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The story of probation (re-)unification
Research unearths the story of probation (re-)unification through the views of the civil servants who designed & implemented it.

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Making good?

Readers still trying to make sense of Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) and its reversal might like to read a new piece of research by Harry Annison and colleagues published in the current edition of the British Journal of Criminology. Entitled “Making Good?: A study of how senior penal policy makers narrate policy reversal”, the study is based on confidential interviews with 19 national policy participants who were closely involved with the development, decision-making and implementation of probation (re-)unification. It’s a fascinating read which reveals both the “tragic and heroic” facets of one of the biggest policy reversals in recent British (well, English & Welsh) political history. 

A dynamic process

The reversal of policy was driven, as readers will be well aware, by a clear consensus generated by a host of reports by the probation inspectorate, National Audit Office and Justice Select Committee which found that the TR just wasn’t working. The political imperative for a change in direction was accelerated when two of the private companies delivering work with low and medium risk offenders through the vehicle of Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) went into administration in quick succession in early 2019 (Working Links in the February, Interserve in the March).

The authors describe the substantial shift in the political parameters surrounding the reunification process which started with a mandate:

“to look at a system that looked relatively similar to the split in the probation service at the time, between CRCs and the NPS (National Probation Service)”.

The process ended rather differently with all offender management and community payback returned to one, now centralised, Probation Service. Indeed, many lamented that the innovations and positive change that had been achieved under TR had been lost along the way.

Key drivers

In addition to the public and continuing failure of a divided TR system, the researchers highlight a number of other key drivers through the eyes of those designing and advocating for a new structure for probation. I list some of the main ones below, illustrated by key interviewee quotes from the study:

“Grip”

“You can’t outsource a service like probation, because you can’t stomach it failing. That’s the bottom line… [it] is about control and certainty. So it’s having the service under our wing, having it whole, having the resilience that gives us, and being able to respond to the need to do things differently.”

Unification as key to getting money from the Treasury

“Probation needed to have the strength of its totality to be a major player, and to draw down the kinds of investment [obtained].”

“Significant extra investment that we’ve managed to secure from the Treasury. It’s the 155m uplift a year, on a baseline of just under 1bn, so it’s about 15%, 16%, something like that, which is… I can’t remember the last time we were successful, as a department, in getting that as a permanent uplift.”

The change to end change

Reunification was justified on the basis that it would resolve the constant churn that has beset probation for decades:

“We hope it’s the last generational structural reform.”

Proper commitment from Government

Re-unification was, in the view of many interviewees, a statement of an increasing commitment by government to probation, as being a crucial public service that had been overlooked for too long.

It was ‘one of the highest priority areas’ in the funding discussions surrounding the Spending Review.

TR was unfixable

While many in the probation community deplored the privatisation of probation, policy interviewees focused more on the fact that there was no way to rescue TR:

“The modelling and the volumes were so wildly wrong that [TR] was doomed to failure from the beginning… The split between high-risk cases and non high-risk cases and that kind of horizontal split between the NPS and the outsourced market I think was flawed.”

“When we contracted out to private providers, they were not financially viable contracts.”

COVID the decisive factor

Perhaps most interesting at all was the view that actually, there would have been much more of (public/private) mixed model had COVID not struck in the middle of the re-design:

“When COVID hit, I thought it was a spectacularly bad idea to risk [tendering services including supervision of unpaid work]. We just had no idea what the health of these private sector companies were. We didn’t really know what that appetite was to provide unpaid work”

“[Without COVID] I think we would have ended up with a more nationalized model in Wales, as was the intention, and then more of a mixed economy in England.”

Personal reflections

The interviews on which the research is based were conducted between May and August last year, one year after the reunification project was completed.  It is disappointing to reflect that today, despite all these efforts to “fix” probation, the outlook remains pessimistic now more than two years after reunification. The headline problems are continued poor performance (in many aspects, the inspectorate has assessed current performance as worse than during the TR years) and – the clearly related – ongoing under-staffing problems.

My personal view is that the civil servants charged with designing a privatised probation system and then with reversing it were put in an impossible position on both occasions, faced with no clear mission (other than political ones), with their hands tied behind their back and an insanely challenging timescale.

I share the view of the outgoing Chief Probation Inspector Justin Russell, that probation will only flourish again in a localised system with local accountability and local autonomy. To me, the massive probation regions which (with the exceptions of London, Greater Manchester & Wales) are not aligned with the structure of any of probation’s key partners (police, health, local authorities) make any form of localism more or less impossible. They also generate their own inexorable drive towards more and more bureaucracy, to me absolutely embodied by the creation of another level of very senior management via the One HMPPS project.

TR failed because of its design. One of the problems was the  large non-aligned probation regions to take into account the needs of the market for large contract areas.

Yet, senior civil servants were told to retain these regional structures in designing re-unification, as one interviewee says:

“So, things might change over the top and around the regions, but the regions will, in a sense, be a constant in the way that we deliver probation.”

I can’t help but be reminded of the Great British Bake Off where, almost every week, someone has to start their “show-stopper” from scratch because when they take their cake out of the oven it just hasn’t risen. They know it’s pointless to do the design and decoration work on top of a flawed foundation. Unfortunately, senior HMPPS civil servants weren’t given that choice.

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