MP WRITES: Probation service is a privatisation too far

I mentioned in this column a couple of weeks ago the Government’s privatisation of the Royal Mail and how the proposal really wasn’t grounded in evidence.

A potentially far more serious privatisation is also being pushed through, one that could have far-reaching consequences and increased crime on the streets – that of the proposed privatisation of the national probation service.

This week I met with staff who work at the Hartlepool probation service in Avenue Road.

You probably don’t think of the probation service too much – they don’t have the profile that other players in the criminal justice system like the police or the courts have.

Yet they play a vital role in assessing the risk of offenders and ensuring that sentences passed by the courts are dealt with correctly.

In short, they keep us safer by working to reduce reconviction.

Hartlepool’s service is considered particularly good nationally and the Durham Tees Valley service, of which Hartlepool is part, is in the top five performing trusts out of the 35 in the whole country.

All credit to probation service staff in the town who work hard behind the scenes to make Hartlepool safer.

The Government is planning to privatise the probation services by abolishing the 35 public sector probation trusts and replacing them with 21 companies, who will tender out the supervision of all so-called medium and low-risk offenders to the private sector.

This is the most radical change in the probation service’s 100 year history.

The key thing that the probation service does is the assessment of risk – whether a particular offender can be judged to be high or medium risk to the community.

This is obviously crucial – get it wrong and society has to deal with the violent, unpleasant or – even – fatal consequences.

Lives can be lost if somebody who is not judged to be a danger to the community is released early. Of course these dreadful things happen now, and so it must be a priority of the probation service to tighten up procedures to ensure such mistakes are not made.

However, I can’t agree with the Government that the best way to do this is to privatise the probation service, ensure that private companies make a profit from criminals and make the system even more fragmented, bureaucratic and therefore ultimately more costly to the taxpayer.

It can’t be effective and good for public safety if offenders are passed from public to private sector and back again based upon changing assessments of risk.

This risk assessment is not a one-off event, never having to be considered again.

Risk needs to be looked at continuously and different circumstances, based upon an offender’s personal life, weighed up.

The meeting with the probation service this week also brought it home to me the importance of the face-to-face meeting: things like body language and eye contact are crucial elements for assessing whether an offender should have their risk category changed.

A call centre approach, where an offender may phone in once a week, as is being proposed at the moment, would possibly allow private companies to cut costs and make a better return, but it certainly won’t make the streets safer.

I don’t wish to cause alarm unnecessary and make people feel less safe, but these proposals don’t seem to offer anything other than increased uncertainty, bureaucracy, fragmentation and – ultimately – more risk of crime and reoffending on the streets.

This really is a privatisation based upon stubborn ideology rather than considered assessment of evidence.

It is, even more than the Royal Mail, a privatisation too far, and the Government has to think again.