Thursday, 6 March 2014

One Last Chance Saloon for Probation ?

 Next week the Offender Rehabilitation Bill returns to the House of Lords, where the upper House has a last chance to disrupt the Government’s plans to dismantle and privatise the bulk of the Probation service.  But the parliamentary ping pong will almost certainly end one way. The Government will say that the unelected chamber cannot frustrate a measure contained in the Coalition agreement which promised to introduce a rehabilitation revolution paying independent providers to reduce re-offending. There may be debate about whether, in constitutional terms, an item in the Coalition agreement is the same trump card as a manifesto commitment; or whether the item necessarily requires the destruction of probation in the way that’s proposed. But notwithstanding the severe doubts raised about the rationale for, and practicability of, the proposed changes, the Government will most likely get their way.  

Unless that is, the Ministry of Justice decide that slowing down what many see as a headlong rush to disaster, might after all be the wiser course. Yesterday’s  decision by the technology company Buddi to pull out of the electronic monitoring contract it won last year, should start enough alarm bells ringing in Whitehall or Westminster to haul the Ministry of Justice  back from the brink.

By coincidence, the National Audit Office yesterday published a landscape review looking in part at the plans for Probation. Most of the report’s material about the future outlines specific administrative challenges related to the winding up of Probation Trusts (such as who will do the books). But it also  lists generic risks inherent in a programme of this scale and complexity.

Presumably through concern about overstepping their remit rather than sloth, the NAO makes no effort , however, to assess how well these risks are in fact likely to be managed by the MOJ in this specific programme. The Ministry, they say, will need “to identify and retain, and if necessary, develop or acquire, knowledge of the service area being commissioned, as well as commissioning skills themselves.”   Surely the NAO should offer an assessment of the MoJ’s commissioning capabilities? Evidence from the court interpreting contract where according to the Public Accounts Committee  "almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong", and from the commissioning of the new electronic monitoring services, is hardly reassuring. 

The NAO say that once services are commissioned,  the MoJ will require contract management skills that are "a scarce resource", suggesting that “recent difficulties in the management of existing tagging contracts provide useful learning”. Strangely, they do not specify what the learning is- perhaps it’s that private companies can run rings around government officials for years. Finally the report talks about managing the risk of market and supplier failure, again without saying if the MoJ has put proper contingencies in place.

It is not only the critics of the policy who have expressed concern about the manageability and timescale of the plans and frustration that the Government have not shared key information about costs and risks. It is not easy for any Government to expose the state of its most complex and high risk projects. But this Government pledged to do so, setting up the Major Projects Authority (MPA) to provide “unprecedented transparency” to “help prevent problems being hidden and left to spiral out of control.”

Sadly it seems, the MPA along with the rest of Westminster and Whitehall’s machinery has so far totally failed to scrutinise the proliferation of fiascos to have emerged from the Ministry of Justice.    If there is a question of the outsourcing of probation joining that list, the Government  should call a halt to it next week. 

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