From the archive: The human cost of privatising services

Jim Brown /   August 13, 2013 at 8:36 PM 1,032 views

poverty-man

I’m a sucker for what might be termed ‘immersive history’ experiments like the Channel 4 ‘Benefit Britain 1949′ programme last night where three real benefit claimants in Nottingham volunteered to be treated as if it were 1949. This was the very early days of what we later came to label as the Welfare State and I think it came as quite a shock to see how Melvyn a pension widower, Craig a disabled young man and Karen a long-term sick woman would have been treated back then.

For me the real surprise concerned the whole issue of disability and the alarming statistic that after the war a staggering 94% of disabled people worked, as opposed to 54% currently. It served to confirm my suspicions that for all the disability discrimination legislation, the situation for this group and employability especially has become much worse.

The answer is simple because back in 1949, with so many limbless men created as a result of the war, the state felt it a duty to provide sheltered workshops and employers were obliged by law to employ a quota of disabled people. This statutory requirement was only abolished in 1994 and disgracefully the present government is continuing with the policy of closing down the remaining Remploy sheltered factories as an economy measure.

The programme served to remind us that before huge chunks of the employment service were privatised and contractors incentivised with cash, Benefit Offices used to have dedicated disability officers who were specifically tasked with dealing with this group. As in Craig’s case, nowadays they get no special assistance and have to sink or swim along with all the rest according to the vagaries of the local job market. The lure of premium payments simply hasn’t worked its PbR magic and such people have merely been ‘parked’ on the Work Programme.

So, whilst Craig at 24 was over the moon to be offered his first job in a call centre as a result of the old-fashioned paternalistic ethos of a Disability Resettlement Officer, Karen conspicuously avoided prejudicing her disability status by not even touching the sewing machine at a sheltered employer. It very neatly brought up the whole issue of that very old chestnut, the division between the deserving and undeserving, which has been around ever since Adam was a lad as they say.

I doubt the viewing public will have much sympathy with Karen, but then they’re unlikely to be sympathetic to the plight of most probation clients, not to mention the huge extra numbers of people serving 12 months custody or less who will very soon become the responsibility of private contractors as part of the privatisation omnishambles.

In the cut throat world of competition that probation is shortly to become, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that in order to make sure of making money, there has to be a temptation to under-deliver, overcharge, or indulge in a bit of both. There are ample examples such as G4S both over-charging and under-delivering on electronic tagging, Capita under-delivering on their new Army recruiting contract and virtually every Work Programme provider under-delivering.

Now most of the very same organisations are at this moment quietly hatching their cunning plans to win a slice of the soon-to-be privatised probation work, and paid for by a Payment by Results system that virtually everyone agrees is bonkers. Not only will such a largely untested method offer perverse incentives, there is serious doubt that any money can be made legitimately. A recent Social Market Foundation report is utterly damning:

  • Under the MoJ’s proposed payment structure, providers risk making losses if they spend money on rehabilitative services.
  • Providers can only be confident of being rewarded for their efforts if they achieve reductions in reoffending that are larger than the available evidence suggests is achievable, even with greater resources than are likely to be on offer under the new scheme.
  • The payment mechanism encourages providers to cut spending on services and allow reoffending to drift marginally upwards.
  • The proposed regime therefore creates strong perverse incentives: the opposite of how a PbR scheme should operate.
  • As they stand, the plans would offer poor value for money for taxpayers and should be radically revised before the scheme is rolled-out.

The situation is actually much worse because most of the under 12 month clients will be extremely unwilling participants in supervision and monitoring. Not only this, but of course the whole landscape for people without employment or housing and with other needs such as drug and alcohol treatment, mental health issues and debt has become exacerbated.

Our clients have had to try and cope with a steadily worsening situation for years, but with the benefit changes really biting, it’s now becoming intolerable for many. Significant numbers will reoffend just to get back inside the protective walls of prison. We have the police sensibly handing out food vouchers to shoplifters stealing basic food necessities, and the Samaritans being called in to offer advice on dealing with suicidal clients at housing offices:

Housing chiefs are calling in Samaritans as the Bedroom Tax pushes more tenants to the brink – one association even reports a client attempted suicide during a phone call.

Teams of suicide prevention experts from the emotional support charity are training staff at housing groups around the country – and demand for sessions has shot up 48 per cent in the past three months.

At the Riverside Housing Association in Liverpool, 60 call-centre staff have been trained since the Bedroom Tax was introduced in April and by the end of the month the remaining 40 call handlers will be trained to spot suicide risks.

Riverside’s Anna Bishop said: “We had one person who cut their wrists while on the phone to us.“

Someone else said they wanted to cancel some repairs and they were going for a swim and intended to keep swimming because it didn’t hurt once the lungs fill up with water.”

In both cases the Samaritan-trained adviser called the police and the ­callers’ lives were saved.

The future may look bleak for probation and probation staff, but not half as bleak as it does for many of our clients, and we’d do well to remember that.

Courtesy of Jim Brown at On Probation Blog

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