Nothing was ever going to stop him. This morning, with the threat of legal proceedings hanging over his head, a general election in half a year's times and serious concerns about a breakdown in public safety, Chris Grayling announced his preferred bidders for the probation service.
Despite all the usual talk of a diversity of suppliers including charities and voluntary groups, private firms were the overwhelming winners.
Sodexo picked up the largest number of contracts. One gave it a monopoly in the north east, where it also runs Northumberland prison. So it will now be paid for reducing reoffending and (rather more) for increasing the prison population. Whatever happens, Sodexo wins.
The ministerial statement, which was sneaked out with a minimum of fuss, mentions 80 bidders, but by my count there were only eight cleaning up on the 21 contracts.
- Sodexo, in partnership with charity Nacro, won six contracts.
- Purple Futures, a partnership which includes some charities but is led by private firm Interserve, won five.
- Working Links, "a public, private and voluntary company", won three.
- The Reducing Reoffending Partnership, a joint venture involving a private firm and two charities, won two.
- MTCNovo, a joint venture involving corporations, charities and "third sector shareholders" won two.
- Geo Mercia Willowdene, a joint venture involving a private firm, a "social enterprise" and a probation staff mutual, won one.
- ARCC, the only joint venture which doesn't seem to involve a private firm, won one.
- Seetec Business Technology Centre, a private company, won one contract.
To have proceeded with this sell-off amid the growing evidence of a threat to public safety from the spitting up of probation is highly irresponsible. Even worse, ministers are doing so while refusing to publish the safety tests the department has conducted.
And to top it all off, the Ministry of Justice is adding 'poison pill' clauses which will prevent a future government undoing the sell-off if it proves to be disastrous.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said:
"There's been no testing or piloting to see if this will work and won't put the public's safety at risk, and all of the concerns of Labour, experts and probation staff have been swatted away. It's also unacceptable that ministers are going out of their way to tie the hands of future governments to multi-billion pound contracts for ten years. This government's reckless and half-baked privatisation has resulted in a meltdown in probation. Dedicated and experienced staff are demoralised or are leaving the profession, offenders are going unsupervised and this chaos is putting the safety of communities up and down the country at risk."
National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) general secretary Ian Lawrence said:
"The fact so few organisations have won contracts also suggests that this has been a flawed competition with little or no real interest from providers in taking these contracts on. Grayling has made a written statement to parliament rather than risk having to answer questions in the House. Yet again he is trying to avoid scrutiny which is in our view further evidence of a lack of transparency in the whole process."
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said:
"As we expected, the big winner of the probation sell-off is not the voluntary sector but large private companies run for profit. The Ministry of Justice will claim it has created a diverse market, but Sodexo and Interserve are the companies running half of all the contracts. Given we are close to a general election, it is particularly disgraceful that these contracts include 'poison pill' clauses preventing a future government from revising these untested and ill-thought-through reforms if and when they fail. That is not just reckless but fundamentally undemocratic."
None of this is surprising. We knew the announcement was coming – in fact we expected it earlier. And the dominance of private firms in supposedly diverse bidding arrangements is par for the course. Private firms typically outbid charities then hand them the unprofitable sub-contracted work. But the sheer pig-headedness with which this is being pursued is flabbergasting. And the decision to make it financially ruinous to reverse is a betrayal of the taxpayer.