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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

TR will never deliver the kind of probation service we need

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Justice Committee demands review into alternative system for delivering probation by February 2019.

Major questions to be answered

Today (22 June 2018), the House of Commons Justice Committee published its most damning report so far on Transforming Rehabilitation, the government’s part-privatisation of the probation service. The report concludes:

The scale of the issues facing the sector is of great concern to us given that evidence suggests that if probation services are delivered well they can have a positive impact on the prospects of someone receiving probation support and wider society.

The main conclusions and recommendations are set out below:

Contracts

The National Audit Office identified in a Report in December 2017 that the Ministry of Justice had had to change the fixed-cost assumptions in their contracts with CRCs from 20% to 77%. In this Report we conclude that this raises serious questions about the Ministry of Justice’s reluctance to challenge overoptimistic bids and its ability to let contracts. We also call for there to be more transparency on the changes made to the Ministry’s contracts with CRCs and what the Ministry expects to get in return for additional funding negotiated by providers.

In this Report we criticise the Ministry’s constant renegotiation of CRC contracts but we welcome the Ministry being open to the idea of terminating contracts due to poor performance with CRCs before they are due to expire in 2022. If any contracts are terminated prior to 2022 we caution that transition plans must be in place which make sure that: offenders receive the support they require to be rehabilitated, and their risk of reoffending does not increase. The Ministry should undertake a public consultation on any further changes to ensure a wide range of views on contractual arrangements. This public consultation should consider the number of CRCs and the bodies eligible to bid for CRC contracts.

Provider performance

CRC performance in reducing reoffending, particularly the number of times an offender reoffends, has been disappointing. We conclude that we do not think that the payment by results mechanism provides sufficient incentives to providers to reduce reoffending, but we also do not believe that CRCs should carry full responsibility for poor performance in reducing reoffending. We recommend that the Ministry of Justice review the payment by results mechanism and set out where it should be amended.

The Ministry of Justice has not been applying the financial penalties (service credits) as envisaged in the contracts with CRCs and it remains unclear to us how the Ministry of Justice is tackling underperformance on a day-to-day basis. We call on the Ministry to set out what other steps it is taking to address underperformance.

NPS-CRC split

Under the TR reforms, offenders were split between the NPS and CRCs according to their risk of harm. This has complicated the delivery of probation services and created a “two-tier” system. There are co-ordination challenges and despite work going on at a local and national level to try and resolve these issues, problem remain. A swift resolution to these problems is needed. The Rate Card (the list of available specialist services and programmes that CRCs offer and which the NPS can purchase from the CRC) processes are cumbersome and create barriers for the NPS to use these services.

This split causes problems in the delivery of probation services as the risk of an offender can change throughout their time on probation. We call on the Government to ask HMI Probation to conduct a review of how offenders should be distributed between the NPS and CRCs, and to investigate the impact of changing offender risk and how the NPS and CRCs manage this matter.

The voluntary sector

We find in this Report that the Government have failed to open up the probation market, a key aim of the then Government when they introduced the TR reforms. The voluntary sector is less involved in probation than they were before the TR reforms were implemented. This is of deep concern to us given the real benefits that the voluntary sector, especially smaller organisations, can bring to probation. There is a lack of transparency on which voluntary sector organisations are involved in probation contracts. We recommend that the Ministry of Justice publishes more information on probation supply chains and considers what benefits might be gained from reintroducing targets for voluntary sector involvement. We also recommend that the Government should consider whether involving some of the smaller, more specialised voluntary sector organisations could be incentivised.

We also call on the Ministry of Justice to look at the contractual barriers to greater voluntary sector involvement, including those relating to sub-contracts.

Staff

Staff morale is at an “all-time low” and staff have high caseloads, in some instances they are handling cases for which they do not have adequate training, and they feel de-professionalised. This is the concerning evidence that we heard. We call on the Ministry of Justice to publish a probation workforce strategy, which covers staff in the NPS and CRCs, setting out the basics with regard to professional standards, training and maximum caseloads/workloads.

Short custodial sentences

We find it extremely worrying that sentencer confidence in community alternatives to short custodial sentences is so low, particularly as the latter have worse outcomes in terms of reoffending. We recommend that the Government should introduce a presumption against short custodial sentences, as the Scottish Government have indicated they will do.

Under the TR reforms compulsory 12-month post-sentence supervision was extended to short custodial offenders. We find that this one-size fits all approach lacks the flexibility to meet the varying needs of offenders. We call on the Government to consider getting rid of this requirement.

Through the Gate (TTG)

One of the key components of the TR reforms was that all offenders would receive an element of continuous support from custody into the community. The current TTG provision merely signposts offenders to other organisations and is wholly inadequate. We recommend that the Ministry of Justice reviews the purpose of TTG and the support it provides to offenders (including whether it should introduce a prisoner discharge pack, based on need). We also recommend that real consideration should be given to whether it is appropriate to release prisoners, with few family ties, from custody on a Friday because access to Government services can be difficult.

The TR reforms introduced a 12-week intervention point: 12 weeks prior to release, pre-release resettlement activity (such as arranging accommodation, dealing with finance, benefits and debts and support related to education, training and employment) commences. We find that this approach is too inflexible and does not reflect the varying, and often complex, needs of offenders. We propose that offenders should begin receiving pre-release resettlement activity no later than 12 weeks prior to release.

Types of activities and frequency of contact

There has been evidence following the TR reforms that some CRC providers supervise their offenders remotely, over the telephone. We conclude that kiosk meetings are never likely to be appropriate and that telephone supervision should only be used in exceptional circumstances and not in isolation. Further, delivery of probation services must be supported by credible evidence. The Ministry of Justice should set out its minimum expectations to providers on the balance between remote and face-to-face supervision and on where providers meet those they are supervising.

We were concerned that only one in two individuals are supervised by the same officer throughout their case given the strong evidence that continuity of support allows a trusting relationship to be developed. National guidance should be introduced.

We heard in our inquiry that some of the work offenders were required to do under unpaid work orders was meaningless. We recommend that, where possible, unpaid work should contribute to the local community and be linked to education and training.

Specific needs of offenders

The issues facing offenders on probation are not all within the gift of probation services to resolve, and therefore a cross-Government approach is needed and organisations need to work together.

There are strong links between homelessness and reoffending, therefore we find that it is unacceptable that any local council has been able to deem an individual who has served a custodial sentence as making themselves intentionally homeless. We call on the Government to amend its guidance for Local Authorities to make it explicit that an individual who is homeless because of having served a custodial sentence should be deemed vulnerable for the purposes of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. We further recommend that the UK Government should work with the Welsh Government to ensure that their homelessness legislation takes due account of the risks of reoffending.

Currently offenders cannot apply for Universal Credit until they are released from custody. For many this can mean that they have the £46 discharge grant to live on for a number of weeks. We call on the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Work and Pensions to enable offenders serving custodial sentences to apply for Universal Credit (UC) prior to their release from custody so that they receive UC on the day of release. In the interim we recommend that the Ministry of Justice set up a transitional credit fund for those offenders who have insufficient funds to provide for the basics.

Longer-term future of Transforming Rehabilitation

On the longer-term future of the TR reforms we conclude that we are unconvinced that the TR model can ever deliver an effective or viable probation service. We recommend that the Ministry of Justice initiate a review into the long-term future and sustainability of delivering probation services under the models introduced by the TR reforms, including how performance under the TR system might compare to an alternative system for delivering probation.

Analysis

The Justice Committee has a strong history of holding the government to account on Transforming Rehabilitation over recent years. Most of the issues highlighted above are well known to those working in the sector. 

Perhaps the most important component of the Committee’s report is the demand for a review which looks at alternative models. The MoJ has been working on this for well over a year now and the latest rumours to reach me suggest an even more fragmented and complex system is being constructed out of the ashes of TR. While it seems clear that the role of private Community Rehabilitation Companies will diminish, it is far from clear where the responsibility for the offender management of low and medium risk offenders will sit.  Whatever solution is proposed, surely the MoJ must seek to create a more coherent structure than we have now.

 

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2 Responses

  1. Regaining the trust of Magistrates and Judges for Community Sentencing options is imperative, in terms of achieving positive outcomes for victims, society and offenders. At one stage, (1980’s – 2000s) our Probation Service was the envy of the World, with numerous individual case histories providing substantial proof that positive and patient interventions could have a profound effect on the behaviour of offenders presenting all levels of Risk. Low staff morale, cost cutting and deeply flawed communications processes as introduced by the TR split, have severely impacted on performance and notably Probation’s ability to attract Sentencers to the types of disposals that they provide. The CRC / NPS split should be abandoned and equally, a presumption that Prison represents the safest and toughest sentencing option should be dismissed. One to one relationships with offended can have powerful impacts and equally, group work programmes can result in insight and behaviours modification. It is time that the importance of such dedicated approaches should be re-established rather than denigrated by the predominance of investment in Prisons.

    As a senior manager who worked in Probation for over 40 years, post retirement I maintain a close view on what is happening in the Service and can only say that it fills me with sadness.

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