Is there a future for the Probation Service?

The Probation service of England and Wales has been through a series of cataclysmic changes since Grayling announced his Transforming Rehabilitation programme in 2013, a revamp of Ken Clarke’s Rehabilitation Revolution paper in 2010.

In 2014 35 Probation Trusts were disbanded; the National Probation Service (NPS) was formed from 30% of the existing staff while the remaining 70% were moved into 21 newly formed Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC’s). These were subsequently outsourced in February 2015 to 8 different providers.

Napo along with other stakeholders campaigned strongly against the changes warning that it could have a devastating effect on service delivery, staff and public protection.

18 months later: where are we now?

Those who opposed the changes would be well within their right to say “I told you so”. Many of the predictions have come true, but the devastating impact these have had leaves no one revelling in glory.

The National Probation Service (NPS) is woefully under staffed. The original split of 70/30 was based on the anticipated workloads each organisation would get. In reality that is now 50/50 leaving the NPS with a short fall of staff, dealing solely with high and very high risk of harm cases.

The full extent of the burn out this may cause for practitioners is yet to be fully realised but increases in sickness absence and NOMS’ (National Offender Management Service) aggressive response to dealing with it is in itself quite telling. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has accepted that the NPS is not sustainable in its current form and has developed a restructuring programme to try to alleviate some of the problems.

Despite consultation with the unions there are still a number of issues that are not agreed. Not least because many of the ideas proposed appear to be more about cost cutting than developing an improved quality service. The nationalisation of the service goes against government rhetoric of localism and local autonomy. By placing the NPS in the civil service there is no room to meet the needs of local communities, engage with local third sector organisations and far greater restrictions for management now forced to adhere to Whitehall directives. In short we have gone back 15 years and undone all the hard work Trusts did to localise the service and to drive innovation.

The Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC’s) haven’t faired much better after the initial storm. Now 18 months into their contracts and well past the bedding in period, many are complaining that there simply isn’t the money in this business they were promised.

As stated in the National Audit Office report earlier this year, the CRC’s are receiving far less work than anticipated resulting in a huge drop in budgets. This isn’t because offending rates have dropped so dramatically there are less people in the Court system, but rather due to the flawed, and at the time highly criticised, payment mechanism.

Aside from Payment by Results (PbR) due to come online in February next year, CRC’s receive a basic payment for every order they supervise. However, they get paid extra for additional work such as Unpaid Work orders or specialised offending behaviour programme (programme delivery is a contractual obligation of the CRC’s). There has been a reduction in these types of orders being made at Court, possibly due to the lack of confidence sentencers have in the new private owners. They do not get paid for bespoke interventions such as Care Farms or specialist local partnerships with third sector organisations.

The payment mechanism is not delivering the government ideology of innovation it is hindering it. The result of this is that staff are being cut to save money, with approximately 1700 jobs gone or at risk in less than 2 years.

The CRC’s themselves are now beginning to feel like they have been sold a duff with little room for developing new ways of working. As such many are now writing off the PbR model stating that in order to reach the target to get extra money they would have to spend far more investing in interventions than they would ever hope to see in returns. In short they are better off taking the flat fee for service and cutting back the organisations to the bone, they are after all now motivated by profit.

Call centres are being introduced to maximise the supervision of offenders with the minimum staff needed.

Through the Gate Services and the supervision of the under 12 months custody cohort are being pushed to the side lines creating a revolving door that turns faster rather then preventing one and staff feel their profession is being desecrated. This has prompted the MOJ to launch a Probation System Review to look at the contracts and see what needs tweaking. What comes out of that review is yet to be decided but there has been in a shift in the MOJ attitude from, “let the owners decide what they provide ” to “ what service do we want them to provide”. Not surprising then that this review, whilst welcomed by the unions and staff is being approached with great caution by the CRC’s. 

So what next for Probation?

Financial viability for the some of the CRC’s is a real concern. Recently Working Links (who own 4 CRC’s) was bought out right by a German investment company. Is this the first sign of collapse or are other CRC’s equally in financial trouble but haven’t yet made a move to stabilise their ship? If a CRC does go bust what could an alternative look like?

The Lord Chancellor holds the Golden Share that could allow him to bring them back into public ownership if they fail to fulfil their contract or cannot financially continue. The Police and Crime Bill gives scope for the Police and Crime Commissioners to have a greater role in the delivery of probation services. Could they take over the troubled contracts and allow greater local accountability and responsivity needed to bring the service back up to the award winning level probation was at in 2011? We will have to wait and see but there is certainly an argument for all providers, public or private, to invest in their staff and rebuild the profession.

This would not only improve service delivery, make the profession more attractive for recruitment but increase staff morale who currently feel totally betrayed by the government. So while we await the outcomes of the review, the impact of the NPS restructuring and financial stability of the CRC’s, Napo is also leading the way on developing a professional strategy that will embed Continual Professional Development in to all organisations.

Sustainability is vital in a service that works with highly volatile individuals. In order to create that you must have a resilient and sustainable workforce. The public deserve a probation service that can protect, rehabilitate and deliver. We had one once, if we don’t rebuild what is left, then the service could disappear altogether.

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