Clearly somewhat uncomfortable having to apologise to an audience that only some eight months previously had sat in the same room listening to an enthusiastic presentation on the prospects on offer with TR2, he said there were principally three reasons why it had been scrapped:-
- The MoJ could say they'd listened to the consultation. I think even Jim could see the absurdity of such a notion as of course it was just a 'sham' exercise which they fully intended to ignore with the original plans for TR2.
- The message that TR had failed was just too strong. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Dame Glenys for providing the final, defining statement that nailed the coffin that TR was 'iredeemably flawed'. Jim didn't agree of course.
- The contract failures. The MoJ just couldn't stomach the prospect of insolvency practitioners poring over the tattered remains of failed probation companies. In truth I suspect the politicians had a serious fright.
Obviously still smarting from having to admit that the sheer tsunami of negative messages regarding TR proved impossible to hold back, rather than admit any of it might be true, he then rather more enthusiastically launched into what the MoJ were hoping would be delivered as a result of the decision to keep a firm grip on offender management.
Basically there should be no surprise in a determination to maintain a viable 'mixed market' of keen and eager service providers, but commissioned and kept control of by the local NPS regions. He did not rule out the North West being split as it was the largest after London. He wanted the status of probation raised, but with Brexit shenanigans it would take at least 2 years to legislate for professional certification.
What was also clear is that 'ministers are absolutely determined to get a grip on sentencing' no doubt by increasing sentencer confidence, legislating on trying to prevent short custodial sentences, or both. Of course quite a mountain to climb for a number of reasons including the fierce independence of the judiciary and the political realities of a Tory government trying to sell the idea to its loyal party members, but absolutely essential for this new plan to work.
In the scheme of things and knowing the eye-watering sums of money that the MoJ have pissed-up the wall on numerous poorly-designed contracts over the last few years, I couldn't help but be amused to hear Jim stressing over and over how the budget was £280 million 'and every penny had to be accounted for to HM Treasury'. The man is clearly deluded.
Despite this, he went on to assure the audience that there was indeed a willingness to 'spend more on probation'. Somewhat alarmingly and especially given the MoJ IT record, he also made it plain that they would be in complete control of all digital platforms with all contractors required to use the NPS system. What could possibly go wrong?
To be perfectly frank I found the whole experience deeply troubling and alarmingly reminiscent of the Cardiff event prior to TR. To be in a room full of people keen and eager to get a slice of the profession and skilled enterprise you hold dear and discussing things using alien commercial language I found quite distressing. I came away even more determined to do my damnedest to make sure those 'transition and mobilisation risks' you mentioned are as high as possible Mr Barton.
I thought I'd round this off with the following report of the minutes of a meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 23 October 2018 in order to put the above into some context:-
Lord Ramsbotham introduced Jim Barton, Director of the Probation Programme at the Ministry of Justice and thanked him for coming to the meeting.
Jim Barton introduced himself and explained he has eight years’ experience as a probation officer. Jim has spent the last 18 months working with colleagues to look at what can be done in response to the challenges in the Community Rehabilitation Company contracts.
In June of this year the Justice Select Committee published a report of its inquiry into the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme. It recommended some short and medium term solutions to address the serious issues that have arisen as a result of these reforms. The Ministry of Justice has decided to terminate the contracts in 2020 before they were due to expire in 2022.
The problems faced by the probation service are fully described in the Justice Committee report and also in the Public Accounts Committee report published in January. Jim referred to some of the problems that were discussed earlier in the meeting and how the reduction in community orders meant the value in those CRC contracts fell by a third within their first year. This created a situation where the commercial providers were being expected to run services at a considerable loss.
The MoJ took steps last summer to renegotiate the contracts in response to those issues, an adjustment worth just over £270 million. At the time the department thought this would achieve the necessary conditions for stability. However the CRC performance in reducing reoffending, particularly the number of times an offender reoffends, meant that providers were facing considerable loss for the remaining life of the contracts and the position became untenable. Hence the decision with Ministers to end the contracts early and replace them with professional arrangements which would incorporate lessons learned.
Jim was clear that the department is very focused on restoring sentencers’ confidence in community sentence. The Secretary of State, David Gauke, has been very vocal about his commitment to reduce the volume of short custodial sentences. After four years of structural upheaval it has been decided not to make significant changes to frontline services. Instead the department will respond to specific issues and problems that have been identified and focus on the basics of good probation delivery in the contractual arrangements. Jim discussed how the TR contracts were publicly described as ‘black box’ contracts where providers were free to choose how to deliver their service. Jim concurred there was a fair amount of leeway for space and innovation around rehabilitation activity but basic standards had often been dropped. Now it is recognised that there needs to be more consistent frameworks as to what constitutes an effective rehabilitation requirements or interventions, so that sentencers have confidence in both the punishment and the rehabilitation elements of a sentence.
Rehabilitation Activity Requirements will be more tightly specified from now on and linked to clear instructions on the form and frequency of supervision by the probation service. In order to stabilise provision in the interim, the department has introduced a requirement that all offenders will be offered at least a month of face to face contact in the first 12 months of an order or licence for the duration of the contracts until they cease in 2020.
Jim was able to confirm that there are now mandated specifications and requirements that all providers will be expected to deliver in order to create a baseline position that sentencers and the department can have confidence in. Jim emphasised that he absolutely agrees that the TR model has created numerous challenges, through implementation rather than by design. Jim acknowledged that others may disagree with this assessment.
Another development is introduction of CRC staff into some courts magistrates courts in particular, to ensure sentencers have effective information at the point of sentence around the interventions available. The CRC staff will be there to answer questions and give a view on why a specific intervention might be appropriate.
More generally Jim said there are numerous things the department can do to integrate provision without going through fundamental structural change. The plan is to do that by bringing the public level service and the commercial level service under a single Probation Service Leader who will oversee the ten proposed regions.
Jim acknowledged that the ten regions are not aligned with the way other parts of the Criminal Justice System are organised. PCCs are lobbying understandably for the department to move to a model of 42. However the department does not believe that is possible within a reasonable span of control. However it does agree that PCCs need to have a stronger voice in the commissioning process for local services that underpin the statutory provision of the NPS and CRCs.
The department recognises that 2020 is quite a way away and that over two years 300,000 offenders will potentially cycle through the system. Everything needs to be done to increase stability. In addition to the requirement for a minimum of face to face contact the department is also investing in Through the Gate provision which the HM Inspector of Probation has rightly raised concerns around. An extra £22 million pounds per year for the next two years has been allocated.
Jim stated that they will also make changes to the Payment by Results mechanism. The reason for doing this is that as things stand the department is holding providers to account for a deterioration of reoffending frequency rates that happened before their watch and therefore are being financially penalised for something that they have no control over. Jim commented that this feels like a perverse thing for the department to do in the context of a system that is not fully funded.
To conclude Jim explained where the department is in process terms. There were 470 responses to the consultation which closed on 21 September 2018 and they are working their way through them and have a series of discussions planned with Ministers and others across Whitehall plus engagement with staff and stakeholders. The public response to the consultation will be published in April 2019.