Not even the MoJ understands what it is doing today

Update: Since this piece was published, the chief inspector of probation has resigned. See below.

Last week a group of probation workers met to discuss the latest stage of Chris Grayling's 'transforming rehabilitation' programme. Starting today, the prisoners coming out of jail after serving less than 12-months will be supervised by probation staff. The trouble is, they have no idea what it is they're supposed to be doing.

About half of probation workers have not had any training at all on what it is they are expected to do. Those who have received training were either seen for an hour or given a leaflet. Behind all the soaring rhetoric of Grayling's press releases, that's the reality of what's going on behind the scenes.

A majority of people in last week's meeting had received the training, but no-one could agree what it entailed. "Not a single person in the room agreed in their interpretation of it," an attendant told me. "The people who'd done the training couldn't answer any of the questions."

At the heart of today's initiative is a positive, sensible idea. Prisoners who have served less than 12 months will be put on licence to help get them onto the straight and narrow. They should get help with drug or alcohol addiction, be supervised to ensure they do not commit more crime, and be ushered into work.

There was a need for this. Previously, those on short sentences received no help at all. They were dumped out onto the street with a bit of money in their pocket. Unsurprisingly, their reoffending rates were sky-high, at 58% – costing the economy about £9.5 billion to £13 billion a year.

Grayling is right to want to change this. As he said this morning:

"For too long we have released prisoners back onto the streets with £46 in their pockets and little else than the hope that they would sort themselves out. It's little wonder things haven't improved – but now all this will change.

"For the first-time we will be giving all offenders a proper chance at rehabilitation, instead of just leaving them to wander the streets and get on with it."

If only his solution was as valid as his assessment of the problem. Grayling's plans have two significant flaws which are likely to make them useless. The first is the failure of planning. No-one understands exactly what the MoJ is attempting to do, except in the broadest manner possible. Even a crown court judge who was asked about the plans recently said he had no idea they existed.

The second problem is the involvement of the private sector. The MoJ insists that introducing a profit motive to reoffending management will push providers towards tackling hard cases. The opposite is the case. Profit-seeking tends to encourage the cherry-picking of easy cases. The tougher, hard-to-reach cases, such as those with mental health problems and very low literacy and numeracy skills, are often left behind.

Those in jail for less than 12-months are one of the most likely groups to reoffend

When Chris Huhne left prison he was not going to need lots of supervision to get him back on track. He didn't have a drink or drug problems and he wasn't going to struggle getting into work. A private firm will focus on Huhne, because he is an almost guaranteed source of profit.

The National Probation Service would do the opposite. Because it has no profit motive, it would divert resources away from Huhne towards the cases which need the most attention. That's the difference between public accountability and profit as motivating factors in public service provision.

The most recent official figures for reoffending rates showed the national service was continuing to succeed. Reoffending was down 0.4% from 2012 to 2013. Yes, it's small, but this is a tough area of policy. Reoffending has been falling slowly but steadily for over a decade. The drop since 2002 is 2.8%.

That progress risks being lost now since Grayling split the probation service in half last year. The national body will now only be supervising high risk cases. Low-and-medium risk cases have been split between several private firms.

Chris Huhne: Not really in need of post-prison supervision

There have been worrying reports of a total breakdown of communication between the national service and the individual bodies. Paul McDowell, the chief inspector of probation, warned there were "process, communication and information-sharing challenges that did not previously exist". The point where probation meets the courts is in a state of disarray. The IT infrastructure is in trouble. Probation workers have warned that dangerous cases are slipping through the cracks. But the MoJ refused to publish its safety evaluations and pressed ahead anyway. Few expect it to be a success.

These same staff, split between private and public bodies, are now being asked to deliver a supervision programme which has barely even been explained to them. 

In both the splitting of the probation service and the introduction of today's scheme, we see the same two qualities. Firstly, a lack of concrete information about what is being done and secondly an overriding faith in the superiority of the private sector. It hasn't worked so far and the widespread confusion suggests it won't work this time.

Update 10:52:

Hours after this article was published, chief inspector of probation Paul McDowell resigned over a perceived conflict of interest between his role and that of his wife, who managed probation contracts at Sodexo. He said: "It is clear that a perception of conflict around my post remains. It is therefore right that I resign."

Update 12:04:

Labour shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said:

"Chris Grayling is stumbling from one crisis to another. Not content with sacking the chief inspector of prisons, the chief inspector of probation has now resigned over conflicts of interest the justice secretary was fully aware of at the time he appointed him. A chief inspector needs to be able to do the job without fear or favour, without any hint of bias, perceived or otherwise.

"Time and again, Labour has warned the government that Mr McDowell’s position as chief inspector of probation appeared compromised through links to private companies picking up one-third of the privatised probation service.

"It is shocking that Mr McDowell’s departure has been delayed until the day after private companies take over the running of probation. When probation is undergoing the biggest upheaval in its history and dedicated staff are demoralised because of the Government’s reckless privatisation, this is the time when a strong, independent chief inspector is needed the most as the guardian of the public's safety. The justice secretary needs to urgently explain his role in this fiasco and how these multibillion contracts will be inspected and supervised without a chief inspector.

Update 13:52:

A small example of the kinds of problems you get when you start privatising things and don’t pay attention to what you're doing. Over the weekend, I'm told offenders doing unpaid work in a number of areas, including Avon and Somerset, were stood down. The nine-seater buses which take them to and fro require a certificate of professional competence. Probation was exempt from this rule as it's not a commercial operation, but now that they’re run by private firms the rules have changed. Of course, many providers didn't realise and now staff can’t drive people until they get a certificate, which involves a five-hour training session. Factoring in the requirements of commercial operation is one of the most irritating, nit-picky bits of privatisation. You really need to be on top of it and there's little to suggest that's the case. Those unpaid work hours are unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon.