The current model for the delivery of probation services in England and Wales is irredeemably flawed, and a major rethink is needed to create a system that is fit for the future, according to Dame Glenys Stacey, in her final annual report before she finishes her three year tenure as Chief Inspector of Probation.
In a lengthy report which cements Dame Glenys’ reputation for straight talking she depicts a sector under exceptional strain:
- both the public-sector National Probation Service (NPS) and privately-owned Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) are failing to meet some of their performance targets. The NPS is performing better overall, whereas eight out of ten CRCs inspected this year received the lowest possible rating – ‘Inadequate’ – for the implementation and delivery of probation supervision. In too many cases, there is not enough purposeful activity.
- the probation profession has been diminished. There is a national shortage of qualified probation professionals, and too much reliance on unqualified or agency staff.
- in the day-to-day work of probation professionals, there has been a drift away from practice informed by evidence. The critical relationship between the individual and the probation worker is not sufficiently protected in the current probation model.
Dame Glenys said:
Probation must be delivered locally, yet the service is now split at a local level. Despite capable leaders, there has been a deplorable diminution of the probation profession and a widespread move away from practice informed by evidence. This is largely due to the impact of commerce, and contracts that treat probation as a transactional business. Professional ethics can buckle under such pressures, and the evidence we have is that this has happened to some extent.
The Chief Inspector is clear that although the intention to terminate CRC contracts early and move to better-funded and better-structured contracts will improve matters, it will not be enough.
Any new probation model must focus on quality. In my view, effective probation work is most likely when good leaders are free to manage, motivate and develop professional staff, who are in turn able to build challenging but supportive relationships with offenders. Specialist and local services are also crucial to help offenders turn their lives around.
With the MoJ still in the process of deciding on the form of the next iteration of Transforming Rehabilitation (conflicting messages keep emerging from Petty France about the extent and nature of private sector involvement) Dame Glenys makes a timely appeal for probation structures to be built on four key design principles:
- probation services to be evidence based. Work to reduce reoffending should draw on research and evidence, and new initiatives should be evaluated and the results added to the evidence base.
- probation services that meet both the needs of victims and the individuals under supervision. Probation work should be of the right quality, whoever is providing it.
- an integrated and professional service. The probation service should have enough qualified professionals with access to the right facilities, services and information (and, where necessary, protections) to enable them to do their jobs well.
- a probation service able to command the confidence of the judiciary, victims, the professional staff employed and the wider public.
The report is 108 pages long and divided into two main sections. The first provides a detailed summary of the role and organisation of the probation service. One might think that this is superfluous in an annual report but the section makes sense for two main reasons:
- It provides an authoritative and up-to-date description of the work of probation; in itself an invaluable resource as anyone who has ever had to try to explain what probation is for to people from outside (or sometimes even inside) the criminal justice system is likely to agree.
- It gives a clear account of the significant changes which have taken place in probation over the last decade, both in terms of government expectations and the demographic and offending histories of those supervised by the service.
The section pulls together the latest data with specially commissioned graphics and will form the basis of another blog post next week. As a taster, see the graphic above which condenses the probation service’s workflow in such a helpful manner.
The second section presents a systematic evaluation of the current provision with an emphasis on the many failings of the current system with a focus on how things need to change. Again, I will provide more details in a subsequent blog post.
This report is written explicitly to urge ministers to redesign the probation service in line with the principles set out above. Taken with the recent National Audit Office report which also highlights the dangers of a split service, the MoJ will find it hard to argue that it has not received helpful advice on the future of probation. The aspect of Dame Gleny’s report which I personally find most heartening is her insistence that for many years probation worked well and that if the new system allows probation staff to use their experience and skills and focus on their interactions with the offenders they supervise (rather than have an eye on the requirements of commercial contracts), it will do so again. I will leave the last word to the outgoing Chief Inspector:
Services of the right quality are most likely if probation leaders are able to lead, motivate, engage and develop a sufficient number of probation professionals who in turn can exercise their professional judgement in each case and tailor supervision in each case, with access to a range of specialist services to meet needs in each case. Leaders can then be held fully to account for delivery, for the service’s adherence to the evidence base and for value for money.
Experience has shown that it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible to reduce the probation service to a set of contractual measures. I urge the government to consider carefully the future model for probation services.
In the interests of transparency, I should declare that I am a member of the HMI Probation Advisory Board.