The risks of TR
This is the 6th and final post in a series on the National Audit Office’s first official assessment of the new probation system introduced by the MoJ’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms (summarised here). It focuses on Part Four of the NAO report which seeks to identify the risks to the new system going forwards.
Commercial pressures on CRCs
The contracts signed with the new owners of community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) commit them to achieving economies and efficiencies sufficient to fund the costs of expanded services, including ‘Through the Gate’ and supervision of offenders with short sentences. Bidders offered cost savings ranging from nil to more than 20% relative to the MoJ’s maximum annual payments as the NAO’s anonymised graphic shows below (the bottom 8 rows relate to the successful bidders):
Each transformation programme depends on significant privately financed investment, mainly in the first two years of the seven-year contracts in areas such as:
- wholesale replacement of inefficient technology developed and used by probation trusts, particularly systems for offender case management;
- implementing mobile working, and reducing CRCs’ office space;
- reducing the number of professionally qualified probation staff and redirecting their time towards working on probation, using technology to automate more administrative tasks; and
- consolidating the separate back-offices run by probation trusts.
The NAO sets out how CRCs now face commercial and contractual pressures to deliver these changes. The extent and pace of CRCs’ transformation plans have become more uncertain because their case volumes are much lower than planned during bidding. Volumes are down between 6% and 36% against the mid-point agreed in the contracts. The 3 main reasons for reduced volumes appear to be:
- a general decline in the number of cases going through the justice system, particularly owing to the reduction in crime;
- a changed mix of offenders, leading to fewer than expected new cases being allocated to CRCs, and a greater share being retained by the National Probation Service (NPS) – around 21% of cases against initial assumptions of a 13% case share. The NAO says this appears to be due to the shift in the types of cases being brought to court, although others have questioned the basis of the data on which the original calculations were made; and
- a one-third reduction in the volume of accredited programmes, requiring CRCs to provide alternative activities for offenders not reflected in measured volumes – this may partly be the effect of new targets requiring the NPS to allocate cases within two days which has reduced its ability to assess eligibility for accredited programmes.
Obviously, this likely significant reduction in income has had a big impact on CRCs. The NAO identified a number of issues in the 4 CRC areas where they did fieldwork:
- overall difficulty in planning and budgeting;
- increased caution in entering into commitments with suppliers, typically deferring or shortening commitments with them, or providing less certainty as to volumes;
- reduced clarity over the timing or level of investment, particularly on ICT and estates transformation; and
- reduced clarity over future staffing levels, and reconsidering whether to further outsource support services.
The NAO note that other options for providers include taking reduced profits and making further changes to offender supervision.
Risks for CRCs
The NAO identifies significant additional risks from this situation and highlights the challenges for the MoJ:
Cost reductions may stabilise the financial positions of CRCs, but could limit innovation and compromise service delivery. They could also trigger financial penalties or, potentially, termination of contracts. Such scenarios would test the Ministry’s contract management capability, particularly its operational assurance of the quality of rehabilitation services for offenders.
Embedding the NPS
The NAO discusses the future of the NPS rather briefly but does seem concerned about its prospects. It summarises the NPS E3 (effective, efficient and excellent) blueprint for the future which covers six areas of core service, including court delivery and community supervision. The NPS has surveyed staff views on the blueprint and each NPS region also has its own ‘champion’ to communicate ongoing transformation to staff; the NAO highlights its concerns:
- Some 17% of 4,626 staff survey responses to the blueprint were positive, while 65% were neutral or offered suggestions for improvement. Transformation activity is likely to be ongoing over the next two years. The risk is that the staff ‘change fatigue’ we observed during our fieldwork may continue.
- We noted limited focus on corporate support services that are crucial enablers for transformation.
- It is unclear how the NPS will ensure regions (and constituent local units) comply with the blueprint’s ways of working.
Perhaps the most important element of Transforming Rehabilitation (and the one with the most potential for good) was the extension of mandatory probation supervision to all short term prisoners (those serving more than 1 day and less than one year) for the first time. The NAO found insufficient information to make any judgement on this recent element of TR (which started on 1 May 2015). It did however highlight initial problems “associated with ambitious timescales”:
Some providers encountered challenges in accessing prisons and mobilising their resettlement suppliers. NOMS’ assurance checks found that providers initially focused too much on whether offenders complete the process, which is one of the CRC service levels, rather than the quality of their resettlement plans.
So where does this NAO report leave us in assessing the performance of the new probation system?
There has clearly been considerable confusion and a large number of difficulties in implementing the new system. Perhaps slightly surprisingly, there have been just as many problems for the remaining public NPS as the new private CRCs.
While it is understandable that the NAO has reported now – such a large change obviously merits proper public scrutiny – a full report at the end of this year might have been preferable when difficulties could no longer be attributed to teething problems and we could get a clearer sense of whether positive change will emerge or whether we are at the relatively early stages of a very large car crash.
The NAO has, however, identified a number of very serious risks and it’s hard to escape the feeling that probation is currently teetering rather precariously on the edge of what could be a very serious collapse in terms of rehabilitating offenders and keeping the public safe.
In the near future we will be particularly reliant on the probation inspectorate to get an accurate picture of the direction of travel of both the NPS and CRCs.