This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Transforming the Probation Service (or should that be 'terrorforming'..?)

Yesterday, I learnt some more about what the Government is doing to our probation service. It has been called 'transforming rehabilitation'. From my understanding, it feels more like terraforming or even terrorforming... the probation services.

As I tweeted a couple of days ago: in a world where a joined up justice system remains a pipe dream, to fragment it further into NPS & CRCs is dangerously incompetent

Evidently the government is speeding ahead with these reforms in the hope that all will be done, dusted and 'unpickable' in time for the next election (which I presume the government is expecting to lose?) This speed is unseemly and high risk. The chance of significant cracks opening up in a service that is already straining to make rehabilitation work is, in my view, highly likely.

But allow me to take a longer term view and imagine that the new arrangements remain for some years to come. These are my predictions of what will happen:
  • There will be slow but inexorable exodus of experienced probation officers from both the Community Rehabilitation Companies and the National Probation Service. These will be replaced by more junior staff with fewer qualifications. 
  • Rehabilitation rates (as measured by re-convictions for example) will not improve in most areas and, in a few will, worsen. The government of the day will ensure there are one or two flagships who do manage to make improvements (but the level of central support to achieve this will be glossed over).
  • Criminal justice agency partners (the other parts of the National Offender Management Service, the police, local authorities, housing agencies etc) will become very frustrated that where there was one organisation to liaise with there will now be two or even three if you include the contract management structure from regional NOMS. 
  • The CRCs will develop robust (but covert) strategies to get more of their clients reassessed as high risk so that they can shift responsibility over to the NPS. They will do this saying publicly that it is all about ensuring community safety. Privately they will be glad that this will improve their rehab rates (and therefore Payments by Results) and reduce their workload.
  • In contrast the NPS will do all that it can to assess 'objectively' an offender as low to medium risk and make the CRC pick them up as a client. However, this will increase the chances that offenders will be 'breached' and sent back to jail. More offenders will return to jail as a consequence.
  • Some offenders will fall between stools.
  • Staff at an operational level will become even better at 'gaming' the targets & objectives to ensure their backs are covered. 
  • Payment by Results will be replaced as the owners of the CRCs will quickly realise they are not getting any return on their investments. 
  • Overtime, the CRCs will be bought out such that there will only be between two and three owners. These organisations might be hedge funds or some of the existing private sector players in the justice 'market place'. Some of the architects of this new model who currently work in the Ministry of Justice will find their way onto the boards of these companies.
  • The National Probation Service will creak and be broken down again into smaller local units. These too will then be outsourced and sold off. The remaining vestiges of NOMS will struggle to contract manage the new CRCs and the new local NPS mark two units
I know this is a bleak picture but probably the risk register for this programme of change reads far worse. I will continue to admire the grit, compassion and determination of all the staff involved in this grand exercise of deck chair moving. I am sure they will make it work as best they can. And I hope their physical and mental health remain intact.

The challenge will come in May 2015 if a Labour (led?) government is elected as to what they will do with the mess of governance left behind by the current administration. If I were in charge, I would invest in top notch, commercially wise and wily contract managers in NOMS to squeeze every ounce of outcomes out of the CRCs and be very bullish about any clients being reassessed as higher risk. And I would do this as a deliberate strategy to make either the owners default their contract or give up the ghost. On this basis,  progressively, I would bring the CRCs back under public control. 

What would you do?


  1. Wouldn't a labour administration seek to reverse these bizarre and ill conceived "reforms" ? Making a wrong thing righter doesn't seem to be a good idea.

  2. In my opinion (and very happy to be corrected), I believe the reason why Grayling is pressing ahead with these reforms at such unseemly (and highly risky) haste is because he wants them to be in a position where mere reversal is not possible. Hence my strategy of using the new system on itself so that the private sector suppliers are breached (as it were) and probation can return to public ownership/control (where it should be) leavened by third sector ingenuity.

  3. Anonymous13/4/14 12:01

    Labour shows little intention of unpicking TR-the system is going to have to consume itself which will take 5-10 years-many of us will not have the stamina to stick around whilst that happens

    1. The current draft policy (which will be the basis of the manifesto, I assume) says:

      "Success in the probation system is built on partnership working between agencies, and on the strength of the relationships between dedicated probation staff and individual offenders. The Government’s actions in breaking up this model go against the grain of everything we know about what helps to rehabilitate offenders. Labour will not allow decisions on the supervision of dangerous offenders to be determined by profit, rather than public safety, and we will make sure that those providing probation services are subjected to appropriate levels of transparency and scrutiny."

      So I agree, not many specifics about reversing the TR changes except in broad principle. The consultation on this policy is open to all: - may I suggest that you offer your views there too.