Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


(ii)  The Probation Service

The professionalism of the probation service

104. While the probation service is not alone in administering alternatives to prison sentences, they have principal responsibility for the supervision of offenders in the community. Therefore the success, or otherwise, of alternatives to prison sentences will be dependent on the professionalism of the probation service.

105. Even the most critical commentators on the probation service from whom we heard—Mr Peter Coad and Mr David Fraser, both retired Senior Probation Officers—stated that "the probation service could not be more dedicated".[129] However, they did condemn what they saw as the ideological standpoint of NAPO, claiming that "by the 1970s, NAPO had become dominated by Marxist activists"[130] and that "the majority of probation officers are not really aware of the subtle infiltration of this type of ideology, they just go along with what is being said to them in a vociferous way".[131] Mr Coad also claimed that "sensible people were not actually allowed at NAPO conferences to speak; if they got up and said something contrary to the ideology they were literally shrieked [at] and howled down".[132] When it was suggested to Mr Coad that this description of NAPO, whether or not it had been true in earlier decades, was not now true, he responded that they no longer have to engage in this behaviour " because they are now established, they are kings, as it were".[133] When it was suggested that some kind of anti-prisons conspiracy had therefore triumphed, he agreed "absolutely".[134]

106. The idea that an anti-prisons conspiracy had triumphed in the probation service was not shared by other witnesses, although a number accepted that the service had lost sight of its legitimate objectives in earlier years. Mr Tim Workman, the Metropolitan stipendiary magistrate, told us that "in the late 'seventies and early 'eighties...[the probation service] held ideological views that were inconsistent with the responsibilities of the courts. Today, most probation officers see their role as being within the court and the criminal justice system and that the older ideological beliefs while still there have receded considerably".[135] Mr Paul Cavadino was asked whether he accepted the proposition that the probation service had 'lost its way' in the 1970s and replied "yes, but I think the extent to which it happened has been exaggerated in some of the evidence you have received. Nevertheless, I think there was a flavour of that in some of the things that were happening in the probation service at that time. It no longer is the case".[136] Mr John Hicks of ACOP, responding to the charge that the probation service was anti-prison said that "there was a time when that might have been true but it is not true now".[137] We also note the comments of Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, that "the probation service themselves recognise that there has been a change in their role. It was a valuable and respected role as the guide, philosopher and friend of the offender and that role should persist. There is also an added dimension as taskmaster and representative with a duty to make sure that the rules the court has laid down are complied with. That is much more rigorously done than it was"[138]. Far from viewing the probation service as a hot-bed of Marxist conspirators, we were pleased to note that in a survey of over 600 magistrates and 30 judges not a single sentencer responded that they were 'not at all satisfied' with the work of the service, that only 10 and 15 per cent respectively were 'not very satisfied', with the remainder 'quite' or 'very satisfied'.[139] (We discuss this survey at paragraph 131 below).

107. One alleged instance of anti-prison bias demonstrated by the probation service, is the reluctance of officers to include custody as an option in pre-sentence reports. National Standards state that a pre-sentence report is "a report in writing, made or a probation officer or a social worker of a local authority social services department, with a view to assisting the court in determining the most suitable method of dealing with an offender which imposes a restriction on liberty commensurate with the seriousness of the offence".[140] They do this by giving an analysis of the offence (which will not express a judgement regarding the seriousness of the offence, as that is for the court to decide, but will outline the context in which the offence took place and an assessment of the consequences of the crime, including the impact on the victim); by providing information about the offender, including details of relevant personal and social factors; by assessing the risk to the public of reoffending; and by giving a conclusion, which should include a sentence proposal. Where a community sentence programme would not be appropriate, "the report should make it clear that such a programme cannot be proposed and why".[141] If custody is a likely option, the report should identify any adverse expected effects for the offender and his or her family, and his or her education or employment.

108. Mr Peter Coad stated that "It is interesting that the probation service never recommend a prison sentence".[142] Mr Tim Workman stated that he could never remember having seen a report which recommended imprisonment, although he continued "however, in fairness to the probation service, reports contain phrases such as 'We are unable to recommend any community sentence', which is shorthand for saying, 'We can't do anything, so it's over to you. If you have to use imprisonment, so be it'".[143] Mrs Anne Fuller, of the Magistrates' Association added that "quite often we see reports which address the community sentences that are available and clearly state why each one is not appropriate. Occasionally, they will say that there is a very strong risk that the person will re­offend. It is not really coded. It may not say at the end, 'Therefore, we recommend a custodial sentence', but that is what the report says".[144] The Prisons and Probation Minister denied that reports never included proposals for custody, as she herself had seen one which did, although she did accept that most reports proposed non-custodial sentences.[145] Although it may not be the case that pre-sentence reports never propose custodial sentences, it remains the case that they rarely do so explicitly. We recommend that National Standards be amended so that pre-sentence reports not only have to make it clear where non-custodial sentences have been considered to be inappropriate, but that they state explicitly that "a custodial option appears to be the only option available to the court", or words to that effect.

109. We are pleased to note that the vast majority of sentencers are satisfied with the work of the probation service and that there is widespread recognition that the performance of the probation service has improved since the 1970s, when it appeared to have lost sight of its primary duty to protect society. During our visits to probation services we were consistently impressed by the dedication demonstrated by probation officers, and by their realisation that protecting the public must be their priority.

Resources and caseloads

110. The Home Office provides 80 per cent of probation service funding with the remainder coming from local authorities. As the table below shows, in 1998/99 the grant from the Home Office was approximately £343m;[146] this represented a 6% rise in cash terms since 1994/95, but a fall in real terms of 5%. Probation services have had to absorb the real terms reduction through efficiency savings.[147]

Probation service central government support[148]

£ million













per cent change


Real terms













111. At the same time probation service caseloads have been increasing. The total number of offenders supervised by the probation service increased by 35 per cent from 136,000 in 1992 to 184,700 in 1997. Much of this work involves pre- and post-release work with prisoners and the increased workload is partly the result of the increased prison population. ACOP estimated that it costs probation services £1m to work with every 1,000 additional prisoners requiring supervision.[150] As we have already noted, the prison population has risen by over 20,000 since 1993.

112. This funding situation has meant that staff numbers have reduced. ACOP stated that "over the last three years staff numbers have decreased by more than 500 each year. Further reductions of this scale are having to be made this year".[151] While they emphasised that probation services were doing their best to preserve frontline services which protect the public from potentially dangerous offenders, they said that the following work had experienced cuts: crime prevention; work with unconvicted offenders; assessment of prisoners prior to release and resettlement planning; bail information schemes; and visits to victims of serious crimes. They also stated that voluntary supervision (unpaid work where the probation service maintain contact with released prisoners beyond the statutory period) had dropped from 23,000 cases to 4,300 in five years.

113. ACOP also make the case that, while they support the Crime and Disorder Bill's proposals[152], they were concerned that the probation service might not be able to meet the new requirements made of it as a result. They state that the following parts of the Bill will require the "primary or secondary involvement of the probation service: anti-social behaviour orders, ...local crime strategies, racially aggravated offences, youth justice services and youth offending teams, supervision of sex and violent offenders, drug treatment and testing orders, reparation orders,...home detention curfews".[153]

114. In the view of Ms Helen Schofield of NAPO the cuts meant that frontline services were already facing a crisis; she claimed that: "The crisis is imminent in terms of staffing levels. We are reaching a situation now in some services, and I do not think anybody would be unhappy about my saying this, in which in order to sustain the intensive programme and to maintain National Standards the actual supervision of individuals, particularly after the first three months, is being undertaken by staff who are not probation officers, and in some services by volunteers. In terms of public protection, I feel the supervision of offenders by volunteers, untrained, unpaid, unqualified, unaccountable, is extremely serious".[154]

115. The Probation Inspectorate did not think the situation was this desperate. Mr Graham Smith told us that "we do not see any evidence that I think would convince you that the quality of the service has declined even though there are many fewer staff working with many more orders...The service has never been more efficient and it has had to be because it has taken these cuts and still coped with more work and we still do not see any reduction in quality". However, he did also point out that the failure to meet National Standards was linked to the funding situation, and that some of the 54 probation services were "closer to trouble than others". He pointed out that costs varied significantly around the country and that this was an area the Inspectorate intended to look into.[155]

116. The Prisons and Probation Minister reminded us that "the Comprehensive Spending Review has been taking place and it has to look at the priorities of Government and look at the ways of resourcing those priorities. That obviously includes the work of the probation service. We are certainly aware that the probation service's workload has increased a lot... I also think that there are some ways of getting further efficiencies in the probation service. Some of the ideas in connection with the Prison and Probation Review are capable of doing that in my view, particularly in terms of rationalising boundaries. I think also, although it may be more of a spend-to-save than an immediate saving option, that a great deal of improvement in information technology could help a lot in streamlining the work of the service". The Minister also pointed out that there were potential savings to be made in the probation service by the increased use of group work, and that such work is in accordance with the "What Works?" findings.[156]

117. Responding to the point that the Crime and Disorder Bill will make more demands of the probation service, the Minister told us that the Bill's measures overall—not just those affecting the probation service—had been costed at £130m, but that "some of the measures which the probation service will have a responsibility for are ones that are being piloted in the first instance and will not have a national impact on the probation service. But nonetheless the kind of tasks that the probation service is being asked to carry out are ones which have been put into the Comprehensive Spending Review and the findings of that review will therefore take that into account".[157]

118. In so far as cuts in resources for the probation service have led to genuine efficiency savings, then they need not be a cause of concern, but we note the view from some quarters of the service that the cuts have gone significantly beyond this.

119. It must also be a cause of concern that, as we noted earlier, the current funding situation means that probation services cannot meet National Standards—the "basic minimum set of requirements", as ACOP called them. If, despite increasing their efficiency, the probation service is consistently failing to meet these standards, the Government should ensure it has the resources to do so.

120. Since our visits to probation services around the country, and since the oral evidence was taken, the results of the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review have been announced. The Home Secretary has indicated that the allocations of central government grant for the probation service will be £347m for 1999/00, £371m for 2000/01, and £396m for 2001/02.[158] These represent annual increases of 5.5%, 6.9%, and 6.7%. Probation services, as with other parts of the criminal justice system, will also be able to bid for additional funds for projects arising under the crime reduction strategy announced at the same time.[159]

121. The Association of Chief Officers of Probation has given a cautious welcome to the new funding plans, indicating that they were "encouraged that the trend has been reversed" but that the allocated core funding would not in itself be sufficient to deliver the new responsibilities contained in the Crime and Disorder Bill.[160] Similarly NAPO welcomed the fact that the settlement meant that "we are now looking at sustained growth for the probation service over the next three years at least" but also expressed concern that "it is difficult to see how the extra funds will fully meet the new work arising from the Crime and Disorder Bill.[161]

122. We welcome the financial provision made for the probation service in the Home Secretary's announcement, which should make possible some real expansion in the work of the service. How far this will be so will depend on the extent to which the cash figures turn out to exceed actual inflation, and the extent to which the service is able to make further efficiency savings. However, we note continuing concern from within the service as to the extent to which it will be able to realise the programme of reforms under the Crime and Disorder Bill. As the various reforms are brought in the Government must ensure that probation services are properly funded to enable them to achieve their full intended effect.

123. As well as the overall level of funding of the probation service, one further aspect of probation service funding which concerns us is the current system by which funds are allocated to individual probation services. Calculated under a complex formula, probation areas are funded predominantly in proportion to their workloads, such as the numbers of pre-sentence reports submitted to court and new orders supervised, with an allowance for the demographic characteristics of the areas they serve. This has the effect of rewarding those areas which can maintain a high throughput of cases and takes no account of the effectiveness of a service in reducing offending by those under its supervision. As Mr John Crawforth, Chief Probation Officer of Lancashire Probation Service, pointed out, "the present resource allocation model encourages probation areas to maintain high numbers of offenders under supervision even if that supervision is of no proven effectiveness in reducing their criminality".[162]

124. Mr Crawforth's comments were made in the context of the Burnley-Dordrecht scheme which focusses high levels of supervision by a probation officer, together with police surveillance, on a small number (perhaps twenty in any one year) of highly persistent offenders. The Burnley-Dordrecht scheme has yet to prove its effectiveness but, if the initial encouraging indications are confirmed and similar schemes are set up in other areas, the perverse incentives which characterise the present resource allocation model will become even more problematic. While recognising that to allocate probation resources partly on the basis of outcomes in reducing crime would be complex, we recommend that the funding formula for individual probation services be re-examined so that probation services are not discouraged from developing imaginative new approaches to reducing offending.

The organisation of the probation service

125. The probation service is comprised of 54 individual probation services, which are each headed by a Chief Probation Officer. The absence of a single organisation has prompted calls for the service to be unified. Sir David Ramsbotham, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons made such a call: "I personally think ­ this is probably a radical thought on it ­ that it is time that the probation service was made a national service and came under national jurisdiction like the Prison Service. This is because again there is tremendous unevenness in what is done in different probation areas around the country. That is not to blame the individual probation officers so much. If we are going to stiffen up on what is done as a community sentence...then it ought to be dictated rather more and structured rather more".[163] Sir David went on to explain that following the establishment of a national service, he would like to see the probation service merge with the Prison Service.[164]

126. The National Association of Probation Officers supported the setting up of a single probation service: "there are still 54 separate probation services each following its own local priorities, and in many instances those local priorities are inconsistent with those of their neighbours. NAPO believes that this system is no longer viable, indeed that the structures are anachronistic. NAPO believes there is an overwhelming case for reducing the number of services and for co-terminous boundaries with other criminal justice agencies. Substantial savings on bureaucracy could be made and transferred to frontline services. NAPO is concerned that traditionally there has been no voice as there is with the Prison Service to represent and argue the probation service's case in government and in public expenditure rounds".[165]

127. Mr Graham Smith, the Chief Inspector of Probation acknowledged that there would be advantages in a single service, especially in advancing the Inspectorate's cause of increasing effectiveness, but went on to say: "However, there is something essentially local about crime, that it is different in Powys from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and also people respond to local crime so that the probation service is much more popular in the local community with the local press than, for example, it is with the national press who generally tend to dismiss it and not to be very complimentary. If a national service damaged those local roots, I would have considerable anxiety." He concluded that he would be "cautious" about creating a national service.[166]

128. This issue will be one of a number which has been looked at in the review of the work of the Prison and probation services announced by the Home Secretary last July. The Prisons and Probation Minister told us: "Obviously some people have felt...that probation can suffer from not having a very obvious national voice and often the contrast is made with, say, the national organisation of the Prison Service where the Prison Service tends to have a high profile in public terms and the probation service does not. ...Also, in terms of the 54 areas, the argument has frequently been put forward that very often those boundaries are not coterminous with any other parts of the criminal justice system and that makes communication difficult between different parts of the system and therefore some rationalisation is probably a good idea. What we do need to strike a balance between the need to have good National Standards and a national profile for the probation service on the one hand and yet allow much of the good local and regional partnerships that have been built up to continue. It is self-evident that the probation service needs a good, close working relationship with the Prison Service. We are also very much aware that the probation service needs a good working relationship at local level with the Police Service, with local authorities, social services departments in particular, health authorities, education authorities and so on".[167]

129. We look forward to the outcome of the prison-probation review. We note with interest the requests put to us by the Chief Inspector of Prisons and by NAPO for the creation of a single probation service. We appreciate the caution expressed by the Chief Inspector of Probation concerning the local nature of crime, but we also note that he perceived advantages in the creation of a single service.

129  Q 174 Back

130  Appendix 4, para 24. Back

131  Q 277. Back

132  Q 279, Back

133  Q 280. Back

134  Q 281. Back

135  Q 494. Back

136  Q 383. Back

137  Q 64. Back

138  Q 66. Back

139  Measuring the Satisfaction of Courts with the Probation Service, Home Office Research Study 144, 1995, p 29. Back

140  National Standards for the Supervision of Offenders in the Community, Home Office, 1995, p 7. Back

141  ibid., p 11. Back

142  Q 227. Back

143  Q 489. Back

144  Q 496. Back

145  Qs 837-838. Back

146  Home Office Annual Report 1998, Table 13. I, comprising £329m current grant and £14m capital grant. Back

147  The Probation Inspectorate has estimated that there has been a real terms cut over the four years of 8% (Q 473); ACOP have calculated that the real terms reduction over the period for probation services was 25%, if the cash figures are adjusted by the specific inflation factors applicable to probation work rather than the GDP deflator (Briefing to Members of Parliament 4 June 1998). Back

148  Home Office Annual Report 1998 Table 13i. Back

149  1996/97 prices adjusted using the GDP deflator.  Back

150  Briefing for Members of Parliament, ACOP 4 June 1998. Back

151  ibid. Back

152  At the time of agreeing this Report, the Crime and Disorder Bill had completed all its Parliamentary stages but had not yet received Royal Assent. Back

153  ibid. Back

154  Q 782. Back

155  Q 743. Back

156  Q 832. Back

157  Q 870. Back

158  Home Office Probation Circular 45/98 21 July 1998. Back

159  £250m over three years has been allocated to this strategy: see Home Secretary's statement of 21 July 1998 Official Report cols 914-915. Back

160  ACOP Press Notice 21 July 1998. Back

161  NAPO circular 22 July 1998. Back

162  Appendix 27. Back

163  Q 590. Back

164  Q 611. Back

165  Appendix 16 Back

166  Q 727. Back

167  Q 829. Back

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