Further privatisation, scrapping NPS – the latest twist in the probation service story?

Should the national service be scrapped and all probation be run privately?

UK - Surrey - HMP Downview

Through the gate: offenders often struggle adapting to life beyond bars.© Prisonimage.org

What is left of the National Probation Service should be disbanded. All forms of offender rehabilitation should be run privately.

These are the recommendations made by think tank Reform in a new report, Local commissioning, local solutions: devolving offender management.

Reform has based its “ambitious blueprint” for reform on the assumption that ‘offender management services’ should be designed, commissioned and delivered at a local level.

The report welcomes the Government’s £1.3bn reform programmes, which will see old prisons replaced with six new ‘reform prisons’ with increased autonomy. But is also says the reforms do not go “far enough, fast enough”.

It reads: “An integrated system which puts rehabilitation at its heart cannot be adequately achieved whilst the system remains driven by the centre and preoccupied principally with managing the prison population. ”

It goes on to say that all probation should be run by Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), which are currently responsible for 70 per cent of the probation service.

It argues that Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) should commission these services. They are sufficiently local, and have direct accountability to the electorate in the communities they serve.

The probation story so far

Around 70 per cent of the probation service was privatised when the Transforming Rehabilitation Act came into full force in February 2015. The Act created 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), which are effectively private providers that supervise low and medium risk offenders.

The National Probation Service (NPS), a public sector body, was made responsible for the circa 30,000 high-risk offenders.

Our reforms meant offenders sentenced to fewer than 12 months in prison would receive support on release for the first time.

Private probation groups are awarded extra payments if offend meeting sentence conditions.

Critics warned the Act would create “perverse incentives such that providers risk making losses if they seek to cut reoffending”. Meanwhile women’s rehabilitation centres complained of severe funding cuts and a failure to tailor services to women as well as men.

Check out our interactive timeline of the privatisation of the probation service

Criticism rolls in

The Ministry of Justice claims its figures have shown the performance of the new probation system is continually improving.

But roughly one year on from the privatisation of probation, a series of damning reports picked holes in the service.

Probation services had been restructured on time and on budget, the National Audit Office said in April 2016. But operational problems and risks to further service transformation need to be resolved if re-offending levels are to reduce.

Probation officers were advised against taking action when offenders breached sentence terms, because the CRCs risked being fined, the probation watchdog for England and Wales found in May.

Prisons charity Clinks said in its May report, Change & Challenge: The Voluntary Sector’s Role in Transforming Rehabilitation, that the pace of change had been slow. It found voluntary sector involvement was slow and poorly supported and communication between probation services and the voluntary sector was damaging local relationships.

Reform makes bold recommendations

Given these criticisms of the progress the service had made, it is perhaps surprising that Reform recommended pushing through more changes so that the whole service was privatised.

It argues PCCs should be responsible for commissioning all local prison and probation services.

And then comes the hard-hitting announcement:

“To facilitate this, the current National Probation Service (NPS) should be disbanded. Responsibility for the management of all sentenced offenders, irrespective of risk, should transfer to CRCs.”

UK - London - HMP Holloway women in prison

Women’s services should be tailored, says women’s services chief. © prisonimage.org .

‘Concerned’ reactions

The report has been met with mixed responses. Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, welcomed the idea of localising offender management, but urged caution on expecting PCCs to take on new work:

“This report… is right to say that the system is too centralised and driven by managing prison numbers. That approach has in fact seen both prisons and probation struggle from crisis to crisis as the numbers continue to rise. While the Howard League agrees that services should be more localised, it is not yet clear that Police and Crime Commissioners are ready to take on these new responsibilities. “

He warned against awarding them more responsibility, given that they have so far “failed to impress” with their work.

“We are also concerned at suggestions the new companies running the majority of probation services should be expanding their work to consume the National Probation Service. These companies have so far failed to impress with the management of those they do supervise, without taking on people who are considered high risk cases.

“It would also be difficult to see how companies could perform a court reporting function when they will have a commercial interest in the services they may recommend to sentencers.”

Jackie Russell is the Director of Women’s Breakout, an umbrella organisation that represents voluntary sector women’s centres. Ms Russell was unavailable to comment on the report. However, she told PWUK that successful reforms must ensure offender management is tailored to women and men’s needs:

“Reform for the female estate should be looked at distinctly separately from reform for the male estate. Keeping women in local services should always be the desired option over prison.

“It is important to move the prisons budgets to a local administration system – so that the importance of buying support services for early intervention can be weighed against custody, and the savings from not sending a woman to prison can fund those vital early interventions.”

Ministry of Justice speaks out about report

Responding to the report, the Ministry of Justice said that together with prison reforms, these changes will improve public safety by ensuring offenders don’t return to crime.

A spokesperson told PWUK:

“We are giving governors the freedom to innovate and find better ways of rehabilitating offenders.

It’s only through these reforms that we can rehabilitate, educate and keep our streets safer. Public protection is our priority, which is why we have specialist staff in the National Probation Service with the expertise needed to effectively manage the highest risk offenders.”

The performance of CRCs and the NPS remains unclear because the quality and availability of data is limited.

It will likely only be when the first comprehensive batch of data is released that we get a clear idea of how effective Reform’s recommendations would be, and how successful the Government’s own changes have been.

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