Thursday, 16 May 2019

The Probation Service – a warning (to Child Protection) from recent history

In recent years the British government has flirted with ‘outsourcing’ or partial privatisation of child protection services. An argument along the following lines has developed. Child protection services need to improve. The private sector is better at innovating than the public sector. Involvement of private sector companies in child protection would result in beneficial change. Conclusion: we need to outsource. 

What is described as ‘an independent research report’ was published in December 2016 by the Department for Education (which is responsible for children’s services in England). This reviews the potential for “developing the capacity and diversity of children’s social care services in England” and has several chapters devoted to explaining and endorsing ‘outsourcing’.

The authors of this report comment:

“We were particularly attracted to the model of ‘tiered’ segmentation applied in the recent national procurement of probation services, where independent sector providers across England have won contracts to run 21 Community Rehabilitation companies to provide support services, leaving the highest level functions only for public sector in‐house supply.”
[Table 4b, page 23.] 

They go on to explain how this model could be applied to children’s services.

Oh, how they must now regret those words which were a glaring hostage to fortune, for we read in today’s Guardian that the Probation Service is to be renationalised after what are described as “disastrous” reforms. 

Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, whose revelations that offenders were being ‘supervised’ by infrequent phone calls (rather than the expected regular face-to-face contacts) have hastened the re-nationalisation, is quoted by the Guardian as saying that the privatisation was “irredeemably flawed” and that she is delighted at the decision to re-nationalise the service. She is reported to have said: “Probation is a complex social service, and it has proved well-nigh impossible to reduce it to a set of contractual requirements.”

In February of this year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee issued equally damning criticism of the Probation Service ‘reforms’. It said that unacceptable risks had been taken with taxpayers’ money and that the changes resulted in services which were fragile and underfunded and which failed to command the confidence of the courts. 

If our government was sensible (which might be a big ask) then ministers responsible for children's social care in the Department for Education would learn from the Probation Service privatisation fiasco. They would heed the warnings of wise commentators, such as Professor Ray Jones, who have warned that the creeping privatisation of children's services will have disastrous results. And they would think very carefully about Glenys Stacey’s insightful comment that the Probation Service is “a complex social service,” and that it has proved “impossible to reduce it to a set of contractual requirements.”
If probation services are complex, which they are, then how much more complex are child protection services? Ministers have an absolute duty to ensure that they do not recklessly upset the apple cart and spawn another disastrous reform which will put children’s lives at risk.