by Dr Mary Corcoran, Senior Lecturer in Criminology
“New forces appear on the scene, but they have been marshalled by old assumptions” (Marquand, 1997: 148).
Two events coincided at the end of May, 2014, which illuminate contrary directions in thinking about the future of our social economy. The first was the conference on Inclusive Capitalism, convened in London to ponder how markets could be rebalanced to be more inclusive and redistributive. The second was the confirmation by the Ministry of Justice that the public Probation Service would be dissolved on June 1st. It is succeeded by Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) which, according to the current shortlist of bidders, comprise consortia of security corporations in partnership with large charities and social enterprises. These CRCs will take over three quarters of work with offenders in the community deemed to be of ‘low risk’, leaving a much reduced, new National Probation Service to maintain responsibility for ‘high-risk’ offenders. Without stretching coincidence to a point of conspiracy, their concurrence makes a striking contrast between those who wish to shepherd the global economy, post crisis, towards stability and fairness, and those for whom the remedy to the inequities brought about by decades of free-market social and economic policies is even more market liberalism.
The controversy surrounding marketisation can be traced back to wider debates about the present and future scale of absorption of our social institutions, ranging from publicly-owned services to civil society, by private, profit-oriented interests. Since the 1990s, relationships between governments, capital and civil society have been structurally transforming, bringing far-reaching changes. This shift is exemplified by the rise of a mixed market in the criminal justice sector, where commercial, and latterly charitable, providers are contracted to augment state services (as in the case of privately managed prisons and detention centres), service existing institutions (court translation, prisoner transport or tagging, community-based supervision, for example), or replace them (as with the probation service).
Today, discussion about the market revolution in criminal justice has been rendered more contentious by successive phases of privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation in the UK over three decades. Proponents justify these as the painfully necessary application of commercial shock to reform moribund state services. Privatisation, of course, is one aspect of a broader cultural and political alignment of institutional and social behaviour with the laws of the market. More pragmatically, the lure of market solutions has gained currency among centre-right and centre-left governments (with some marginal differences) in the UK and elsewhere in pursuit of the elusive alchemy of greater efficiency, cheaper costs and better services.
Undoubtedly, too, greater competitive openness and cultural transformation have been championed by proponents of public sector reform, including the objective of disciplining ‘vested interests’, which might have included for-profit providers but was explicitly aimed at professional associations and trade unions. Julian Le Grand (2007), who advised New Labour on public sector modernisation, proposed that direct accountability to consumers would curb the professional privileges that inhere with provider-led public service hierarchies. Greater direct public accountability creates equality and mutuality of interests among all stakeholders, he argued. Marketisation is thus quintessentially democratic in handing consumer choice and responsibility from the state back to citizens and providers.
By contrast, critics have equated the elevation of market forces with an attack on collective welfare, the transfer of public resources to private pockets, and the erosion of a public sector ethos or altruistic values. It is argued that free market concepts and techniques do not transfer unequivocally to the voluntary or public sectors, especially to criminal justice, which is discharged with the grave responsibilities of punishment by rule of law. Market distribution systems have historically failed to meet significant areas of human need where there is no obvious opportunity to acquire profits or capital. As such, public services evolved because of market failure.
Each position is prone to oversimplify the picture. This has not been helped by the rancorous political rhetoric and the sometimes risible claims that this is all in the cause of rescuing the welfare state which have emanated from Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Ministers. Elsewhere, I have identified ideological and technocratic prerequisites for converting non-market sectors into profitable markets which have been deployed by successive governments in recent decades (Corcoran, 2014). These include:
• Conflating stubbornly high rates of imprisonment and reoffending with the inadequacies of criminal justice agencies, and by extension, with the failures of public service models.
• Encouraging the involvement of for-profit and voluntary sector providers as essential actors in crime prevention and security.
• Converting goods or services produced by the state into commodities which can be contracted out to other parties.
• Developing competitive service markets which will foster bidding wars among potential providers, irrespective of sector.
• Rationalising services to encourage co-production between adjacent private and public competitors. This includes ‘inter-agency’ partnerships where private and public services ‘share’ the same clients or jointly occupy the same premises, for example.
• Applying managerial techniques for measuring and evaluating performance by public agencies, allied to a punitive culture of league tables, naming and shaming ‘failing’ ones and exploiting the data to further privatise them.
• Responding to lobbying from for-profit and voluntary sector interests to deregulate service markets.
• Moderating the rules or specifying different targets, outputs and governance for new entrants to the market.
• Finally, the state underwrites the risks associated with the transfer of public resources to private interests.
In the context of recession, struggling public services, continuing prison overcrowding and proclamations about relaxing the stranglehold of state bureaucracy on enterprise, the idea of further privatising prisons and probation is politically attractive. The fundamental question for government is how to promote security and consensus for authoritarian criminal justice measures in conditions of economic shock, financial crisis, social strife, poverty and crime. The message is also more persuasive when it is delivered as the only feasible option. The construction and articulation of crime and punishment in cash terms has produced an historical opportunity to shrink the state by passing off this political choice as a necessity. Crime and punishment have been reframed as fiscal burdens, which sustains the political momentum for the state to seek market solutions and approaches. Despite its rhetoric of radical change, this government wants it both ways: to reconcile the upward trajectory of prison expansion that began in the decades before the economic crisis, while masking the social fallout of its economic policies by demonstrating firm management of the casualties of those same policies.
Since 2007, the fiscal crisis and austerity have provided opportunities for transferring state penal assets and powers to private interests on an unprecedented scale. A series of scandals relating to fraud and mismanagement by private companies have revealed regulatory gaps and wilful oversight on the part of legislators. It has taken successive governments decades to drive through the endorsement of private profit as a key component of criminal justice against considerable opposition, not only from the labour movement or sections of the political left, but academics, public administrators, lawyers and professionals. The case for privatising the probation service has been widely discredited and it is apparent that the motives for pursuing it lie elsewhere. The fate of the probation system in England and Wales is determined by the political will to outpace the electoral clock by putting much of it into private domains before the next election. To quote from the classic tale of vainglorious rulers:
‘The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, "This procession has got to go on." So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all. (Hans Christian Anderson, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’).
Part of this article was published in Criminal Justice Matters, September 2014. To access the full journal, click here.
Corcoran, M. (2014) ‘The trajectory of penal markets in an age of austerity: The case of England and Wales’, Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, vol 19, 53-74).
Le Grand, J. (2007) The Other Invisible Hand: Delivering Services through Choice and Competition. Oxford: Princeton U. Press:
Marquand, D. (1997) The New Reckoning: Capitalism, States and Citizens. Cambridge: Polity.
Salaman, L. (1987) Of market failure, voluntary failure, and third-party government: toward a theory of government-nonprofit relations in the modern welfare state. Journal of Voluntary Action research, 16, 29-49.