Plaid Cymru seek to stop "reckless" attempt by British government to dismantle and outsource probation service

An arrogant and out of touch British government is in the process of selling off and outsourcing the bulk of the Welsh and English probation services. The Welsh people through the Welsh Assembly Government (Llywodraeth Cynulliad Cymru) have had no say in this highly controversial decision which will have profound and long lasting ramifications for Welsh justice.

It seems that there is a lot of misunderstanding, including amongst government ministers and the national press, about what the probation service actually does. The probation service in the form of 35 regional probation trusts provides an essential front line public service with a dual mandate of both protecting the public from harm and helping offenders turn their lives around. Police Crime Commissioners, Westminster MPs, Welsh AMs, probation professionals, charity leaders and academics amongst others have all argued that privatising probation could potentially put the people of Wales and England at increased risk of harm. Plaid Cymru, whose leader Leanne Wood used to be a probation officer, are acutely aware of the issues and are fighting to safeguard this revered and award winning public service. As reported on WalesOnline, Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd is leading opposition to the privatisation of the probation service.

In Wales and England, probation officers supervise both those subject to court orders and those released from prison. Probation officers are critical public interest decision makers, assessing offenders' risk levels, advising judges on sentencing, making such critical decisions as setting an offender's licence conditions, recalling offenders to prison following infringements of their licence conditions, enforcing court orders and prosecuting breaches, determining the frequency with which offenders attend their appointments and what offenders need to do over the course of their sentences, whilst at the same time constantly monitoring offenders' risk levels and taking action if the risk has changed. In the real world of incomplete and conflicting information and dealing with individuals who can be manipulative and controlling, this role requires skilled and impartial practitioners who have really got to know the people they are working with through meeting them over a period of time, studying their past behaviour and actively seeking out information from other bodies such as the Police, Social Services etc. The decision they make have to be tough but fair. Probation officers are highly trained, who are required to complete a two year traineeship which including earning a degree in criminal justice and a plethora of vocational qualifications. The last thing you want to do is hand this responsibility to private and unaccountable contractors with no commitment to the same levels of training or standards of operation. Justice should be the responsibility of the state and outsourcing the administration of justice to third parties raises serious questions about the nature of the contract between the citizen and the state.

Under the British government's plans, the intention is to outsource or "privatise" low and medium risk cases whilst establishing a new "national" public probation service to manage high risk cases and carry out all initial risk assessments. Whilst this might sound like a reasonable "compromise", it is more likely a recipe for disaster as it will fragment the service and create needless barriers to the efficient sharing of information which is the life blood of effective risk management. For starters, the majority of cases transferred to the contractors will be "medium risk" as there are in fact a relatively small number of "low risk" cases in the system. "Medium risk" is not a reference to the risk of re-offending, it actually refers to the risk of serious harm to others. An offender who has been assessed as posing a medium risk of serious harm to others will have demonstrated some behaviour in their past which indicates they have the potential to cause serious harm to others; however, a careful analysis of their personal circumstances indicates that such harm is unlikely to occur imminently. The catch is, people's circumstances are constantly changing and you need skilled and experienced practitioners who are able to recognise the changes that escalate risk and then know what to do to manage these. The government's solution to the problem of fluctuating risk is to make the private contractors "contractually bound" to refer the offenders to the public probation for re-assessment on receipt of any information suggesting increased risk. However, signs of increasing risk are rarely that obvious and certainly not just handed to you on a plate; they need to be actively sought out. Nevertheless, even assuming the signs suggesting increased risk have been correctly identified by the contractor and the offender has been smoothly and swiftly (two further massive assumptions) shuntered over to the public probation for further assessment, you will still be faced with the the rather unsatisfactory situation of the offender having to be assessed and then potentially managed by a worker who has only just met him or her and thus has neither a personal knowledge of the person nor a working relationship with them. This all at the time when the offender is at his or her most vulnerable and riskiest. Talk about a big crack to fall through! And the fact that the public probation has to take over once the offenders have been assessed as high risk is a tacit acknowledgment that the government does not really have faith in its contractors to manage risk. Would it not be better if the same person, a highly skilled probation officer, managed both medium and high risk cases? Well that is precisely how the current system works, which is what this government is seeking to do away with. In fact medium risk of serious harm offenders are those that probably need the most skill to manage and handle! Yet these are the bulk of cases that will be handed to the contractors. What a mess.

It is not like the British government is not without sound evidence that outsourcing probation will both lead to poorer outcomes and increased cost. You only have to look at that most free market of US states, Texas. It embraced outsourcing years ago; however, the state's authorities found themselves spending so much money just monitoring the contractors that it turned out to be cheaper to do it themselves. One wonders if the outsourcing proponents, who seem to think it is going to save the British taxpayers money, have even thought about how much it is going to cost to monitor the contractors to check that they are actually doing what they are getting paid for. And as the recent offender tagging scandal has shown, this cannot be overlooked.

We applaud Plaid Cymru's decision to defend public safety by resisting the British government's attempts to tear apart the Welsh probation service and we hope that one day Wales will be able to have its own criminal justice system just like its bigger Celtic cousin Scotland.

If you are UK resident, you might want to consider signing the petition against the outsourcing of probation.


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