Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Costs of Failure

 Hundreds of practitioners, academics and experts are flocking to London for the first World Congress of Probation which opens today. Probation officers from Albania to Vietnam, Belgium to Uganda will be no doubt keen to learn about the latest developments in the host country- indeed many are taking part in study visits to Probation services before the Conference proper opens.
Many will no doubt be puzzled to discover that the Probation service in England and Wales is in the process of being dismantled.  They may well ask representatives from the home team why a hundred year old public service is being handed over to the private sector. The official line, which Chris Grayling will no doubt give when he speaks at the Congress on Wednesday, is that the government is bringing in the best of the private and the voluntary sectors to reinforce what the public sector does.  But even if they don’t hear the noise from the rally of Probation Officers protesting outside parliament up the road, many participants are likely to work out that there is more to it than that. The question is exactly what?
One of the drivers of the reform is undoubtedly to cut costs, so it is an added irony that a report out today describes the impact of cost cutting in a closely related area- prisons.  Oakwood is the UK’s biggest cheapest prison with running costs allegedly less than half those of comparable jails. It has been put forward as a benchmark for future prisons with assurances that the specification and standards will be just as high as other comparable jails.
Already the local independent monitoring board (IMB) have described how resource constraints have impacted on the prison. The board have concerns about the amount of drugs, hooch and mobile phones that are being found and known to be in the prison. Much of the contraband is thrown over the fence, which is alongside a public highway but budgetary restraints have limited security cameras and extra netting in the area. Lack of work placements for prisoners is causing unrest with a fifth of prisoners locked back in their cell at 9.am as a result of not having purposeful activity; prisoners have little faith in the complaints system and do not feel that the staff are able to resolve their issues.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) have reported that the NHS Trust providing healthcare failed to reach five of the six standards it is judged on. Prisoners are able to trade medicines and had to wait three months for routine dental treatment.  When one inmate was being handed medication he was told ‘you’ll get what you’re given’ by a staff member. Today the independent prison inspectorate add their damning criticisms of the prison, classing the jail as poor or inadequate in the areas it looked at,  echoing the findings of the IMB and CQC..  

What are the implications of these findings for the Probation service? First, despite heroic  claims about the efficiency of the private sector and  how costs can be cut through innovative use of technology, reduced spending is likely to bring with it reductions in decency, safety and quality. Second, and more specifically, the privatisation of probation will lead to a potentially catastrophic loss of experienced staff. The Oakwood report found prison staff there were often inexperienced and failed to deal with poor behaviour in an attempt to avoid confrontation.  Inspectors said they were "passive and compliant, almost to the point of collusion". Not surprisingly frustration was common among inmates who said they routinely resorted to the complaints system to address issues. This confirms Cambridge University’s comparative research findings which found  public sector establishments were better than private ones  at ‘getting things done’; a distinct component of respect in prison, according to prisoners. The research also found that in the public sector prisons, officers are confident and knowledgeable, delivering routines that are safer and more reliable than in the private sector.

Safety, reliability, and respect may not sound as significant as innovation but they are as important in probation work as in prisons.The Oakwood report should be a wake up call not only about plans for large scale super prisons but the privatisation of probation too. The Justice Secretary should use his speech at the Congress to call a halt while a proper evaluation of his policies is undertaken.


  1. Thanks Rob - that World Congress seems to be getting no media coverage - I understand some folk from Napo are planning to turn up outside to welcome the Lord Chancellor and others as they arrive, though Mr Grayling is expected to enter unseen by the populace, I have seen it reported that he will not take questions - no doubt he does not want to face any one who knows about realities of probation again, when he is in a public arena

    Andrew Hatton

  2. Agree with Andrew - WCP will lose a great deal of its hard earned moral standing if it meekly acquiesces in having a Keynote address from CG without a murmur of dissent, at a time when the dismal spectacle of probation dismantling is being ushered in on his watch! Most surely what remains of the scattered remnants of probations guardians must make some belated stand to put an block to this cruel irony! What price international embarrassment when the CEP guiding principle is to enhance the profile of probation -

    Mike Guilfoyle