Editorial: Alarm bells ring over outsourcing plans for probation

Very large contracts and payment by results could make it hard for charities to compete, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The government's consultation on its proposal to issue contracts to the private and voluntary sectors for the management of all but the most serious offenders has now closed, and already some alarm bells are beginning to ring.

The chief executives body Acevo pointed out in its response that no voluntary sector bodies are likely to have the size and clout to become prime contractors in the 16 proposed regional contract areas and might even miss out on subcontracts as well. It suggests 37 areas, aligned with police force boundaries.

The Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, agreed with the principle of such an alignment before the justice select committee of MPs last week, so with luck there will be movement on that. But otherwise his advice to the sector was to form consortia and become more commercially savvy.

The response from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations suggested that the proposed payment-by-results regime should pay contractors 80 per cent up front; and the umbrella body for criminal justice charities, Clinks, proposed 100 per cent for subcontractors, with outcomes-based risks remaining with the prime contractors. It remains to be seen if the government will go that far.

One underlying problem is that the commitment to PBR is based on belief and ideology rather than evidence. Grayling referred the committee to the pilot PBR contracts in Peterborough and Doncaster prisons, but said it would take "much of the decade" before the results could be gathered and analysed.

It also emerged last week that there is some scepticism in Whitehall about the effectiveness of PBR. The Times quoted Sharon White, director-general of public services at the Treasury, telling a conference that "some of us who have been around a long time get very nervous about panaceas".

She said the Treasury was taking a pragmatic view on whether the PBR model, which has not been strikingly successful in the Work Programme, would be effective. Let's hope Grayling will do the same, and take account of the sector's responses in the design of the new programme for probation services.

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