Former justice secretary Chris Grayling © FT montage

Peter, a 40-year-old with a long history of violent offending, began an abusive relationship with a woman very soon after leaving prison. He was recalled to jail but when he was re-released, probation inspectors could find no flag on the database identifying him as a domestic abuser, nor any details of where he was living or whether he had a new partner.

The head of the probation watchdog, who came across his case during an inspection, concluded she had “no confidence” that potential victims were being protected.

Failures such as this tell the story of a probation service in meltdown. Just two weeks ago Glenys Stacey, the outgoing chief inspector of probation, warned that the current system was “irredeemably flawed”. The National Audit Office said last month that the malfunctioning service was causing “significant risks” for both offenders and the wider public.

Earlier this year Working Links, one of the private companies that provides probation supervision, collapsed after four years of poor service and failing efforts to maintain a lossmaking contract.

Ministers, who are under increasing pressure to rescue the service from crisis, are expected to announce plans for a new probation system as early as next month.

How Grayling’s reforms triggered problem

The problems can be traced back to sweeping reforms introduced four years ago by former justice secretary Chris Grayling. He decided to “transform” rehabilitation with a £3.7bn programme of part-privatisation, transferring the management of offenders to eight companies running 21 separate contracts around England and Wales. Only the highest-risk individuals were kept under public sector supervision.

However, this created a dislocation, with offenders in the same geographical area being managed by different organisations. Moreover, the contracts were speedily drawn up with untested providers, and the Ministry of Justice’s caseload estimates proved completely inaccurate.

Julian Le Vay, former finance director at the Prison Service, is convinced that justice secretary David Gauke will have to introduce radical changes. “I don’t see how he can go back to parliament and say, I’ve had a look at this mess we’ve created and we’ve decided to carry on with it,” said Mr Le Vay.

Experts believe that the MoJ, having been burnt by the failure of the contracting process, is considering a significant renationalisation of probation provision, which oversees just under a quarter of a million offenders each year.

According to Mr Le Vay, this is inevitable given some of the structural problems caused by the Grayling reforms. “It’s the splitting of probation provision in each area that’s such a nuisance in terms of operational effectiveness,” he suggested. “We must have in each area of the country — however it’s arranged — one single probation service dealing with all the offenders in that community. If you start from that premise, it’s hard to see a future for the private sector running probation services in the long term.”

Perils of turning back the clock

However, returning services to the publicly run National Probation Service will not be easy. The costs of taking on more staff will be significant, especially given Dame Glenys’s warnings about the severe shortage of qualified probation officers.

Private providers have been absorbing losses since the contracts began, so the MoJ will need to increase investment if it wants to bring the service in-house. This is likely to prove difficult for a department that has a structural deficit of just under £1bn. Its ministers may struggle to lobby the Treasury for more funds in an area that has never been as popular with voters as schools and hospitals.

Ian Lawrence, general secretary of Napo, the probation union, is delighted at the prospect of a renationalisation but even he admits it would bring difficulties. “It will involve money to pay staff correctly, and they’re burdened with high workloads, which we need to manage. The switch back will also involve lots more bureaucracy. But we still think, given the current status quo, this would be an improvement,” he said.

One option would be to renationalise the majority of the service with some limited functions being recontracted privately — an approach that is being trialled in Wales. Under this model, the National Probation Service could take on overall management of offenders while companies provided training or specific interventions, such as helping offenders find employment.

Tom Sasse, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, argues that if ministers decide to preserve some private involvement, then it is essential that they “avoid the contracting mistakes of the past”.

“This means designing a contract that works for low- and medium-risk offenders, trying to better predict caseloads, and piloting any new models on a small scale before introducing them more widely,” he said.

What role should private sector play?

The providers themselves acknowledge that there is room for improvement, and are urging ministers not to abandon contracting altogether. John Baumback, managing director of Seetec, which operates probation services in Kent, Surrey, Sussex, south-west England and Wales, said first-generation contracts “always present challenges” and suggested that the previous publicly controlled regime was not without problems.

“But the original aims behind the government’s decision to encourage new providers into the probation system are as valid today as they were in 2015,” he added. “Before the reforms were introduced, the then chief inspector acknowledged that the system was inflexible and ill-suited to reflecting the specific needs of the individual.”

Mr Baumback argued that the private sector had the capability to “react and adapt quickly to changing circumstances and policy priorities”. Gabriel Amahwe, director of probation at MTC Novo, which runs services in London and the Thames Valley, agreed that the reforms had allowed companies “greater freedom to develop new approaches” such as a specialist intervention to tackle knife crime in the capital.

Those on all sides agree that whatever happens next is likely to involve further disruption to a service that has already undergone significant upheaval.

“When we privatised probation, we were disrupting a system which hadn’t broken down,” Mr Le Vay pointed out. “But now we’re disrupting a system which very clearly has broken down, so at least there’s a logic to it.”

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