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Reunify the whole probation service now

Napo general secretary IAN LAWRENCE and national chair KATIE LOMAS set out the union’s vision to repair this vital public service

FOLLOWING a long-running campaign by the probation unions and numerous highly damning reports on the privatisation of the service in 2014, the government caved in last May and announced that 80 per cent of the work currently managed by private-sector community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) will transfer to the public-sector National Probation Service (NPS) when the privateers’ contracts expire in April 2021.

Napo has campaigned tirelessly against the devastating Transforming Rehabilitation reforms implemented by then justice secretary Chris Grayling. 

We warned long before this calamity that probation could not, and should not, be run for profit and that splitting the probation service would undermine public safety. 

Unfortunately, our members’ serious misgivings were vindicated, with the failing CRCs receiving an estimated £280 million bailout by the taxpayer. 

Meanwhile, the number of serious further offences, most usually involving murder and/or sexual assault, have soared by a staggering 23 per cent over the last two years, and over 40 per cent since Transforming Rehabilitation was implemented.

While recognising that part-reunification is at least a major step in the right direction, Napo is clear that there are still serious public protection problems within the new plans to retain a so-called “mixed market” model. 

The recently published blueprint from the Ministry of Justice proposes that vitally important interventions and unpaid work placements will remain in private hands, with new contracts being awarded within a restructured 11-region probation service. 

This plan is quite astonishing, given the lamentable track record of the private sector in supervising a client base from which serious reoffending frequently occurs. 

Our members believe it is scandalous that ministers are still willing to jeopardise the safety of our communities as they seek to do favours to the likes of Sodexo, Interserve and MTC, which are widely expected to bid for new contracts should these actually emerge.

Time for a public inquiry

Serious questions also need to be raised about the culpability and potential criminality of some of these private probation providers following a number of serious further offences that have taken place under their governance. 

This is especially the case within the South West, West and Wales regions previously managed by the dreadful Working Links — which entered administration in February this year. 

Napo raised a number of warnings with ministers and the employer about the reckless operational model, which relied on probation clients being occasionally telephoned to check on their status and the clear risk that this inept supervision regime posed to public safety. 

These went unheeded and we believe the whole Transforming Rehabilitation fiasco should be the subject of a public inquiry.

No to scapegoating

As a result of unmanageable workloads and 1,000 unfilled vacancies, we are also seeing an alarming rise in serious further offences disciplinary investigations involving our hard-pressed and exhausted practitioners working for the NPS. 

Many NPS staff who are supervising high-risk clients are typically facing workloads of almost twice their capacity.

Napo is not prepared to see our members scapegoated as a result of these investigations — or during the increasing number of inquests that they are being asked to provide evidence to — in order for politicians to deflect blame for their complicity in destroying this once gold-standard service. 

Our vision for the future 

Repairing this shambolic situation will not be easy; and in our current negotiations with ministers and senior Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service leaders, Napo has made it clear to that we have a number of “red lines,” including:

  • The restoration of all probation work to public control and ownership
  • The need to ensure that the earlier (and already scheduled) transfer of offender management work to the NPS in Wales becomes the benchmark for the process to follow in England
  • All probation staff to be placed on NPS pay, terms and conditions in advance of the move to transfer offender management work out of the CRCs by the time that their contracts are terminated in 2021
  • Continuity of employment for the 6,000-7,000 CRC staff transferring to the NPS

Napo’s key demands for the future of probation

Beyond these immediate priorities, Napo has a progressive agenda for the reform of probation and its return to full public ownership and control. 

In redesigning probation, it is vital that lessons are learnt from the profound failures of the last four years, yet simply redrawing the line between public and private provision is not enough to repair the massive damage done to the service. 

Fully integrated service provision

Napo wants a fully integrated and unified service, with all core functions, including unpaid work and interventions, delivered from a single organisation. 

Our members welcome the involvement of specialist provision by the third sector in a partnership arrangement which will help to ensure that the management and delivery of core services is carried out in a co-ordinated manner against high-quality professional standards.

Keeping probation in the public sector and never for profit, but out of the Civil Service 

Our members agree that nobody should profit from crime, but equally that no-one should profit from the delivery of justice as a result of those crimes. 

The probation service belongs in the public sector, but the move to the Civil Service as a result of Transforming Rehabilitation has meant that the NPS is now overly bureaucratic and follows a top-down “command and control” culture. 

Our demand is for probation services to exist outside the Civil Service but within the public sector, as a non-departmental government body (in the same way as organisations such as Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and many others). 

This would allow for a degree of consistency through a national structure but would enable the development of more effective probation practices.

A service built on evidence-based practice

Probation officers, as part of their training, are encouraged to think critically about the work that they are doing and the systems in which they are doing it. 

This is almost impossible within a Civil Service environment where criticism of the Establishment is forbidden and “innovative thinking” is reserved for those promoted to senior positions, rather than being encouraged among all employees.

There is a wealth of evidence about how to support people to desist from offending. Research into desistance and risk assessment and management is abundant, yet little of this knowledge is being employed in redesigning probation services. 

Much of the pressure that staff leaving the service describe is about being asked to work in ways which they feel do not represent good practice and which in some cases are dangerous. 

There is no sign of these lessons being learnt. In addition, there have been attempts to silence those who raise concerns about practice and the evidence of a need for change has been suppressed, for example in the case of the national report exposing serious problems about sex offender treatment programmes in prisons.

Rehabilitation is best done in the community 

At the same time as the reintegration programme to bring offender management work into the NPS, another big challenge is the Offender Management in Custody (OMiC) project. 

OMiC builds in multiple changes of offender manager for a client, despite the fact that such changes were criticised so much in the Transforming Rehabilitation model that it caused a significant change of policy and hastened the move to reintegration.    

For many years, probation has struggled for recognition and focus against the forced partnership with the prison service. 

Although we recognise the advantages of working closely with our colleagues in the prison service — and there are many areas where our work and ways of working align — there are also many areas where they do not. 

Successive governments have failed to understand this reality, making it nigh-on impossible for the probation service to focus on developing its own culture and values.

All probation practice within prisons and the community should be based on evidence, and changes should be made to ways of working based on this and not at the convenience of the monolithic and overbearing HM Prison and Probation Service.

Accountability and partnership with local specialist providers

Probation is about people, and people exist in communities. The link to the community is vital and must be prioritised. 

What works in one village, town or city might not work elsewhere. There must be a facility to respond to local needs and priorities and to shape service delivery to suit. 

Front-line practitioners must be empowered to work in a way that meets the needs of both their client and their community, rather than to a centralised agenda. 

There are many third-sector providers working in response to local needs that might be excellent future partners for the delivery of probation services, either as a contractor or in other arrangements. 

Sadly, many of these very local services were simply frozen out of the system due to Transforming Rehabilitation, but where they exist they should be involved in an appropriate way. 

Large contracts are not the way to deliver such innovative and responsive partnerships, as smaller third-sector organisations cannot compete with large companies which are better able to offer cash guarantees and present artificially low bids. 

There should never be a separation between probation services and the support mechanisms that exist, but working together in a joined-up way is often impossible when there is no local control or accountability over the system.

There is much work still to be done to restore probation to anything like the service that supports clients, victims and staff in the way that we would all want. 

Napo stands ready to work with our allies, politicians, and sister unions to achieve our aims.

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