What Price Justice – The demise of Probation?

Mike Guilfoyle 

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It was a piquant moment for me, reading that the prominent Human Rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC had been broached to consider instigating legal action.  This in response to the ill-considered and mean spirited move by the ‘ Hard line’ Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP, prohibiting the sending into prisons of books by families and friends under recently imposed restrictions introduced last November via a Ministry of Justice edict, with the Orwellian prefix PSI 30/2013 (Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme). This policy recalled for me, the redoubtable prison reformer Sir Alexander Paterson, who coined the famous adage `that men (sic) come to prison as a punishment, not for punishment’. 

Whether this embargo on books breaches the 1689 Bill of Rights as Robertson opines, such that this constitutes  `cruel and unusual punishment’ only time will tell. But the unbridled enthusiasm with which Grayling has embarked on this more populist approach to the treatment of prisoners, citing in another blunt historic allusion to the need to introduce ‘ Spartan prisons’. Those terrorized by the Spartans being the ritually mistreated Helots, perhaps this unsavory atavism relishing as it does such an oppressive apparatus of control, befits a Justice Secretary who regularly derides the inconvenient demands of the Human Rights Act.  Not to mention his utter annoyance of judicial review.

Certainly denting the transformative impact of book reading on prisoner rehabilitation and offence-free futures, sits uneasily with a government that attaches such headline importance to its `Transforming Rehabilitation’ penal agenda. At the same time as this irascible display of macho posturing, the much debated Offender Rehabilitation Act came into force on the 13 of March this year. One of its more dramatic legislative outcomes will result, when fully implemented, in upwards of 50,000 short -term prisoners serving sentences of less than twelve months now under statutory supervision. The reformative impact of engaging with this cohort of released prisoners, many troubled by multiple social disadvantages and high levels of recidivism, enjoys widespread criminological backing. The fact that the centenary old Probation Service, now due to be privatised and outsourced at the beginning of June this year, is disallowed from bidding for this rehabilitative work represents not only a spectacular organisational shortcoming, in light of the carousel of Ministry of Justice commissioning fiascos.  Most recently evident in the withdrawal of the private firm Buddi from its part in the £1billion contract, to provide Electronic Monitoring.  This recalling the shock revelations that it took a mere eight years of working as contractors for the Ministry of Justice for politicians to realise that all along that G4S/Serco were engaged in wholesale corporate malfeasance!

The value of enlisting many of those smaller charities engaged in working with offenders is of course to be welcomed, but adding a caseload of 50k to existing smaller providers, unevenly modeled on a payment by results project at Sodexho run HMP Peterborough, which is entirely voluntary, is from all the evidence to date most likely to result in major privateers scooping up business! The evidence -free bifurcation of the Probation Service, from June 1st the ‘ public sector’ rump National Probation Service(NPS) will be enjoined only to work with those deemed as ‘ High Risk ‘ Offenders (dubbed Tier4).  Whilst twenty one Community Rehabilitation Companies ( CRC’s) will for a specified six months period, act as shadow companies, supervising those currently assessed as Low to Medium Risk ( dubbed Tiers 1-3), prior to transfer to other providers. The commodified signifier for these Companies will then morph into the market friendly denominator – a Contract Package Area! Oh how probation, a hard won ideal of local justice, humanity and redemption has been so horribly mangled by the corrosive lexicon of commercialism.

The framing legislation underpinning these seismic changes was controversially introduced by New Labour, via the 2007 Management of Offenders Act. Although this outworking from an earlier Act of Parliament, only ever intended (or so it was stated) by erstwhile Labour Ministers, as a default provision should a probation trust fold  (presently there are 35 probation trusts). This has not yet been tested by Judicial Review.  The Probation Union Napo has mooted that as this demarche misrepresents the intent of this legislation and the unfolding operational mayhem, with former co-located colleagues working for two organisations, a workstation apart! And expected amongst a plethora of bureaucratic duplication’s to ‘sift and shift ‘ cases for transfer, set against centrally imposed procrustean benchmarks and a whole tranche of probation staff formerly identified as ‘ officers of the court’ now effectively debarred from offering courts any professional advice. Such disturbing practitioner feedback ( and believe me this is just a cursory sample of the chaos now set in train) from probation trusts across England and Wales.

Clearly this makes more credible a likely legal challenge, as well as signaling that the rushed implementation of the government’s plans may well be scuppered on the anvil of an undeliverable implementation calendar. Added to which is the woefully obfuscatory performance of Ministry of Justice mandarins before the Public Accounts Committee who scrutinised the cost implications of privatising probation.  This has added legal momentum to this proposed course of action. The revelatory figure of £9 million spent on Consultants engaged in this enterprise so far drew some audible responses from parliamentarians.

In its most recent industrial action against the privatisation of the probation service, Napo aligned itself with aggrieved Lawyers concerned at swingeing legal Aid cuts of £215 million, introduced on the 1st of April.  And joined in protests outside the Ministry of Justice and which resulted in disrupted court hearings. In a wide ranging speech to the Prison Reform Trust shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan MP  offered an embryonic Labour Party justice manifesto.  This ahead of the 2015 Election and in doing so he decried the fact that the ‘ Government have put all their eggs in the basket of privatising probation, ‘ adding that ‘these plans are uncosted, untested and untried, and risk public safety. A situation which will allow private companies, with no record of working in this area, given responsibility for supervising serious and violent offenders in the community’ His speech ‘Prisons that Work’ adumbrated what he deemed principled and evidence informed.  Such an approach designed to ensure more purposeful prisons, that are better equipped to enable those re-entering society with a genuine chance to ‘ go straight’.  Whilst he hinted at pursuing a possible fiscal case for a reduced prison population, he eschewed any explicit commitment to restoring or retaining a public probation service.

Chris Grayling’s unflinching and troublingly unreflexive attempts to dismantle an internationally renowned and recognised probation service appears to be part and parcel of a wider ideological assault on the public sector but at what risk and at what price? If these dramatic organisational changes which are ‘ aggressively’ timetabled to be in place by the 2015 Election, mean that a service that currently employs 20,000 staff, supervises nearly 240.000 adult offenders (with 50,000 soon to be added) will most likely arrive at its existential moment and be erased and fractured into competing organisations ostensibly aimed at bringing to the fore innovative practice, cost reductions and entrepreneurial endeavor (naked competitive advantage methinks!)

It was perhaps fitting that the outraged group of literati who demonstrated outside HMP Pentonville have succeeded in discomfiting Chris Grayling (see his confused riposte) due to his inept handling of book banning. I fervently hope that such timely outrage can still be mustered to ensure that the retention or more likely the restoration of a public probation service still remains within the wider ambit of Labours criminal justice 2015 manifesto commitments

Mike Guilfoyle

Former Probation Officer and Associate Member Napo .

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