"A living hell. Very disorganised and chaotic. It's all about hitting targets for the business, but completely missing the point for service users. It's about the money results, not the real results, which is ultimately protecting the public."
Five years ago, Chris Grayling implemented a “transforming rehabilitation” plan in an attempt to reduce reoffending rates, save money and shake up the probationary system. The programme resulted in a part-privatisation of the probation process for offenders across the UK; with the establishment of 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) to manage low- and medium-risk offenders. The National Probation Service retained management of high-risk offenders in 7 regions, but a large part of the rehabilitation and probation processes were placed on private companies. While the idea held some potential, paving the way for reduced pressure on public services; it appears that this experiment has failed. Several investigations into the progress of the Transforming Rehabilitation plan, as well as general commentary from front-line practitioners and probationary professionals, puts together an incredibly negative perspective of the changes.
The National Audit Service have presented findings showing that, instead of saving money, privatisation will result in the government having to bail out failing companies, potentially costing the taxpayer £467m. The Ministry of Justice are now admitting a level of economic failure here, as they’re severing the contracts with CRCs in 2020, 14 months earlier than planned.
Yes, this does seem a bit dubious, but new systems always come with costs and adapting to privatisation was bound to require a higher financial commitment than originally planned. This would all be understandable if the secondary goal – to reduce reoffending rates – was proven to be successful. Unfortunately, this is also far from the truth. Professionals across the sector are recognising how much more complicated it has become to effectively rehabilitate offenders, with some probationary officers vastly overstretched and only able to monitor service users over the phone. Some were noted to be managing over 200 cases each; making it clear to see how adequate supervision and guidance is not possible. The Ministry of Justice claimed that these high caseloads were due to more offenders being monitored, not from an inefficient system, reporting that an extra 40,000 offenders were being supported each year. However, those on the front-line are concerned about what that support actually looks like.
While the NPS has maintained positive levels of support for the offenders still under their supervision, the private companies who have taken over the bulk of the probationary services are “struggling to deliver”. Not only are the officers facing vast caseloads every day, but many are recognising flaws in their workspaces (such as open plan offices meaning sensitive interviews aren’t given the necessary privacy) and a very disorganised nature to the services. Staff are reported as commenting that the system felt “highly pressurised, confusing, chaotic and unprofessional, a commercial organisation dedicated to making money for investors.”
Previous offenders are vulnerable members of our society, susceptible to falling back into a pattern of crime if they’re not given the necessary help from experienced professionals. Since the programme was first announced in 2013, front-line professionals have been objecting to the notion of privatising probation, citing its “fragmentation and perverse incentives” as key failures from the get-go. Developing a “payment-by-results” system appears to prioritise profit margins over the valuable service being delivered here; which could be a cause of the rise in the number of people sent back to prison for breaching their licence conditions by almost half from 4,240 to 6,240.
We recognise that in times of crisis, sometimes drastic change is needed; and the public services across the country are all borderline in crisis, given their pressurised and underfunded nature. However, these choices have been met with public outcry and more negative consequences than we can count. At its core, the NPS (and any affiliates) should protect the vulnerable, facilitate rehabilitation and develop positive futures for offenders. Currently though, known criminals are slipping through the (rather large) cracks, and going on to commit further, very serious offences, such as rape or murder. This is a clear neon sign that something about the new system is faulty and needs serious attention. The NPS may not have been in clear crisis in 2014 when the Transforming Rehabilitation programme was introduced, but the public voice is clear: it definitely is now.
While you're here...
One Stop Social hosts a number of helpful resources for practitioners to use or refer to when working with offenders and those looking to rehabilitate their lives. Whether you’re a social worker or probationary officer, we believe in supporting good practice across the board and if you have a tool or guide you think would benefit our social work community then get in touch, and we’d be happy to review it!