Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Penny Finally Drops

It's a bit late in the day, but probation appears to have found a new friend in the shape of Independent founder Andreas Whittam Smith. He's been reading that recent NAO report and our plight would seem to be astonishing news to him:- 

The Tories' dismantling of the probation service really is a case of privatisation gone mad

Privatising the probation services is privatisation gone mad. That is the only conclusion you can draw from a progress report by the National Audit Office on the Government’s plans, though it received little attention when recently published.

Yes, you read that correctly: probation services – whose main task is to rehabilitate convicted criminals so that that they do not re-offend – are being made subject to the rigours of the market.

Think what the work of probation entails. Its essence is the establishment of a relationship between a probation officer and an offender. A good description was given by an outgoing Chief Inspector of Probation, Andrew Bridges, in 2011. I quote what he said at some length:

“The heart of probation practice, and youth offending practice for that matter, is about using one’s influencing skills in a one-to-one relationship. You are trying to use a relationship to achieve a purpose: the relationship isn’t the end in itself.
“You are trying to get individuals to want to change and to make changes to themselves. You are often doing it with offenders whose probability of change is very low, with the really difficult ones. Anybody who had been a practitioner 40 years ago would still recognise that now, I would say”.

Indeed, you can go right back to the origins of probation in 1876, when a charity first appointed police court ‘missionaries’ to help offenders find work and employment, to see that the task and the method has always been the same.

In 1907, the Probation of Offenders Act put the charitable activity onto a statutory basis. Courts could release offenders on probation. Probation officers were to “advise, assist and befriend”.
Activities based on relationships are expensive to run because they are time consuming. For example, the personal relationship that bank customers used to have with their managers has largely disappeared as digital technology has been introduced in order to reduce costs. These days, an application for a loan is more likely to be ‘scored’ by a computer than to be discussed with a member of bank staff. And since relationship banking has been replaced by transaction banking, a lack of respect for customers has become pervasive. This led to banks miss-selling financial products on an enormous scale.

With this example in mind – and noting also that the Government intends to pay the providers of probation services by results – I fear that the personal relationship that lies at the heart of good probation work will be first distorted and then lost.

The idea that probation work should become a commercial activity began to surface in the early 2000s. By then, the emphasis of the Conservative or neoliberal revolution launched in the early 1980s by Margaret Thatcher (together with Ronald Reagan in the US) had switched to public services.

In 2004, Tony Blair’s Labour government accepted a report that recommended what was called “greater contestability” using “providers of… probation from across the public, private or voluntary sectors”. In 2007, probation boards began to be transformed into probation trusts, in preparation for privatisation.

The Coalition government quickly went a step further: providers of probation services would be paid to reduce reoffending and the savings that would accrue to the criminal justice system would pay for this. Here, however, comes a further problem.

How can the Government be sure that a particular probation service has been solely responsible for a reduction in re-offending in the cases it has handled? The crucial factor, for instance, could have been the remedial work done by the prison from which the offender had recently emerged.

Moreover the level of crime across the country is declining and this must reflect some general trend rather than individual actions. The Crime Survey for England and Wales showed that in 2015, there was a 7 per cent decrease from the previous year.

Brushing this problem aside, the Government has made it clear that, over time, the majority of probation trusts’ current business will be opened up to competition, apart from advice to court and the management of higher risk offenders. Unfortunately the National Audit Office (NAO) report lists numerous difficulties with making such a dramatic change.

To start with, the computer systems on which the exercise depends are lamentably poor with no hope of early improvement. Their failings cause what the NAO calls “severe inefficiencies”. New tools used for assessing and allocating offenders are “cumbersome and require repeated data re-entry.”

Linked to this, the performance of the new bodies cannot be reliably measured. Crucial data that would allow the success or the failure of the new policy to be judged is often simply not available.

Worse still, there is what the NAO describes as “limited visibility” of contract commitments. The National Probation Service itself “only has copies of around 30 per cent of its contracts and does not know exactly what it spends on goods and services.”

Even more chilling, the NAO report observes that many of the successful bidders for contracts were “new to probation”. Unsurprisingly, these firms did not fancy having much of their revenue tied to the results of an activity of which they knew little. So the original purpose of the entire exercise has largely been lost.

Back in 2011, the Government said that it would “pioneer a world first – a system where we only pay for results, delivered by a diverse range of providers from all sectors. This principle will underpin all our work on reoffending. This is a radical shift.” A radical shift indeed, except that now it isn’t going to happen.

Indeed, one is entitled to question the merits of privatisation. What has happened in this case is that Conservative ministers and Ministry of Justice officials – few of whom have any direct experience of the business world – have been attempting to introduce market disciplines, that they do not understand, into a valuable social service of which, again, they seem to have little comprehension.

Doctrine has replaced thought. Which is where revolutions end.

Andreas Whittam Smith


There's a lot of damning content in the NAO report and I notice that Russell Webster has been teasing the details out in a series of blog posts. I also spotted this highlighting the ICT problems:-

Poor ICT hinders probation casework, says NAO

National Audit Office report throws focus on bad design and inefficiencies in systems used in rehabilitating offenders

Probation workers are struggling with ICT systems delivered as part of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, with a duplication of work, periods of unavailability and some work being lost, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

Its new report, Transforming Rehabilitation, says the issue is contributing to operational problems and risks, undermining the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) success in restructuring the probation service. Amid other problems, it says the reforms have exacerbated some long standing problems with ICT.

Staff have complained that the main case management system, nDelius, it is not intuitive and has been very difficult to use, partly because it was laden with performance and contract management functions as part of the reforms. There have been complaints of it wasting several hours of working time per week, and the National Probation Service (NPS) has had to make a series of minor changes. Users have also claimed that nDelius has lost work, been unavailable for some periods, and that they had received only limited training.

Recidivism risk

Problems have also arisen with the 'risk of serious recidivism' (RSR) tool to assess offender risk. It is unable to pull information from other systems, requiring staff to re-enter data, and has sometimes made miscalculations and misreported results. Staff complained the tool was time consuming to use and should not be required for high risk cases, following which the guidance was changed so its use before sentencing was not compulsory for all cases.

The Offender Assessment System (OASys) requires manual re-entry of information already in nDelius and the RSR tool, which increases the error rates; and the case allocation system is partly paper based. Work on improving the latter is currently taking place.

The NAO says these problems have prompted most community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) to install their own case management systems and ICT infrastructure. While the National Offender Management Service had planned to provide an interface between these and nDelius by June of last year, it has still not been delivered and has been holding back the CRCs' transformation plans.

Incentive mismatch

The report says another problem is that different organisations involved in the rehabilitation reforms have different incentives, and that there has been friction between NPS and CRCs' staff. Also, CRCs are paid primarily for completing specified activities with offenders, and the levels of business have been significantly lower than the MoJ originally projected.


  1. Probation Officer12 May 2016 at 07:57

    Yet the dismantling goes on. Probation CRC's continue to shed staff and abolish established practices. In some a Probation Officer is now a 'Case Manager' and are expected to meet offenders on the street. In the NPS the E3 strategy is being implemented. Court reports are tick box exercises, more for less is the mantra, monitor and control the ethos, and Probation Officers are set to become obselete.

    1. With the introduction of the new offender travel assistance policy in our NPS area it's likely we will have to resort to meeting in the street especially as the paperwork needed for home visits had increased!

  2. Yes, very late in the day but very welcome all the same. Would suggest he links this with DV issues. More tear jerking stuff about this on BBC, my tears included, but let's be realistic. Majority of my caseload is involves one to one work, intel checks, liaison with idva and marac, child protection. So maybe he should write about our invisible but essential role here in terms of public protection? Stretched to the limit and big cuts to come=massive concern.

  3. Can this be provided to a wider audience? Napo should be all over it!

    1. NAPO, if they choose to, are quite capable of being all over the NAO report, as it is available to all on Google.

    2. One would hope that Napo is working behind the scenes trying to stir up interest amongst our Parliamentary friends?

    3. Probation Officer12 May 2016 at 08:53

      ... Whatever happened to the "voice of probation"?, the so-called Probation Institute

  4. It's a misnomer to call TR a revolution – it never had any popular support and from the outset was driven by ideologues who were not interested in evidence, they are just antagonistic to public services. While Andreas Whittam Smith traces the main developments, he does not mention the impact of TR upon the workforce – the redundancies, the dismantling of national collective bargaining and the continual weakening of probation as a profession.

    Comparing changes in the banking sector with those in probation works up to a point, especially in light of ATM-style reporting kiosks and open-plan offices. And he is surely right in noting that if you reduce relationships to mere transactions these conditions lead to loss of respect and onto the exploitation/manipulation of customers, as was endemic in banking.

    While banking can function on a transactional level, despite the loss of personal service and the frustrations of call centres and broken ATMs, the probation relationship is a transformational one between humans that can only be mechanised by making it less human and less influential in the process.

    The importance of the one-to-one relationship, alas, also fell out of favour in probation before the 'revolution'. When people became targets under mangerialism, the needs of the organisation were allowed to supersede those of individuals. And as the one-to-one relationship requires a fair degree of professional autonomy, this autonomy also threatened managerialism who were forever nauseatingly telling everyone that probation was a 'business' and needed to be 'leaner'. They could talk like this and still spout on about probation having core values – like the wife beater who still loves his wife!

  5. Replies
    1. Where do you suppose they got the story from?