An outsourcer that owned three probation companies and held government contracts worth nearly £1bn has collapsed.
The announcement that Working Links (Employment) Limited had gone into administration, along with its three “community rehabilitation companies”, came as a damning review by the chief inspector of probation Dame Glenys Stacey rated one of its CRCs “inadequate”.
Probation services managed by the three companies – Dorset, Devon and Cornwall CRC, the subject of the review, along with Wales CRC and Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire CRC – have now been transferred to rival outsourcing firm Seetec. Their staff and services have been transferred to Seetec’s subsidiary Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC.
“Seetec has a good track record in Kent, Surrey and Sussex and we are satisfied that they are well-placed and well-equipped to take over these services and run them effectively,” justice secretary David Gauke said in a statement yesterday.
Working Links’ three probation contracts were worth up to £924m altogether, accounting for the vast bulk of its public sector portfolio. Since 2014, the company has won an additional 19 public contracts worth a total of £30m, according to an analysis by public sector tenders database Tussell.
The outsourcer’s other contracts were mostly for education, employment and support services. They include agreements signed with the Department for Work and Pensions in 2016 worth a collective £24m to "aim to improve job outcome rates for claimants who have left the Work Programme without a successful outcome” in six English regions, Tussell's analysis shows.
A DWP spokesperson told CSW: “We are aware of Working Links entering administration. In line with our normal procedures we are working through our contingencies, having reviewed possible arrangements for our customers, and will keep them updated.
“We understand this is a concerning time for Working Links’ staff, and will work with Working Links and those affected to support them."
In his statement, Gauke said the MoJ was working with DWP and the Scottish Government, which also holds some contracts with Working Links, to “identify all participants of its programmes who are potentially affected to ensure appropriate advice and support is provided”.
'Immutable lines were crossed'
The probation inspector’s report on Dorset, Devon and Cornwall CRC revealed a litany of failures at the company, including under-recording of riskier cases by probation staff because of commercial pressures. Inspectors also found instances of staff creating sentence plans for offenders to meet performance targets, without having met the offenders.
“Immutable lines” had been crossed at the CRC, Stacey said in the report, publication of which was brought forward to coincide with Working Links' collapse. “The professional ethos of probation has buckled under the strain of the commercial pressures put upon it here, and it must be restored urgently,” she said.
The staff headcount at the CRC had been cut by a third since 2015, and probation officers were dealing with workloads of between 80 and 100 cases on average. In the most extreme cases, caseloads were as high as 168, and staff reported receiving very little support from the company.
“There were many concerns about the personal safety of staff in operational offices,” the report said.
Rehabilitating probation services
Working Links' collapse comes a month after it emerged that Interserve, the biggest private provider of probation services in England and Wales, was being monitored by the Cabinet Office following a profit warning last September.
Working Links and Interserve's contracts were awarded in a controversial partial privatisation of probation services overseen by then-justice secretary Chris Grayling in 2014. Under the reform, 21 “community rehabilitation companies” were set up to supervise low and medium-risk offenders after they had been released from prison sentences of less than 12 months. The majority of these companies were privately-owned.
Last July, the MoJ announced it would end all 21 contracts early in a bid to improve services. Only two CRCs met their targets to reduce reoffending in the first year of the payment-by-results contracts, and most of the companies struggled financially due to a reduction in community work orders and other lucrative sentences.
The contracts are now set to end in 2020, rather than 2021-22 as originally planned. The MoJ has not yet said how it will manage services in England beyond 2020.
In Wales, plans were already in motion to transfer probation services back to HM Prison and Probation Service by 2020, and Gauke said this would now be brought forward to the end of this year. “We are currently working at pace with Seetec to accelerate this process,” he said.
Announcing her report on Dorset, Devon and Cornwall CRC, Stacey said the collapse of Working Links should be a “turning point” for probation provision. “Our CRC inspection evidence shows a variable picture but it is one in which the provision of services in most cases is wanting, often significantly so,” she said.
She said changing the delivery model would not be easy but added: “The future model must preserve the ethos of probation, and respect and nurture the probation profession itself.
“The alternative is made clear in the thoroughly dispiriting Dorset, Devon and Cornwall CRC report.”