Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Personal whim before public safety

Last week justice secretary Chris Grayling focused in on the high levels of reoffending by those leaving prison and confirmed its full steam ahead for rehabilitating offenders through a payment by results approach. On one thing he is right – we need to do more to reduce reoffending rates, and I have been on record repeatedly showing my determination to achieve this. Despite dramatic falls in the crime rate over the last 15 years, the number of ex-offenders drifting back into a life of crime remains stubbornly high. Different ways of thinking are crucial if we are to tackle this, by testing out new ideas, seeing what works, learning from what doesn’t work, and spreading best practice. But Grayling’s approach – ramping up PbR across the country before it has been tested and proven to work – is taking risks with public safety.

On the face of it, PbR seems common sense. Providers – be they private companies or charities – are only ‘rewarded’ if they manage to reduce reoffending. But an untested methodology has risks attached – and working with offenders released from prison, the risk is with public safety. The government’s proposals will see those of low and medium risk subjected to PbR – but even medium risk includes those who have committed offences like domestic violence and burglary. That’s why it’s sensible to see if it works before rolling it out across the whole country – an approach adopted back in 2009 by the previous Labour government, who launched a scheme at Peterborough Prison. But this is a pilot scheme – so that what works and doesn’t work can be studied and then ironed out before any scaling-up across the whole country.

Labour is open to PbR. After all, we started the early trials. But with no track record anywhere in the world in justice, and no best practice to call on, we need to be confident that it works and it doesn’t risk public safety. No doubt that’s why Grayling’s predecessor, Ken Clarke, launched other PbR pilots, including two in probation, to see how it might work. Within days of replacing Clarke, Grayling cancelled both pilots before any results had emerged.

Looking to the other public services where PbR has been used for evidence of how it might work in justice doesn’t fill me with encouragement. With the work programme, of which Grayling was the architect, not a single provider hit their targets. The DWP’s own figures show out of 878,000 people on the programme only 3.5 per cent were still in work after six months. It performed so badly it’s actually worse than doing nothing at all!

If the work programme fails, it’s bad enough – the unemployed don’t get a job, or their job doesn’t last. But in justice, failure could mean dangerous offenders in our communities without the necessary support and monitoring. Nor is it the case, as Grayling argues, that PbR will be delivered by voluntary and local groups – as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have themselves said of the work programme ‘many charities have found themselves squeezed out by large commercial providers’.

I’m also worried that motivations may change within our criminal justice system, with providers skewed to ‘cherry-pick’ the easiest offenders to rehabilitate, leaving the most difficult cases unaddressed. And which intervention by which organisation is the one that should be financially rewarded? Was it the drugs intervention, or the support for reading and writing, or help in finding housing? Or was it none of these?

I’m also worried that the contracts for providers could become exceptionally complex, and I fear those responsible for the commissioning will have rings run round them by savvy experienced consultants in the larger companies. It is also incorrect to say that providers won’t be paid if they don’t deliver – some models of PbR see providers paid regardless of whether they succeed – it is only the bonus they forgo for failing to deliver.

Nor is it the case that innovative work can’t be done in the public sector. Pilots started under Labour looking at intensive alternatives to custody for 18-25-year-olds have shown encouraging improvements in reoffending rates, led by the probation service working in collaboration with agencies in the private and voluntary sector. It is a travesty this evidence of success has been virtually ignored by the current government.

Grayling dismissed the need to pilot PbR in response to questioning from me in the House of Commons. By doing so, Grayling has declared war on evidence and, instead of evidence-based policy he is making policy on a whim, based on gut instinct. This is a mistake and risks repeating the errors of his other creation, the work programme, but this time with offenders recently released from prison. If he fails because he ignored the chance to iron out the flaws during a trial stage, he risks damaging the whole agenda of rehabilitation, and public safety to boot.


Sadiq Khan MP is shadow secretary of state for justice. He tweets @SadiqKhan


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Sadiq Khan MP


  • Given the evidence based criticisms of payment by results in Sadiq’s article and many other places, it’s hard to understand why Labour should remain open to Payment By Results systems. Reference to what the last Labour Government did on PBR rather misses the point. The evidence of how unsatisfactory PBR is is there because of that early piloting.

  • This is very concerning because apart from picking the Tory plans to pieces, like one would expect from the Opposition lead person on Criminal Justice Khan gives no real indication of Labours likely response or tactics of practical opposition.

    As my Granny would say, “fine words butter no parsnips” and those of us with long experience (40 years in my case) of the party politicking that goes on around criminal justice know that even apparently firm commitments from them are not necessarily going to be maintained once they get into Government. It was Labour in the era of Blair and Straw as Opposition spokes people on criminal justice who were going to reverse the then Tories initial attempts at privatisation in Criminal justice – but they did the opposite and advanced it – albeit probably not as quickly as the Tories would have done if they had not lost the 1997 General Election.

    The timing of these measure is critical – with Grayling saying he hopes to introduce them in 2015, the year of the likely General Election -probably in early May. Major Public Authority organisational changes tend to happen on the 1st April. That seems a very ambitious target date by which to get this up and running. Parliament, probably cannot stop it because Labour passed legislation which apparently means the changes can take place without further primary legislation.

    However, it does seem feasible that the imposition might be delayed, until after the General Election and it would be good to have Khan saying that he will demand that the Government do delay, unless parliament is satisfied that the changes can be made without major disruption that puts the administartion of justice at risk due to being to hasty.

    Remember the shambolic start of CAFCASS in 2001, that was because it was undertaken before the plans were confidently in place. I also remember the start of the Child Support Agency in April 1993, another hurried and botched change that caused more problems in its early years than it was supposed to remove. Here we are now talking about a system that will effectively involve changes in the arrangements made for almost every single person being released from custody, in addition to those already under statutory supervision as well as introducing a whole new system of statutory structured support by volunteers, (who need recruiting, and training) so that they can mentor the approximately 80,000 short sentence prisoners per year from before they are released, including with someone to meet them at the prison gate.

    Just that part alone will be a major piece of work, with many prisoners being located a hundred or more miles from home. It is ncessary to release prisoners early in the day – to create space for those arriving during the day – and to allow them time to get to their homes, where many will need to be tagged by their curfew time – normally 7pm. So that means those mentors will need to be outside the prison gate by the release time, normally 8.30 am. So will arrngements be made for them to travel the night before?

    I am thinking of a prison like Camp Hill on the isle of Wight, which houses many prisoners from the London area. How are Grayling’s volunteer mentors going to be organised and have their expenses paid, never mind wages (they presumably will need to fit this in around any paid work and family care they provide), to physically be in Newport, IOW at 8.30am? I can think of prisons further away – and of course many prisons are located in comparatively isolated places – Haverigg, North Sea Camp and Channings Wood are three out of the 160 or so English and Welsh prisons that come to mind.

    It seems to me Grayling and co have bitten off far more than they can chew before 2015 – so lets hear some firm commitments from Khan and co about how they will intercede and what steps they will take if, they can delay imposition until after a General Election.

  • We thought the high-point of policy without evidence was the Blairite’ case’ for attacking Iraq: “detailed, extensive and authoritative….”. There has been no criticism or self-criticism of the ‘dossier’ fiasco on the part of the clique who launched the illegal and immoral war against Iraq, which is still leagues below its condition even in 1989 after eight years of war. Indeed, many of those who colluded boast of their success, applaud the ruining of Libya, and look forward with relish to inflicting still more damage on the people of Syria and probably Mali.Those who experienced the ‘WAR’ Conference at Manchester 2002 will regard Jimmy Savile’s achievements in grooming the nation as the merest amateurism by comparison (and appalling as Savile’s crimes were, he is not accused murdering or procuring the murder of any civilians; moreover the aggression clique is still influential in the Labour Party, and its leader is grabbing millions of pounds for his advice on international issues).

  • Payment by results is clearly a concept associated with private business where the customer has to be satisfied that the ‘result’ has been achieved. This concept is clear when discussing tangible results which flow directly from the work undertaken. For example, if my task is to sell cars – the results are clear to see as the cars will have been exchanged for money. The car may break down or the customer might ‘write it off’ but that is no longer my responsibility as the result of selling has already occured.

    Stopping people from offending is a much less tangible and moreover complex to associate causation. Offenders’ will desist from crime for many different reasons; some will stop as it was a ‘one off’ never to be repeated, a lesson learned experience if you will and thus no intervention is necessary. Even when considering prolific offenders it may be more about what a family member or friend said to them or a significant experience either positive or negative which finally broke their cycle of offending. Let’s be honest the majority of offenders do not think about their sentence in the community any more than the time they are actually required to, which probably adds up to less than 5 hours a month, more of course if you add a tag and unpaid work.

    Having experienced the wrath of Mr Khan’s government first hand in the Probation Service which resulted in practitioners becoming paranoid administrators due to the unhealthy obsession with risk assessment and ‘defensible decision making’ most offenders were lucky if they spent any time at all with their, and I hate this title, ‘offender manager’.

    One of the culprits causing the privatisation of Probation work is NOMS – created under labour. Conversely, strange it is still called NOMS given that ‘offenders’ are currently being called ‘service users’ by probation. We’ve moved on but NOMS seems to be a quango of it’s time best left in room 101 alongside the Iraq war. Nevertheless, it is alive and kicking having somehow escaped the bonfire of the quangos and so remains a turgid bureaucratic machine out of control and desperate to keep itself going feeding off the Prisons and the National Probation Service with no regard for its 100 years history of working with offenders.

    It begs belief that such a small public service with such a minute budget has become the favoured target of the political bullies on both sides. Pathetic really when the only real answer to reducing cost and at the same time re-offending in the criminal justice system is to reduce the appauling size of the prison population and invest properly in Probation and the practitioners who do their best despite constent and intense interference.

    By all means pay by results – with the huge savings of reducing the prison population pay the experts! Yes pay Probation Officers with the qualifications and experience a decent salary, reduce their case load so it’s manageable and then reward them a bonus when they tangibly make a difference. This is far cheaper and more easily evidenced than paying out thousands to privateers who distort the outcomes, cook the books and have no moral stake in this work.

    And that brings me back to the original point – what is a result? It depends, but I have had many – I have changed lives because I and others like me invest in our work and the involuntary clients we guide to a significant reduction in harm and offending. On occassions our interference can move people on to a complete offence free and productive life despite the barriers put in place by political ideology. Notwiithstanding of course the lack of pro-social political models!

    One last thought, when PBR comes in – can I retrospectively charge the government for the ‘results’ I have had over the past 12 years?

    *power – do they have a mandate to sell off the public sector?

  • I agree with Olly about the general uselessness of NOMS, however it should be acknowledged that many of the people now plotting the demise of the probation service are former probation staff. The proposals, as currently outlined, are fundamentally flawed. Three key reasons: 1. The structure and skills required to successfully procure and contract manage on this scale simply do not exist 2. PBR mitigates against the partnership working that is required to work with offenders (why should others participate when one takes the ‘reward’) 3. Splitting offender management is dangerous (offenders do not stay neatly in one category). The more joins in the system the poorer the communication and the more chance of public risk. The most frustrating thing is that re offending is too high, but the data for short sentenced prisoners (those currently not worked with by probation) has been disingenuously included to make the case for reform probation. But, for me, above all – any funding that probation currently receive is used for service delivery for the public good and not recycled back to the shareholders. I just hope that the energy going into pandering to this personal whim does not cause any accidents on the way by forcing probation to take their eye off the ball. For a more coherent argument:

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