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The end of probation?
Will the merger of the prison and probation services lead to the loss of probation identity?

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A new leadership model

The MoJ has recently announced what it describes as ” a new leadership model” for HMPPS. Two new Director General (DG) posts will be created; DG Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and a DG Operations. The two new DG posts will replace the existing DG Prisons and DG Probation, Wales and Youth posts. This is described as being the first step on “our journey to becoming One HMPPS”. The one HMPPS model is promoted as having three main advantages which:

  1. Allows for a “whole sentence” approach to the way we deliver our services, ensuring offender management services are better joined up across the whole of the offender journey;
  2. Empowers decision making at a regional level, enabling our leaders to ensure that the services they offer are tailored to the needs of and improve outcomes for users of our services; and
  3. Supports the sharing of resources, knowledge, information and skills through a new organisational structure that enables better outcomes and provides value for money.

Probation concerns

Many probation folk have complained about being part of NOMS and HMPPS, feeling that they are the Cinderella part of the organisation with the greater size of and public interest in prisons meaning that probation concerns are always seen as a lower priority. Both the Probation Institute and the National Association of Probation Officers have issued strong statements protesting about the merger.

Both organisations question both the principle of the merger and its timing. In terms of timing, they argue that Probation has undergone too much turbulence over recent years with the decision to split and semi-privatise the service under Transforming Rehabilitation doing much damage to morale and causing many experienced probation officers to leave the service. The reunification of the service is still only 14 months old and very much a work in progress. The probation inspectorate is yet to find a delivery unit providing a good service. The HMPPS merger is seen as yet another poorly thought out and rushed initiative which will have long-standing (and possibly irreversible) impact on the probation service.

In terms of more fundamental opposition to the merger, both organisations point out the very different working cultures, vocational paths and values of the prison and probation service.

Some of the points made include:

  • Probation is a profession with a long-standing requirement for probation officers to be educated to Higher Education Level 6 while there is no equivalent professional qualification for prison officers.
  • Different cultures with the probation service more focused on desistance with the prison service more concerned with a safe prison environment.
  • Different leadership styles with the prison service operating in more of a command and control structure while the probation approach champions practitioner autonomy and individual professional judgment.

Fundamental to the concerns of both organisations is the discomfort that many probation people feel in being part of the civil service under the reunified arrangements. The Probation Institute spells out its concerns:

In our view the Civil Service is a wholly inappropriate location for the Probation Service. Indicators of this inappropriateness include:

  • Ministerial control taking precedence over professional advice (recent decisions concerning recommendations in Parole Reports)

  • Severe constraints on Probation Practitioners from sharing professional concerns in public arena, including publishing

  • Lack of external scrutiny (only the MOJ funded HMIPP Inspectorates currently scrutinise the work of the Probation Service.

     

Prison and probation services have been trying to implement a “whole sentence” approach for many years with little success despite the obvious benefits of improved “continuity of care” on prison release. I can understand the MoJ’s thinking (although not its rationale) that this would be easier to deliver within an integrated service.

Personally, my main concern is that a merger will destroy the last vestiges of probation being a local service, trying to meet the needs of both local communities and people on probation. The current regional structure is, to me, lacking in any meaning – the probation regions do not marry up with any other relevant public services (police, local authorities etc.) with the exception of the London, Greater Manchester & Wales areas.

One of the original driving forces behind the failed Transforming Rehabilitation experiment was to get probation officers out from in front of their computer screens so they could spend more time with people on supervision. The combination of COVID and the move to a central civil service structure, compounded by persistent under-staffing has resulted in a service which spends a disproportionate amount of its time writing assessments and risk management plans rather than helping people turn round their lives.

There are many dedicated and committed probation staff but neither the current working environment nor the planned merger seem likely to enable them to convert this positive attitude into constructive practice.

Please do share your views on the proposal in the comment section below.

 

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4 Responses

  1. They’ve been trying this for decades now – it was to be a ‘corrections service’ not that long ago. I always thought they ultimately balked at the idea of letting a load more probation staff onto civil service pension schemes…..
    Agree entirely it would represent the death knell of a local probation service and end any lingering social work ethos. But the silence from probation leaders has already lead to it’s diminution.
    That said there will be some undoubted ‘process’ improvements achieved through integration.
    My other fear would what starts in probation soon seeps into social work – the shift from support to control is pernicious and relentless.

  2. If one can imagine a large pair of arms, reaching out from Westminster, seeking to encompass the whole of Britain, then one can understand when I say that ministers are attempting to draw in – to centralise – every public entity through their incessant programme of power grabbing.

    Grayling tried it – and failed. Raab tried it – and failed. Howard tried it – and failed. How many more attempts will be made before the politicians accept defeat and move on to something more on their level.

    There are many reasons for opposing this merger, all of which are discussed above. I, for one, am vehemently opposed to merging the two organisations, primarily because it’s so soon after Reunification.

    Ministers have a habit of doing this; for some reason, they are unable to let the dust settle, before they’re off again, trying to outdo their predecessors in the perennial Battle of the Egos.

    It really is time for machine learning!

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