After a privatisation experiment gone wrong, the probation services were finally brought back into State control this week, but the sector’s watchdog has warned the government this is just one step towards fixing the damage caused by the ill-advised sell-off.
In 2014, former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, launched the Transforming Rehabilitation project, which allowed privately run Community Rehabilitation Companies to bid for contracts to run parts of the probation service.
Chief Inspector of the Inspectorate for Probation, Justin Russell, says this move was “fundamentally flawed” and that his watchdog had warned the Ministry of Justice not to go ahead with the privatisation plans.
“Squeezed budgets have meant falling Probation Officer numbers; staff under relentless pressure and unacceptably high caseloads. This has inevitably resulted in poorer quality supervision, with over half of the cases we inspected in the private sector probation companies being unsatisfactory on some key aspect of quality,” he said.
“Many feared this from the start, and our inspections over six years only confirmed these concerns,” he added.
While welcoming the renationalisation of the service, which will bring over 220,000 service users and 16,000 staff back into the public sector, Russell warned that the government must back this up with the appropriate resources to ensure the sector can recover.
“There are no magic bullets here: structural change needs to be backed by sustained investment for there to be true improvement. Real transformation is a long-term commitment, and unification is just the beginning of that journey,” he said.
Among the challenges ahead are ensuring vacancies are filled and new workers receive adequate training, as well as a significant cash injection to ensure the services can be run at an acceptable standard.
Owing to crippling austerity measures across the public sector, probation has lost over 40% of its funding, per case, in real terms. The government has offered £150m this year to plaster over this wound but the Inspectorate warned this additional resource must be sustained.