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Howard League blog · 17 Jun 2019

What really happens when someone is asked to do unpaid work

Community service, or unpaid work, had been a success story for decades; that is until Chris Grayling destroyed the probation service and split it, incorporating it into the private community rehabilitation companies.

The idea of getting people who have committed a crime to make amends by doing some community work and perhaps learning a skill that would help them lead a law-abiding life is a good one.

Sadly, unpaid work as a sentence of the court is in a mess and the government’s plan to have central commissioning based in regions will embed the nonsense.

The private companies running unpaid work are contracting with local authorities. In the past, the local probation offices had links with churches and charity shops as well as the local authorities and so could place individuals in work suitable for that individual and that was a contribution to the community. The private companies have no such links and cannot operate at the local level, so they have bureaucratic contracts to provide gangs of labourers.

They completed the work in two hours and then stood about wondering what to do

The flaw in this system is that there is no work for gangs of labourers. Local authorities want a bit of litter picking, some curbs cleaned and chewing gum scraping. They also do not have sufficient staff to oversee the unpaid work.

A person who was sentenced to 200 hours of unpaid work told me their experience. Since February he has managed to clock up only 64 hours because there simply are not enough staff to supervise and the placements don’t exist.

The company organises a minibus with eight seats, but 16 people turn up. Most of them will have had to travel – this is not in London – by bus to get there and had to pay the bus fares. But eight people are turned away – it is not clear how they are selected. The eight people who are turned away have paid perhaps £4 or £5 in bus fares, probably out of their benefits, and are being asked to do that every week for many months longer than had been planned because of the incompetence of the company running (and profiting from) the scheme. Two hundred hours should equate to about 40 days, but in practice is taking sometimes up to a year to complete and could cost someone on benefits as much as £500 in bus fares!

The lucky eight who were chosen on this particular day were driven off to tidy a grass verge. They completed the work in two hours and then stood about wondering what to do. The staff person in charge was worried they’d be seen, so put them back in the minibus to drive to a secluded car park where they stood about smoking for a couple of hours to clock up their time. They did two hours work and two hours standing about to tick off four hours on their sentence.

When one wanted to use a toilet, they all had to get back in the minibus and drive to a council-owned toilet because there was only one member of staff

The week before that, they had been asked to clear litter from a park. It took an hour to drive there, but when one wanted to use a toilet, they all had to get back in the minibus and drive to a council-owned toilet because there was only one member of staff supervising the team and he couldn’t leave any of them alone in the park. They then drove back again. This took an hour and a half, each time anyone wanted a pee.

The companies running this farce make inflated claims that they provide training, but this is clearly not the case. Indeed, the fact that so many people are turned away and it takes many months to complete the specified hours engenders disaffection and irritation, and the incompetence is leading to people being sent to prison for breaching the terms of the sentence.

Whilst I welcome the government’s plan to reintegrate probation and bring it back into the public sector, the fact that it is intended to force the ten regions to commission unpaid work out to the private sector will be a disaster. We know that private companies don’t have the links at a local level, we know they are overly bureaucratic and monolithic, we know they work on lean contracts with not enough staff and staff who are not properly trained or supported, and, we know that big regions are ineffective in delivering local connections.

It’s a good thing if people who have done wrong are asked to make amends by doing some community work. They have to able to do it quickly, efficiently and fairly. They should not be set up to fail, that’s not justice.


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