The End of the Probation Service: It Sounds like a Good Idea-Putting People Who Deal with Offenders, Both in Prison and out of It, under the Same Management. but Expect a Bureaucratic Shambles

By Cohen, Nick | New Statesman (1996), May 10, 2004 | Go to article overview

The End of the Probation Service: It Sounds like a Good Idea-Putting People Who Deal with Offenders, Both in Prison and out of It, under the Same Management. but Expect a Bureaucratic Shambles


Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


In the 1994 smash hit Speed, Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock play a police officer and a teacher trapped on a school bus that has been rigged with a bomb by a madman. If they allow the bus's speed to slow to less than 50mph for one moment, the bomb will explode and they and a party of appealing schoolchildren will be blown to smithereens. The bus smashes through traffic, shops and cafes. Good citizens flee in terror. Our heroes aren't perturbed by the havoc they cause. The accelerator must be held down at all times to prevent a greater carnage.

Tony Blair and David Blunkett are the Reeves and Bullock of British politics, although admittedly without the looks and toned physiques. They must hold the populist accelerator to the floor at all times. If they once doubted that disaster would follow the smallest relaxation, the mad reaction from the press and public to the accession of eastern European states to the EU will have taught them the terrible political cost of easing the pressure.

The contradiction of securing your own safety by inflicting havoc on others is as glaring in the populist politics of race and crime as it is in Hollywood action movies. I suspect that people will soon be looking back at the immigration "debate" of the past six months and wondering what the hell all that was about. (Where are the Slav and Magyar hordes who were meant to descend on Britain?)

To ask such questions is to miss the point of populism. The successful populist must be constantly on the move. He must live for the early-evening news headlines without a thought for the consequences. He must cultivate the appearance of frantic business to impress upon "the people" that he is attending to their every fear and desire. Like a corpse left on the gallows, the career of Beverley Hughes, the recently departed Home Office minister, is a warning to ministers who think they can relax.

As with race, so with crime. The history of the National Offender Management Service (Noms), the latest in an apparently unending list of "radical reforms" to the criminal justice system, shows that there is no way of stopping the populist merry-go-round. Given that we are living through the first significant fall in crime in a hundred years--down by one-third since the early 1990s--there doesn't seem to be much call for radical reform, in theory at any rate. In practice, politicians are unable to claim credit for a safer country in media that would crucify them for being complacent if they dared state the truth plainly. Although the economic recovery explains most of the decrease--the unemployment and crime rates mirror each other--it is also the case that crime prevention has played its part.

Politicians know that a public that has been obliged to turn its homes into prisons by fitting bars to windows and deadlocks to doors is unlikely to greet news of crime's fall with appreciative applause. It is more likely to be living in fear. Ever tougher measures must therefore be unveiled monthly, whatever the cost. Populism has already brought a havoc to the criminal justice system which may soon make this spring's immigration crisis look like a minor disturbance. New Labour's response to the coming chaos is to reorganise the deckchairs.

I know that bureaucratic rearrangements are as dull as other people's children. It is only when your own workplace is being turned upside down that they become matters of intense interest. But the failures of the civil service reorganisation have baleful consequences for wider society. The chaotic launch of the Child Support Agency all but blew the chance to force absent parents to pay for the upbringing of their children. The failure in the late 1990s to introduce a computer system into the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate that could do anything as complicated as work worsened the asylum backlog and led to ministers inciting a poisonous racial hatred as cover for the civil servants and private contractors who allowed control of the borders to collapse.

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