Probation privatisation contracts signed despite serious safety concerns

The Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling has signed contracts awarding the new Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), despite evidence provided by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), his own department, that it is unsafe to proceed with the sale of 70 per cent of the probation service.

As we have blogged previously, the contracts relate to the government’s privatisation of much of the probation service, a process which has been beset with concerns, criticisms and complaints from a range of sources on a range of issues, leading probation union Napo to launch a legal challenge against the sale.

Napo has documented evidence from the MoJ provided to them as a result of their legal challenge, which detail “significant failures with the new system”. Ian Lawrence, General Secretary of Napo, observed that “the service is still in utter chaos with IT systems failing…significant staff shortages and excessive workloads. All of these issues are a risk to public safety. To sign off 10 year contracts when the system is not running effectively is highly irresponsible.”

During their legal challenge, Napo were given assurances that the safety issues would be fixed by the time the contracts are due to be mobilised, in February 2015. Napo believe the government should have waited till the problems were addressed properly before signing the contracts, yet instead Chris Grayling has pressed ahead, and the MoJ still refuse to publish the evidence regarding safety problems.

The government has announced that the contracts are being awarded to “a diverse range of public, private and voluntary organisations”, and emphasise the wealth of experience the different actors are bringing. We have written previously about the lack of diversity in the organisations bidding for contracts, which are in fact dominated by large private companies, not staff mutuals or charities, typified the list of preferred bidders.

The new list of owners of CRCs, a revision to the previously announced list of bidders, still suffers from what Napo and others have called a ‘monopoly of corporate giants’. Together, multinational companies Sodexo and Interserve are leading over half of the CRCs, while Ingeus UK, a further multinational, will be leading two CRCs. Only one CRC, Durham Tees Valley, has been awarded to  a joint venture in which there is no large private company or multinational (or an organisation with large multinationals as shareholders), as a prominent partner.

We noted previously that bidders G4S and Serco were forced to pull out of the probation contracts bidding process, due to the two companies being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for significantly overcharging the taxpayer. In regard to the companies who have been awarded contracts, Sodexo has recently been accused of institutional racism, while Seetec, a large UK-based outsourcing company due to run the Kent, Surrey & Sussex CRC, has previously been investigated for fraud in regard to its delivery of employment services to disabled people.

The so-called poison pill clauses in the contracts prevent future governments from undoing them without taxpayers paying £3-400m to the contractor, as bidders are guaranteed profits over the 10 year lifespan of the contracts. The Justice Select Committee has previously raised the issue that there is a serious conflict of interest in the contracts as the providers will receive larger payments for people going to prison that those that stay out.

The unnecessary pace of the sale without proper resolution of the safety problems has placed the public at greater risk, while the probation privatisation itself is unsafe, untested and unnecessary.

For some evidence of the reforms from the perspective of frontline probation workers, together with some key statistics, please take a look at our presentation.

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Justice is under attack

The government is fragmenting the justice system, privatising policing, probation and prison services, closing courts, slashing the legal aid budget and making drastic cuts to funding. This will undermine the system, reduce access to justice and put public safety at risk.

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