Last Friday (23 April 2021), the House of Commons Justice Committee published its report from its inquiry into the future of the probation service. The Justice Committee report welcomed the decision to re-unify the Probation Service. It warned, however, that after the disruption of the past seven years these changes must be fully thought through, properly funded and expected to remain in place for a period of decades rather than years. The Committee sought an assurance on this from the Ministry of Justice.
The Justice Committee report also acknowledged that the transition to the new Unified Model of delivery was a “huge operational challenge” in the context of the pandemic, including changes in management systems, IT technology and buildings leases.
“The last few years have been very difficult for the hardworking men and women who look after our probation services. First, they had to cope with a misguided and badly implemented re-organisation. Then Covid struck, making everyone’s job doubly hard. I hope our report will help shape a much better experience. There are lots of recommendations in it but let me draw attention to a simple and important one. No probation officer should have to cope with a caseload of more than 50 clients. If we can stick to that rule of thumb, I think we have a fighting chance of improving the situation.”
The Justice Committee report welcomed the decision to re-unify the Probation Service. It warned, however, that after the disruption of the past seven years these changes must be fully thought through, properly funded and expected to remain in place for a period of decades rather than years. The Committee sought an assurance on this from the Ministry of Justice.
The Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell, pointed out in evidence to the Committee:
“We are talking about 113,000 cases transferring [back] into the National Probation Service and you do not want to lose any of them along the way”.
The Committee urged the Ministry of Justice to publish a detailed timetable setting out milestones towards the Unified Model going live in June and requested monthly updates on progress made against those targets.
Some services will still be contracted out
Although the new Unified Model for delivering probation has re-unified the service, it still has provision for contracting out some services to be provided by private or voluntary organisations. This is called the ‘Dynamic Framework’. It is a commissioning mechanism for providing resettlement services needed after release from prison as well as rehabilitation interventions aimed at reducing reoffending for those on community orders.
Witnesses appearing before the Committee broadly welcomed this initiative although there were some concerns about how it may work in practice, particularly for smaller, third sector or voluntary providers of services who might be unprepared, or not have the resources, to tackle a complex commissioning process.
The Committee also raised concerns about the potential for contracts to be underfunded and recommended that the Ministry of Justice set out how they are modelling these contracts financially, and what is being done to ensure that contracts are sufficiently resourced and deliverable.
Support for those leaving prison
The report notes that successful rehabilitation relies on a successful transition from prison to probation. This includes good communication between soon-to-be released detainees and probation officers, as well as the provision of help in areas such as accommodation, finances, education and employment.
The Justice Committee welcomed the additional Ministry of Justice investment which had resulted in improved services for people leaving prison and said it hoped the service would continue to improve under the new Unified Model coming into operation in June.
However, the Committee asked the Ministry to set out in detail how it intended to manage pre-release services under the new model. There were many practical challenges to address such as security clearances for probation officers visiting prisons and access to areas in prison buildings where meetings could be held.
The workforce needed to do the job
The Select Committee notes that low staffing levels have historically been a problem in the sector. The report acknowledges that staff are working through the pandemic and against the backdrop of a second major reform programme in recent years. The Committee thanked and praised probation staff for their hard work and dedication, particularly during the past year.
The Committee found that probation caseloads are still too high, even “unmanageable” in some cases and recommended that the Ministry of Justice commit to ensuring that individual probation officer caseloads do not exceed 50.
The Ministry said 1000 new trainee probation staff would be taken on in 2020/2021. Other witnesses said it would take a long time to train these recruits and added that the government’s plan to recruit 20,000 new police officers was also likely to increase demand for probation services.
The Justice Committee report said it welcomed the government’s commitment to employ 1000 new recruits but said it was not clear whether this was in addition to the 464 vacancies that already existed. It asked the Ministry for clarification on this point.
The Committee also welcomed the government’s commitment to employ more ex-offenders as role models and support staff.
Thanks to Drew Beamer for use of the header image previously published on Unsplash.