UK to reverse outsourcing of probation service

By on 15/06/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
The UK government’s partial outsourcing programme, brought in under previous justice secretary Chris Grayling, is to be scrapped. (Photo courtesy Andy Thornly via Flickr).

All probation services in England and Wales are to be brought back under public ownership and control, reversing the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) six-year programme to outsource delivery of most probation operations.

The Transforming Rehabilitation programme, introduced in 2014 by then justice secretary Chris Grayling, outsourced the handling of 150,000 low- and medium-risk offenders to 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) owned by external providers. A rump National Probation Service was retained to manage around 100,000 high-risk offenders.

But the programme has hit a series of problems, and in May last year the MoJ announced that in December 2020 the NPS will regain responsibility for supervising low- to medium-risk offenders. CRCs were left in charge of delivering other support services, including unpaid work and behavioural change schemes; but the MoJ has now decided that when the current set of contracts expire in June 2021, these responsibilities will also revert to the NPS. The latest move is likely to lead to around 2000 private sector employees transferring to HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), the Guardian reported.

Covid or competence?

In a statement to the House of Commons on Thursday, justice secretary Robert Buckland said the government would “end the competitive process for probation delivery partners”. Buckland cited “the significant operational impact” caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which he said meant it was right that the government should now “reassess” their plans. “Looking ahead, it is vital for public and judicial confidence that we have the flexibility to deliver a national response to any future challenges that covid-19 presents,” he said.

However, the probation outsourcing programme already looked doomed. In March 2019, the UK’s chief inspector of probation 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. Justice minister Rory Stewart accepted that “the current model is not working”, and two months later handed low- and medium-risk offenders back to the NPS.

UK spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) has said that the programme’s rushed roll-out created significant risks that the service was unable to manage. “Not only have these failings been extremely costly for taxpayers, but we have seen the number of people on short sentences recalled to prison skyrocket,” the NAO found.

The chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell, told the Guardian the latest announcement is “not a magic bullet for improving performance”, adding that the service must be properly funded. “The quality of probation supervision will not improve merely by lifting and shifting large volumes of cases from CRCs back into the NPS next year. Vacancies for probation officers must be filled and staff properly trained for their new responsibilities,” he said.

Shadow secretary of state for justice David Lammy welcomed the move, saying it has been “the deepest privatisation that the criminal justice system has ever experienced” ­– transferring 70% of the work done by the public probation service to the private and voluntary sector.

Having now entirely reversed its six-year reform project, the MoJ now faces the task of rebuilding probation services within the public sector.

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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