Last week justice secretary Chris Grayling announced that he would be performing a significant U-turn on his reforms to the legal aid system but there has been no change in the damaging plans to privatise the probation service. The previous proposals would have seen people who are dependent on legal aid being allocated a lawyer without any input into their selection.  The appointed legal representatives would also have been paid on a per case basis  regardless of the outcome  which would have effectively provided a financial incentive  to advise their client to plead guilty thus speeding up the process and enabling them to increase their turnover. 

These proposals were roundly criticised and he eventually relented as part of a deal struck with the Law Society for England and Wales. The twists and turns in this story have been granted significant coverage in the media but very little attention has been given to the simultaneous reforms to the Probation Service which are being covertly pushed through with little if any attention from the mainstream media. The Probation Service does not have a powerful, wealthy and influential group which will fight its corner. Moreover, employees of the Probation Service have been threatened with disciplinary action if they speak publicly about the reforms. Gagging is usually the action of someone in power who knows they are involved in an argument they cannot win. 

Grayling is effectively trying to push through a wholesale privatisation of the probation service by selling off as much as 70% of it to companies such as G4S and SERCO who have far from impeccable records both ethically and organisationally. Under the reforms the probation service will deal only with the high risk offenders (about 30, 000 of the 250, 000 cases currently handled per year) and the private sector will manage the rest.  This will mean putting the majority of offenders in the hands of private companies with no expertise in dealing with the most significant issues for this group. Moreover, this move demonstrates a misunderstanding of how risk is conceptualised and managed in probation. Risk is dynamic meaning that a particular individual’s risk status can change in a short period of time.

 An individual may have committed a serious offence but because they are not judged to be at immediate risk of causing serious harm then they may be classified as medium risk. The new incentive systems for offender management will exacerbate this situation further as the Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service will impose financial penalties on the private sector companies if an offender’s risk level increases causing them to have to be transferred to the Probation Service. Being unresponsive to changes in an individual’s situation or behaviour, that is potentially indicative of dangerous consequences, is therefore financially incentivised.  

Combined with the coalition’s Work Programme which has seen the privatisation of many of the services offered to unemployed people (a group which overlaps significantly with those in the probation system) these changes will bring more disorder to people who often already have chaotic and difficult lives. Things are also likely to get increasingly difficult for anyone who is not easily “processed” with the Work Programme already being shown to focus on “easy customers“.

Perhaps the most significant issue is that Grayling’s changes are based on a false premise; that the probation service is not working. In fact they have won numerous awards for efficiency and the meeting of targets. Grayling has tried to deliberately confuse the issue, and justify his reforms, by focussing on the high reoffending rates of those on sentences of less than twelve months. This is the only group of offenders with whom probation does not deal and has not done for nearly thirty years. 

These reforms are just as potentially devastating to the poorest and most vulnerable people in society as those to legal aid but as these changes do not directly affect the wealthy and influential members of the Law Society for England they have not been given as much scrutiny or defence. Not only will the reforms to probation be damaging to one of the most successful public services but they are likely to increase the risk of serious offences occurring. Is there anyone who will challenge Grayling and his gagging order?