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NAPO Conference Predictably chaotic probation changes must be reversed

Ministers were warned about their disastrous reforms to the probation service but refuse to act to sort the mess out, writes IAN LAWRENCE

As Napo’s annual conference begins today, it seems timely to reflect on what has happened to a once award-winning public service in the last three years.

Transforming Rehabilitation, introduced by the then justice secretary Chris Grayling, was criticised by stakeholders from the day it was proposed as being an ill-conceived social experiment that would lead to public safety risks, a deterioration of quality and effectiveness, and a profit motive at odds with the service’s values.

Napo, one of the most critical voices at the time, predicted that the so-called reforms would result in chaos and poor standards both in service delivery and in the terms and conditions for staff.

Our members told us it was too rushed, too ideological and would cause a loss of goodwill among staff. Napo takes no pleasure in saying “we told you so,” but it is particularly galling to hear Justice Secretary David Lidington say “there have been unforeseen challenges.”

Over three years on and the new providers are still claiming to have teething problems. Around 1,800 staff have left the service since 2013 — either by choice or through painful redundancies —and over the last year HM Inspectorate for Probation (HMIP) has published numerous negative reports highlighting systemic failings. These have particularly highlighted the poor performance of private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).

The key issues identified are unsafe operational models, dangerously high workloads which in turn have led to a huge increase in staff sickness levels, poor quality work being carried out with clients, an increase in paperwork and a focus on cash-linked targets rather than quality and public protection.

In the recent HMIP report into service provision in Gloucester, chief inspector Dame Glenys Stacey said that the public was more at risk than before, due to the failings of the CRC owned by Working Links — itself a subsidiary of Germany-based asset stripper Aurelius.

It is no surprise to Napo that this is the same company that made 52 per cent of its staff redundant last year. However, this is echoed across the country. In a recent survey sent out to Napo members in the two RRP-owned CRCs, responses included: “I’m just fire-fighting” and “My caseload is so high I have to cut corners and I don’t have time to make referrals to children’s services or attend child protection conferences.”

Despite these failings and having the power to use the golden share to remove the contracts, the Justice Secretary has remained largely silent on the problems and is doing little to demonstrate how he intends to hold these providers to account.

This summer, CRC owners were in fact given an additional £22 million to help prop up their finances and placate the shareholders. Everyone, including the companies themselves, know these are losing contracts with very few likely to make a profit at the end of their 10-year term.

Clearly that “magic money tree” has been given another good shake as further research by the European Journal (OJEC) has revealed an additional bung of jaw-dropping proportions — £277m of taxpayers’ cash — for the CRC empire over the next four years.

This has rightly caused outrage among Napo members, trying desperately to deal with the shambles while their real-terms pay has reduced hugely in comparison with other professions.

Napo has raised these developments with the Commons public accounts committee and the justice select committee.

While the Probation Inspectorate says that the public National Probation Service (NPS) is reportedly doing better in terms of quality, the organisation is in a mess behind the scenes. It is not sustainable in terms of staffing and resources; its staff have been made civil servants, placing new restrictions on them, and the ICT system that runs their pay and HR is failing dismally. It’s so bad in fact, that many staff were not paid for up to eight weeks, hundreds of staff haven’t had their pension contributions made or allowances paid and Napo has been forced to report the organisation to the Pensions Regulator.

So where do we go next? Napo’s main objective is to work with the Ministry of Justice to try to get the system to work more effectively, to safeguard the public and to try and protect our members’ terms and conditions, and hold providers to account for their failings.

Napo is also looking forwards by developing an operational plan that works beyond the end of the contracts. As the only professional association for the probation service our members have the skills and experience to lead on best-practice models to provide a service that works for local communities and for service users.

This is no mean feat given the chaos we are in now, but there are a number of possibilities on the horizon. With police and crime commissioners now taking an interest and metro mayors calling for greater devolution and transparency, we may be able to build a bespoke probation service that works for everyone.

Our biggest challenge will be convincing the current government to cut its ties with those in the private sector who would gladly have their contracts renewed.

We need to convince the government that probation must work if we are to see a reduction in serious further offences which increased last year by 26 per cent in England and Wales, lower prison numbers and real initiatives to try to solve the crisis in Britain’s prisons.

This will not be easy. It will require all stakeholders and voices in the justice system to speak up and continue their campaigning. We also need sentencing guidelines to be reviewed, the judiciary to have confidence in community sentences again and sheer hard work to convince probation staff of the idea that we can repair the damage.

Ideally, we need a Labour government that has pledged to reverse these disastrous reforms.

Ian Lawrence is general secretary of Napo.


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