How could it do so? Perhaps it could break Tesco into pieces and order the component parts to compete with each other. Perhaps it could encourage entrepreneurs who knew nothing about buying, packaging, transporting and selling food to set up rival supermarkets.
One way or another, ministers would have to become magicians who conjured a market out of thin air while giving public money to private firms to help them through their teething problems. A state-sponsored capitalist feels like a contradiction and there would be a strong possibility that their pseudo-market would go off the rails.
The criminal justice system is a monopoly and few can deny that it provides lousy service at an exorbitant cost. The police’s detection rate is abysmal, the prisons can’t rehabilitate offenders, lawyers and judges waste hundreds of millions by dragging out cases and the probation service can’t supervise dangerous criminals.
Stories of the systemic failure fill the papers, but for many people, the murder of John Monckton last year and the stabbing of his wife, Homeyra, encapsulated the chaos. There was a Bonfire of the Vanities element in the outrage: John Monckton was a rich man who lived in Upper Cheyne Row, one of the best addresses in London. Cynics said there wouldn’t have been the same publicity if the couple had been unemployed and living in a bedsit.
Although they were right, they missed the point. That a wanton killing could happen in the richest part of the country made more intelligent people wonder about how much worse the violence was in the poorest. The criminal justice system already knew that the killer, Damien Hanson, was a vicious man. The courts had sentenced him to 12 years in prison for attempted murder, but the parole board let him out after six and he immediately began planning his next crime.
Andrew Bridges, the chief inspector of probation, investigated the shambolic supervision of Hanson by the probation service and concluded that while it was not possible to eliminate risk altogether, the public was entitled to expect the authorities to do their job properly and this ‘simply did not happen’.
I understand why Home Office ministers have had enough and are now trying to get Parliament to agree to break up the probation service and allow private companies to compete for the contracts to manage offenders. My guess is that radical reform is going to sweep the public sector, regardless of whether Gordon Brown or David Cameron wins the next election. The 1997 ‘New Labour’ government was far more old Labour than its critics on the left, myself included, were prepared to acknowledge. It pumped money into the public sector and public servants who haven’t given a bang for the buck are going to feel the heat whoever is in power.
For all the Home Office’s good reasons, its plan to privatise the probation service is likely to produce the biggest parliamentary revolt so far this year when it comes before the Commons in 10 days. MPs know that probation officers may have behaved with shocking incompetence, but Damien Hanson was freed to kill because there was not and is not enough space in the jails. Notoriously, the Home Office and the Prime Minister have legislated for a tough line on crime, while the Chancellor has refused to release the money to build the cells to hold the prisoners. Gordon Brown appeared to promise money for new jails but according to yesterday’s Guardian, it will never come.
Even if it does, it will be too little too late, as the chief inspector of prisons, the wonderfully waspish Anne Owers, argued when she snapped: ‘It is normally considered good practice to build an ark before a flood, not during it.’
The prisons are not like the hospitals and the schools. They haven’t been deluged with public money and their governors and staff deserve medals for coping with a crisis that would have destroyed most private firms. Extra resources have been lavished on the probation service. But most were wasted on hiring more managers and more management consultants and buying an IT system which was a disaster even by the low standards of Whitehall.
Hardly any money has trickled down to frontline officers. Harry Fletcher from the probation union, Napo, told me that there were now 1,000 vacancies because experienced staff were leaving in ‘alarming numbers’. Reform is not coming to a stable service in a fit condition to accept change, but in the middle of a gigantic mess.
Above all, ministers will have to face up to the problems of creating a market out of nothing. There are no private providers of probation. If Group 4 wants to try its hand at probation work, the Home Office is going to have to guarantee it contracts, whatever its conduct, until the new business is established, the exact opposite of the market doctrine that rewards must go to the best performers.
Judges are warning that private probation officers will have an interest in lobbying for stiffer sentences because harsher punishments will provide more business for their firms. Probation officers add that private companies are instinctively secretive, which is hardly to be welcomed when everyone in law enforcement needs to know about potentially risky criminals.
It would be better for the Home Office to accept that, like water and the railways, criminal justice is a natural monopoly and, as with water and the railways, privatisation will only make it worse.
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