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20 Jan 2016

How strong is the case for privatising probation after G4S Medway?

Last week, the BBC’s Panorama report showed numerous G4S officer using violent restraining techniques on teenage detainees, and in some cases alleged the routine falsification of records. Regardless of what fate befalls these officers, it might be worth considering whether these incidents are symptomatic of a wider problem. In July 2013, during his tenure as Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling spoke in Parliament of a wish to privatise up to 70% of the probation service; was this based on a sound case for the greater ability of private companies, rather than the state, to handle this vital public service?

The low costs of service delivery, and consequent savings to the taxpayer, are frequently cited as key justifications for privatising probation services, especially in the current economic climate. It should therefore be asked whether these upfront savings really do result in greater efficiencies further down the line. When, in 2011, the then-Coalition government released plans to put all probation work out to competitive tender, it was met with scepticism by many workers in the sector. Harry Fletcher, then the assistant general secretary of Napo, noted in a July issue of ‘Criminal Law and Justice Weekly’ that:

Privatisation so far has been a disaster. Cleaning and maintenance of probation premises was put out to tender several years ago and has hardly been a success story. The privatisation of bail beds was so poor that the contract had to be taken away.

Since then, both G4S and Serco have been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and agreed to repay a total of more than £180 million after it emerged that they had overcharged the taxpayer for electronic tagging. This is just one incident on a list of mishaps, including a £900 million GEOAmey contract which resulted in roads being dug up after prison vans were purchased that were too big to even get onto court premises.

These, and other incidents, documented at length in a 2014 report by the Howard League for Penal Reform, Corporate Crime? A dossier on the failure of privatisation in the criminal justice system, prompted recommendations from the League that G4S and Serco be barred from bidding for government business until the investigation into their practices was completed. The problem is not confined to these companies, and has been observed across other parts of the criminal justice system. Capita, for example, were engaged to provide translation and interpretation services at trial. Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice in March 2013 showed that in almost one case in seven where an interpreter was required for a hearing, none were provided, posing a serious risk to the fairness of the trial.

One might argue that the clear evidence of inefficiencies and waste which has been accruing across parts of the criminal justice system would be enough by itself to give cause for concern. When, however, it is coupled with frequent reports of abuse and mistreatment of detainees, then one can anticipate that such concerns become both more frequent and voiced in far stronger terms.

The death of Jimmy Mubenga during his transportation by G4S in 2009, even when the guards supervising him were ultimately cleared of manslaughter, casts a long shadow over a company record. That record also includes the unlawful restraint of fourteen children placed in secure training centres (STCs) operated by G4S and Serco between 2004 and 2008, for which both companies have paid out nearly £100,000 in compensation. This investigation was itself prompted by the deaths of two children who were detained at company-run STCs, Gareth Myatt (who, like Mubenga, was heard to say repeatedly that he could not breathe) and Adam Rickwood, who committed suicide after his restraint by four adult carers.

As was noted by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in its conference of January 2015, accountability and transparency are also a concern. In the absence of exposés of the kind delivered by Panorama, reporting on potential incidents is hampered by the fact that the power to issue Statutory Notices, allowing the Commission to obtain information from public bodies, does not presently apply to the private sector. CRCC Chairman Richard Foster has spoken of the urgent need to “get passed into legislation” something which would extend the powers currently enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act to private bodies executing public functions such as this.

It must be stated that abuses of this kind are not limited to the private sector. Nevertheless, successive reports by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Select Committee have not done any favours for the record of privatisation in this sector. Furthermore, there is little evidence of either greater savings or increased quality of service that would support the case for increasing the privatisation.

Appropriate training and resources seem difficult to come by when essential services, such as those involved in criminal justice and detention, are made available for tender in a system already dealing with the impact of severe cuts. Now that a new Justice Secretary has taken charge of proceedings, it therefore remains to be seen whether the Ministry of Justice will be persuaded to re-examine its position.

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