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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Re-imagining the profession of probation officer

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Fourth in a series responding to the MoJ's consultation on the future of probation. Getting a workforce with the right training and skills.

A unified probation identity

This is the fourth in a series of posts exploring the Ministry of Justice’s plans to re-design its Transforming Rehabilitation project. The MoJ says it wants our views on how best to re-design probation and asks 17 key questions in its consultation document, “Strengthening probation, building confidence”.

This week’s post examines three more questions with the aim of highlighting key concerns and, I hope, of promoting positive ideas about how the MoJ can design a better probation service. The question numbers refer to their numbering in the consultation document, so this week’s post starts with question 10.

Please do take issue with me and set out your views and thoughts in the comments section below.

Question 10: Which skills, training or competencies do you think are essential for responsible officers authorised to deliver probation services, and how do you think these differ depending on the types of offenders staff are working with?

One of the key outcomes, the MoJ is looking for from the second version of Transforming Rehabilitation is the re-creation of a probation identity with staff from both sides of the public/private divide feeling that they are part of the same profession and more movement — both ways — across that divide.

The consultation document commits to the development of a new probation workforce strategy which will more clearly specify the training, skills and competencies that staff will require for different roles. The MoJ also intends to develop a framework of recognised training for probation staff to maintain standards across the profession and provide staff “with ways to evidence transferable skills as they progress in their careers, while still allowing scope for providers to develop their own approaches to training and development”.

This workforce development strategy will have to take into account the difficulties that NPS and CRCs have had in recruiting staff in some parts of the country. The NPS has addressed this via a significant recruitment drive; whether CRCs can attract qualified and experienced staff seems more problematic.

To turn to the consultation question, I am not convinced that the key abilities and skills to be a good probation officer in a CRC are inherently different than those working for the NPS. The latter group must cope with the pressures of working with a group of people who are, by definition, those who commit crimes doing the most harm but CRC offender managers must supervise large numbers of people, very many of who are perpetrators of domestic abuse in the knowledge that most individuals convicted of a serious further offence while on supervision are low or medium risk offenders.

Given the current mainstream practice of people learning on the job, it seems to me that high quality apprenticeships is the natural way to achieve a suitably skilled workforce. I know that Kent, Surrey & Sussex CRC is working with Interserve – who run the Humberside, Lincolnshire & North Yorkshire CRC – as well as Skills for Justice on a trailblazer apprenticeships project

Question 11: How would you see a national professional register operating across all providers – both public and private sector, and including agency staff – and what information should it capture?

The MoJ is keen to assure that all probation providers use properly qualified staff and intend to develop a national professional register as a way of maintaining a single list of those staff who are trained and authorised to deliver probation services:

As well as recognising the specialism and value of probation work, this register will ensure that staff who lack the requisite qualifications, are subject to relevant disciplinary processes or have been previously dismissed for poor performance or malpractice, cannot undertake roles for which they are not suitable. We will therefore develop, in consultation with staff, providers and unions, a process by which, subject to appropriate safeguards, staff could be removed from the register and their authorisation to practise revoked in certain circumstances.

The Probation Institute has already developed such a register but there are no statutory  requirements governing its use. There are also no details as to whether probation staff will be required to pay to keep up an annual membership of the register, as happens in other professions such as nursing.

Question 12: Do you agree that changes to the structure and leadership of probation areas are sufficient to achieve integration across all providers of probation services?

One of the drivers for the re-design of TR was the acknowledgement that the NPS/CRC split was failing to deliver an integrated service both to courts and to the offenders the probation service supervises and supports. For this reason, the MoJ has re-structured the CRC system moving from the current 20 CRCs in England to 10 CRCs with the new contract areas designed to align with the NPS regions as shown below.

The MoJ sets its rationale for this change below:

10 probation areas in England should help simplify the system and remove the current problem of individual providers operating across different geographical areas. Fewer, larger delivery areas offer the chance to simplify the delivery of resettlement services, as it should be possible to reduce the proportion of resettlement prisons releasing to multiple areas. This also reduces the risks associated with offenders moving around the country – for example, there will be fewer occasions where a change of address requires the formal transfer of the case between providers.

The flip-side of the coin is that (with the exception of London), many CRCs comprise several (between 3 and 7 by my reckoning) Police & Crime Commissioner areas making strong strategic links with PCCs problematic.

Whether the appointment of one HMPPS senior leader for each area will make a substantial difference is unclear and what the relationship will be between the CRC and this leader is not defined.

Regular readers will know that I find the logic of a fragmented service difficult to follow. If we must have a mixed economy, why not have 10 (or 39, the number of English PCCs) local probation services delivered by public, private or third sector bodies where one organisation is responsible for delivering all the responsibilities of the probation service? This one body can then have one straightforward set of working relationships with other criminal justice and social justice services.

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All Probation Posts are sponsored by Unilink

With over 20 years’ experience in the criminal justice sector, Unilink is a world leader in probation and community corrections software applications, as well as prisoner self-service, prisoner/case management and prisoner communications. Unilink’s integrated suite of products provide a complete digital solution enabling efficient running of prisons and probation. Underpinned by biometrics it integrates seamlessly to deliver security, efficiency and value – while being proven to help rehabilitate prisoners.

4 Responses

  1. Splitting local service provision is the worst element of the TR model – utterly post-rational. Any new model should build from reunification, although the different forms of culture shock that hit the two halves will mean even that won’t be simple. Local NPS bosses policing NPS & CRC delivery looks hugely inadequate on its own. Local accountability & commissioning doesn’t have to rest with ‘owners’ so could feasibly take several forms but to work must be ‘independent’ of Ministers and shareholders if private sector stsy involved. Keeping them in may be politically easier for Tories but they must factor in the massive financial cost of delivering profits or any private model will fail.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Dean. I absolutely agree that the split system is the worst aspect of TR. We have worked hard across all social justice sectors for the last generation to join up and co-ordinate services. Introducing a fragmented probation service is, to my mind, a design fault which is very difficult to work around.

  2. Good probation practice is about getting to know offenders, their life circumstances, their relationships, activities and interests. Only with such knowledge, which is hard won, but nevertheless provides for the offender a genuine indication of interest in them, can really successful work be accomplished which can lead to changes in attitudes and behaviours and fewer victims in future. This can not be achieved by Probation Officers who are charged with sitting behind desks and completing standard proformas. Alongside properly tailored interviews, interaction with offenders in groups can be powerful, but the value of home visits and contacts with family, employers and others can not be understood and certainly shouldn’t be ignored. Come on Probation, you have such a potentially worthwhile job to do, enjoy the freedom and positivity that leaving your computers and desks can bring about.

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