On Tuesday afternoon, an open-top double-decker bus took a tour of London’s justice hotspots. It passed the Houses of Parliament, the Royal Courts of Justice and the Old Bailey, but the most significant sight may have been a small G4S van parked on the Strand. As the bus went by, the passengers – most of them probation officers – chanted: ‘G4S, what a mess!’
At noon, thousands of probation officers in England and Wales had gone on strike for 24 hours. They were protesting against the Ministry of Justice’s ‘transforming rehabilitation’ programme. By 2015, the national probation service will no longer exist in its current form, and most cases will be handled by the private sector. The 35 local probation trusts will be replaced by 21 ‘community rehabilitation companies’ looking after low and medium-risk offenders – currently 225,000 people, around 70 per cent of all offenders – while a new, centralised national probation service will hold on to high-risk cases.
For the community rehabilitation companies, the ministry is welcoming bids for annual contracts worth a total of £450 million from private firms and voluntary organisations. It boasts that more than 700 have expressed interest, many of them based overseas. Among those under consideration are G4S and Serco, despite the Serious Fraud Office this week opening an investigation into both companies for overcharging the government on criminal tagging contracts. Successful bidders will be paid by results, dependent on a fall in reoffending rates. This will make it harder for smaller organisations, who are less likely to have the resources to accommodate deferred payment.
The reforms are supposed to save money (the ministry has to cut more than £2 billion by 2014-15) and to drive down reoffending. Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, has repeatedly said that rates are too high, especially for offenders who have served prison sentences of less than a year. But the probation service isn’t currently licensed to work with those offenders, so it can’t be held responsible for them. Under the new reforms, that too will change: for the first time, all offenders will go through probation, no matter how short their sentence. It’s also unclear how costs can fall as the service expands, and according to a leaked internal Ministry of Justice document, savings will probably not be met.
Just after noon on Tuesday, I went to the office of the probation service in Borough. There were around 15 people outside. Sean has worked in probation for 15 years, currently with sex offenders. ‘It’s not a failing service,’ he said. ‘There is no need to privatise something that’s working well already.’ He pointed to the National Offender Management Service’s most recent ratings, which found the performance of thirty local probation trusts to be good and the other five exceptional. He agrees that the short-term reoffending rate needs to be addressed, but says: ‘We seem to be blamed for something we have no control over.’
The proportion of cases in which an offender’s risk level changes is said to be 25 per cent. But Rebecca, a parole officer I spoke to outside the London Probation Trust headquarters in Victoria, suspects the real figure is much higher: ‘It’s not something we’re necessarily reporting all the time – individual probation officers manage it by themselves.’ Under the reforms, an offender whose risk level alternates between medium and high could be passed repeatedly between the national service and a private company. At present, if a less experienced officer needs to hand over a high-risk case they can do so within minutes. ‘But if you’re talking about different companies managing risk, then what sort of process do you have to go through to get that case transferred to people who are really experienced enough to look after them?’ Rebecca asked. Like everyone I spoke to, she has no intention of working for a private provider: ‘I think it’s hell no, I won’t go.’
Later that afternoon, I got on the bus, which had been organised by the National Association of Probation Officers. It was a cold, windy day, with balloons and banners flying in the air, but the upper deck was filled beyond capacity. One man wore a Chris Grayling mask, and when the bus parked outside the Ministry of Justice there were repeated shouts of ‘Grayling’s failing,’ which someone later turned into a hoarse, lurching song to the tune of Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’. There were occasional thumbs up and cheers from the street – outside the Ministry of Justice, a man yelled ‘Grow up!’ – but most bystanders looked confused. I asked the woman in front of me if she thought people were aware of the reforms. People only knew about probation if they had experienced it from the inside, she said, as an offender or officer: ‘It’s a hidden service.’