A report by the UK chief inspector of probation has branded the service’s partial outsourcing “irredeemably flawed”, and pressed the government to take the “opportunity to redesign the service” when contracts come to an end next year.

In a letter to current justice secretary David Gauke introducing her annual report, Dame Glenys Stacey wrote: “The probation model delivered by Transforming Rehabilitation is irredeemably flawed. Above all, it has proved well-nigh impossible to reduce probation services to a set of contractual requirements. Professional probation work is so much more than simply a series of transactions, and when treated in that way it is distorted and diminished.”

Stacey argues that probation services should be brought back under public ownership. “Significant flaws in the system have become increasingly apparent. It will be virtually impossible to deal with these issues if most probation supervision continues to be provided by different organisations, under contract,” the report says.

Making a mess

In 2013 then-justice secretary Chris Grayling launched the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, which split the probation service into low-to-medium risk and high-risk offending groups. The government retained supervision of high-risk offenders, while probation services for the lower risk groups was contracted out to privately-run Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs). 

There have been serious concerns in the five years since the probation service shake-up. A group of MPs looking into the outsourcing programme last year described it as “a mess”, and a 2016 survey found that 38% of magistrates said they had less confidence in probation than under previous arrangements.

Fundamentally ill-conceived

In her report Stacey said the supervision provided under contracts is “substandard,” with much of it “demonstrably poor.”

“Probation contracts treat it largely as a transactional business,” she wrote. “Consequently, there has been a deplorable diminution of the probation profession and a widespread move away from good probation practice.

“This is chiefly due to the impact of commerce. Professional ethics can buckle under such pressures, and the evidence we have is that this has happened to some extent.”

Stacey announced last year that she would be stepping down at the end of her three-year term in March 2019, and the damning report represents her final verdict on Grayling’s reforms. It comes just a month after a review by spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO), which said the Ministry of Justice outsourcing programme had been rushed and created “significant risks that it was unable to manage.” This created increased costs to the taxpayer and made the “number of people on short sentences recalled to prison skyrocket,” it said.

Remedial action

The CRC contracts were initially due to run until 2021-22, but the government terminated many early due to failings in the quality of services being provided. Most are now due to end in 2020. Stacey acknowledged the “bold decision to terminate contracts early,” but wrote that “while this would help, it would leave serious design flaws unaddressed.”

She goes on to suggest a number of improvements the government should make, such as requiring more pre-sentence reports; a better range of rehabilitative community sentences; the timely provision of accommodation and benefits payments; and much more use, and availability, of mental health and other treatment orders.

Clearing up after Grayling

Prisons and probation minister Rory Stewart said the report “redoubles my determination to continue working towards a probation service that puts public protection first, commands the confidence of the courts and breaks the cycle of reoffending,” the Guardian reported.

Noting that the reforms included extending probation services to those given short prison sentences, he said: “Our reforms mean 40,000 more offenders are being supervised, which is a positive move for public safety, but it is clear the current model is not working and there is much more we need to do.

“We have already taken decisive action to end the current contracts early and have invested an extra £22m [US$29m] a year to support offenders on release – and we are carefully considering how best to deliver an effective probation service for the future.”

On Thursday, the government announced that Justin Russell will be taking up the role of chief inspector of probation from June this year.

For more information on the project, see our previous story on the National Audit Office report

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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