Ever since its creation, the National Offender Management Service has been a disaster for the probation service, a massive and costly extra bureaucratic burden upon the taxpayer and been responsible for policy blunder after blunder, especially in relation to the contracting out of services.
Of course, by the nature of the way things work, it hasn't prevented junior civil servants from winning awards and senior civil servants furthering their careers and future commercial prospects upon retirement, but then call me a cynical old bastard. However, in a rather neat demonstration of the dangers inherent in reaping what one sows, I'm pleased to say that it finally looks like their day is numbered as Gove looks set to give them the chop as a way of funding his reversal of all Grayling's mad and damaging initiatives.
As I said yesterday, I'd like to believe that Gove has been deeply unimpressed with advice from his NOMS senior management team, which in turn got him thinking about what the hell NOMS brought to the party which had been run pretty well up until their arrival by the Prison and Probation Service respectively. Gove's decision to return autonomy to prison governor's and indeed extend it has clearly rattled NOMS HQ, hence Michael Spurr's interesting comments at the Clinks AGM the other day.
I know one should always be careful of what one wishes for, but I'm long past being grumpy and well down the path of being bitter and angry at what NOMS has done to my profession. TR was and is an utter travesty and now remains the sole survivor of the Grayling era under the likes of Michael Spurr. This slow train crash is getting faster and worsening by the day and as we've seen, the NOMS-inspired E3 plans for NPS will bring similar chaos and carnage to the 30% of probation still in the public sector.
In probation we are very familiar with the concept of past behaviour being a strong indicator of future behaviour and as one legal commentator said the other day, if a judge's decisions were continually overturned on appeal, the question arises why they are still a judge? This simple truth does not just apply to Grayling, but in my view to NOMS and its senior civil servants as well.
It's abundantly clear to everyone, especially within what's left of probation, that urgent prison reform is required and that Gove looks like the right man at the right time. This is a golden opportunity for the probation voice to be heard by him because we're skilled, we know the issues and we could easily be mobilised to help him in this task, but it won't and can't happen under the current TR omnishambles. Now really is the time for everyone who holds the probation ideal dear to speak up, cogently, clearly and convincingly because Gove is a guy who listens to reason and argument and TR defies both.
The good news is that there are voices of reason out there, for example in the shape of Joe Kuipers and Rob Allen. Lets make sure the Minister of Justice gets to hear from as many as possible in the coming weeks and as he develops his ideas for prison reform. As always Rob Allen is well worth reading and this is his latest take on a possible danger:-
Spurring On Prison Reform
Earlier this week, Justice Secretary Michael Gove told the House of Commons, not for the first time, that he wanted to see prison governors given more freedom along the lines of Academy Principals or NHS Trust CEO’s. Gove believes that with increased autonomy in a structure of clear accountability, significant improvements can be achieved in the prison service (whose dire performance was once again indicated by the latest data on deaths,self-harm and assaults).
At the same time a mile or two away, Michael Spurr the Head of the National Offender Management Service was telling the Annual General Meeting of CLINKS (the umbrella organisation for prison charities) just how difficult it was going to be to make Gove’s governor autonomy policy happen in practice.
In an admirably candid talk, Spurr said he had hoped for a period of consolidation after the substantial changes to prisons and probation wrought by the last government. But Gove’s refreshing reform agenda offered huge opportunities, with 10,000 new prison places in 9 new prisons enabling a new model of imprisonment in which overcrowding and idleness could be, if not eradicated, then much reduced.
But as for the governor autonomy agenda, Spurr admitted there were many thorny issues to resolve. In a perhaps too candid example, he pondered aloud whether a governor who wanted to introduce overnight family visits would be allowed to do so. A lot of head scratching in Whitehall seems to be going on about where the limits to freedom of action should lie. But don’t bet on conjugal visits surviving the first ministerial briefing or outing in the Daily Mail.
In education, freedom from local authority control has brought with it the ability to depart from the national curriculum, set pay and conditions for staff, change the length of school terms and school days. Along with greater control over budgets principals have responsibility for their buildings and their management. Could prison governors be given these kind of powers?
Take the analogy with the national curriculum. Would Gove’s brave new world allow governors to disapply Prison service orders or instructions if they so wish? As things stand, even private prisons which seem to be Gove’s model, can’t do that. A recent study of competition illustrated the weight of prescription by showing 15 pages of a contract specifying how prisoner can use their own cash to buy goods. Are these to be ripped up and if so how many of the pages? Will newly empowered governors be able to opt out of the ACCT suicide prevention scheme or relax security procedures? Or decide to dispense with accredited offending behaviour programmes in favour of activities of their own liking? These standards are there for a reason. They reflect the fact that prisoners are in a uniquely vulnerable position and both they and society have the right to expect they are cared for in an ethical and principled way.
Presumably some standards will be required to be met (and inspected) in the new regime, but in prisons unlike schools the price of failure is counted not in not poor exam grades but escapes, reoffending and human rights violations. If things go wrong, ministers will not be able to stand idly by. Spurr took some flak yesterday for his honest appraisal of the way the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have weakened the ability of the centre to intervene in probation services now contracted out and paid by results. CRC’s who have failed to engage with third sector providers, whatever promises they may have made, look untouchable. Will that be the case for Gove’s Governors in his nine new prisons?
In existing jails, education, health and, since last year, resettlement activities are all outsourced. Prison Governors haven’t had a say in how those contracts have been let. Of course they could do so in future. There’s a lot to be said for concentrating commissioning responsibility in the hands of the governor but unless Gove can buy out existing contracts he’s stuck with the existing choreography for several years to come in the bulk of his system. With Wrexham opening next year and the new facilities scheduled during the lifetime of the parliament there are opportunities for the new model to be introduced. But by the time it starts to happen, there’s a fair chance Gove will be out of government and by the time it’s finished his party may be out of power.
But what his scheme will enable in the short term is a bonfire of headquarters, with no longer a need for policy development, learning lessons, monitoring outcomes or system wide planning. Devolving power will provide a pretext for big cuts at the centre and the eventual disappearance of NOMS. Gove said today that his reversal of Grayling’s legal aid cuts had been made possible in part by economies he has made elsewhere in his department. This is probably one of them.