“You begin to see the devils everywhere in this job. Day in day out you deal with things ordinary people can’t comprehend,” says a voice by the bar. “My colleagues and I, we’re misunderstood, undervalued. We’re fed up.”
Tom Brown became a probation officer 1985 having spent 15 years as a social worker. At a north-eastern probation trust he manages a 60-strong caseload specialising in sexual offences – “the toughest to get through to, but the most rewarding”.
It’s two days before Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, concludes the Transforming Rehabilitation consultation and Brown’s conversation is rambling yet vigorous. “They’re destroying a perfectly good public service,” he fumes, “Privatisation is going to make probation – a people service – about profits.”
He’s Fred Dinbah without the flat cap. His leather bomber – “cool P.O gear” – is snug around the midriff and within minutes we’ve struck an avuncular rapport. He’s smiling, listening, explaining.
“There’s no typical day; no typical week for a probation officer,” he says. “I can be working 40, 50, 60 hours a week sometimes.”
“I guess the one common thing is that at the end of a nightmarish week I can sit down with the sense I’ve achieved something, connected with someone, transformed them.”
Throughout the week Brown visits homes, prisons and courts. He writes pre-sentence reports advising the courts how to sentence an individual, meets with other child protection, social services and – “the best bit” – supervises offenders both in prison, out on license and serving a community sentence.
“It’s all about people. No matter how heinous their crimes, you’ve got to build some trust. When you begin to talk to people, begin to listen, show them you’re listening and not judging, the penny drops and we can try to work out the why’ve they’ve committed an offence. It’s not being soft, it’s only way to rehabilitate them.”
His face dances as he boasts of the users, the sexual abusers, the paedophiles and murderers he’s helped to reform, though he’s seen none of them since release.
“It’s a thankless job,” he says. “It’s not about fame or fortune, it’s a job you do because you want to make a difference and I’m afraid we’re going to lose that.”
Under proposals laid out in the Transforming Rehabilitation consultation, which ran from 9 January to 22 February, an estimated 70 per cent of the probation service will be opened to private and voluntary sector providers.
They will take responsibility for low and medium risk offenders: burglars, drug users, gang members. Public sector probation staff will manage high-risk cases that, according to the Probation Chiefs’ Association, accounts for 50,000 of the 240,000 currently managed by probation.
Grayling said: “The great majority of community sentences and rehabilitation work will be delivered by the private sector and voluntary organisations, which have particular expertise in this area.”
Other plans include the introduction of prison gate mentors, payment by results and the introduction of mandatory supervision for offenders serving less than 12 months.
“A private firm will be ruled by payment by results,” barks Brown, 65, who runs a blog decrying the state of probation. His flailing arms, almost choreographed, relay his anger: they beat the air one minute, cross the next.
“They’ll cream off the easy cases: find that person a house, job, and turn that into cash. The ones that are difficult, getting smacked up everyday, they’re going to get no support.”
Sam Davies, a Practice Development Officer in one of the UK’s biggest probation trusts, echoes Brown’s concern that, if privatised, “profit chasing will make us forget why we came into this service”.
Before becoming a probation officer, Davies was involved with party drugs and petty thieving after he lost his job.
“My inevitable brush with the law was an epiphany. It’s not worth chasing money, I needed to get something from working, make a difference. People work in probation because there’s a desire to help people.”
Aptly, the roots of the probation service can be found in the Church of England Temperance Society, which guided offenders in the late nineteenth century. It was enshrined in statute in 1907.
Since the 2007 Offender Management Act, the service has been divided into 35 Probation Trusts across England and Wales.
In the year to September 2012 it managed 227,339 offenders and was awarded the British Quality Foundation’s Gold Medal for Excellence in 2011. This is despite, according to figures published by the Probation Association, funding having fallen by 9.5 per cent from £899m in 2009-10 to £814m in 2013.
Unions and related organisations – the Probation Association, the Probation Chiefs’ Association, Napo, Unison, The Magistrates’ Association, The Prison Reform Trust – have criticised the government’s proposals.
They argue that they fragment offender supervision, pose a threat to public safety, eradicate accountability and are too ambitious in the timescale.
While supporting the plans for statutory probation for offenders with sentences less than 12 months, unions point out that the Secretary of State used 58 per cent reconviction rates among offenders of less than 12 months as a justification for reforming probation. In fact, probation has never been given the responsibility or funds to introduce these services.
Ministry of Justice figures show that re-offending by those on probation has fallen by 10 per cent since 2000.
In a joint statement Sebert Cox, Chairman of the PA and Sue Hall, Chair of the PCA said: “The Government would be taking unnecessary risks with public protection, would damage local partnerships with other essential services and be trying to do too much too soon with its proposals”
Liz Calderbank, Chief Inspector of Probation, criticised the report for overlooking the changing risk levels of offenders and how they will be transferred between a distinct public and private sector: “In half of the cases we inspected in our Offender Management Inspection of all probation trusts, the offender’s situation had significantly changed, necessitating an immediate review of risk of harm.”
A petition posted on the parliamentary website on 14 February opposing the privatisation of probation has so far gained over 19,200 signatures.
Yet plans for privatisation are neither new nor unexpected.
These proposals build on a consultation in March 2012 under former Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, which set out plans to compete out probation services and increase the use of Payment by Results.
The Competition Strategy for Offender Services (July 2011) encouraged greater involvement of the private and voluntary sectors in offender rehabilitation.
Parts of the justice system have since gradually been outsourced to private organisations: electronic monitoring, bail accommodation and support, contracts for estates, I.T., court escorting, custody services and rehabilitation.
Private companies and voluntary organisations with the likelihood of taking responsibility for low-medium risk offenders if the proposals go ahead, have emphasised the benefits of transforming the probation service; pointing out the existing successes of a mixed economy.
G4S are currently in partnership with the Wales Probation Trust, provide electronic tagging services and run six private prisons. Throughout 2012 the global company developed an offender rehabilitation team would deliver a court sentence, reduce reoffending and provide value of money for taxpayers.
Debbie Ryan, director of rehabilitation and resettlement at the global company said: “It’s clear that there is an opportunity for the private sector to deliver an improved service with better results for offenders at the same time as making savings for the taxpayer.
“G4S is well placed to deliver the kind of innovations that the government is looking at and we will be following the developments in this area of criminal justice closely.”
St Giles Trust, a charity that works to break the cycle of recidivism, also has experience working with probation services: it is partnered with the Yorkshire Probation Trust to support prison leavers, the London Probation Trust to support young offenders and in 2010 reduced reoffending by 40 per cent with its “Through the Gates” ex-offender mentoring scheme at HMP Peterborough.
Chief executive, Rob Owen, “If all sectors can play to their mutual strengths it could mean a significant reduction in rates of re-offending, fewer future victims and reduced criminal justice costs as a result. What we would not support is if these proposals – which offer a real opportunity for transformation – simply become an outsourcing exercise.
His head bowed, Davies concedes: the Trust’s use of ex-offenders’ first hand experience to support clients is an example of the “mutual strengths” a cross-sector approach can draw on.
“Young offenders can relate to my experiences and it helps, for sure. I can say to them I was there in my life and look where I am now.”
“Fundamentally,” Owen continued, “our aim is to break the cycle of offending and we know we need to achieve this through collaboration. We will work with anyone who shares this vision.”
Max Chambers, head of crime and justice at Policy Exchange, a right-wing think-tank, added: “Privatisation can also be justified as a natural progression; it’s a structural consequence rather than an ideological drive.
“For payment by results you need to transfer the finance into the private sector as well as the risk – there’s no alternative.”
He combatted the “misconception” that privatisation meant “firing probation officers and hiring a load of new, cheaper kids.”
“That’s not what’s going to happen,” said Chambers. “The knowledge and experience of the probation service can be transferred.”
For Nacro, the UK’s largest crime reduction charity, the unions’ framing of the proposals in terms of “privatisation” was “just scaremongering”; “everyone’s aim should surely be to make the probation service better.”
The final reforms will be set out in spring this year. They are expected to roll-out across England and Wales by spring 2015.
At once calm and resolute Brown leans back in his chair and takes a purposeful glug of Hobgoblin: “Probation needs is a voice at the top, someone with frontline experience that knows what it’s like, that will fight for our social ethos.
“I don’t care how it’s done – even if it’s bloody PBR – I just care for society’s sake that it’s done.”
Some people’s names have been changed to protect their identity.