Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Welcome to Professor Morgan and his colleagues. I think it is your first visit here. Is that right?
  (Professor Morgan) Thank you. It is.

  2. This is one of a series of occasional one-off evidence sessions we do with agencies whose work comes within our remit. We are not going to be doing a report into the work of the Probation Service, though that is something we may return to in the future. I gather you want to make one or two preliminary observations, but if you are going to read a statement out, could I discourage you from doing so.
  (Professor Morgan) I am not going to do that. I just thought it might be helpful, Mr Chairman, if I said one or two things preparatory to the dialogue we are going to have about the changes that have taken place since you last considered the whole area of probation policy regarding the Inspectorate. Of course, the most important thing that has happened has been the formation of the National Probation Service and the formation of the National Probation Directorate in April 2001. I mention this because in many respects the Inspectorate of Probation prior to that change was a sort of surrogate directorate; the only way the Home Office knew a great deal about the way the 54 more or less autonomous local probation services were operating was through the data collected during the course of inspection by the Inspectorate. My predecessor, Sir Graham Smith, who sadly died last year following his retirement, was very much interested in policy formation. The point I am trying to make is that the role of the Inspectorate has changed; there is now a proper directorate, and we have to behave more like an arm's length inspectorate than was the case hitherto. That means that we have handed over to the National Probation Directorate many of the performance management type functions and the type of data collection I described which we formerly undertook. The second change is the importance—which I think arose out of your deliberations in 1998—of the criminal justice agencies working more closely together. You were much preoccupied in your 1998 report with the exchange of intelligence and information between the police and the probation services. If the criminal justice agencies are going to work more effectively together, the implication is that the inspectorates should work more effectively together. One development since 1998 of which you may be unaware is that the five criminal justice inspectorates now have a forum; the five chief inspectors meet on a regular basis, roughly every six weeks, and more and more of their work is being conducted together. So there may be aspects of that which you may wish to follow up in the discussion that we have.

  3. Thank you very much indeed. One other preliminary question: should the Inspectorate be given responsibility for overseeing the work of the Directorate as well, do you think?
  (Professor Morgan) My reading of the Act is that it has. Unlike the Chief Inspector of Prisons, who is the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and not the Prison Service, the statute appoints me to be the Chief Inspector of the Probation Service, and although s.6 talks about us having a programme of inspection to look at the provision made by each of the 42 boards, we are nevertheless the Inspectorate of the Probation Service, and I take that to include the National Directorate. So if we find that the performance of an area is affected by the infrastructural arrangements around that, be that at regional level or national level, then we shall make findings and recommendations in relation to that.

  4. But you have not done yet?
  (Professor Morgan) No. I do not know at what stage you would like me to do this, but in the light of the changes that I described in the introduction, we are developing a new inspection programme which will begin life in June of this year—we are currently piloting it—and that reflects those changes, and it is our proposal to make provision for findings in relation to the regional and the national structure, as well as the areas.
  (Mr Hutchings) We are also in the middle of completing a thematic report on the governance of probation areas by probation boards, which, as well as focusing on probation boards, will focus on the work of the National Directorate, and has included meetings with the National Director and with section heads in the National Directorate as part of that inspection.

  5. So if the evidence caused you to criticise the work of the Directorate, you would?
  (Professor Morgan) Yes.

  6. You said you cherish the independence of the Inspectorate. Is there a problem of perception that your relationship with the Home Office is too cosy?
  (Professor Morgan) It is not for me to say what is the perception of others. I do not perceive there to be a problem. Whether others foresee a problem or perceive a problem in the light of history I do not know. It is the case, as I explained in my introduction, that the Inspectorate was, I think, widely perceived as being very influential in relation to policy formation. You will have noted from your 1998 investigation that Sir Graham Smith and his colleagues were very influential in the introduction of the so-called "What Works" programme. I do not think that is perceived as compromising our independence, but we shall unflinchingly display it in the future if that is the perception.

  7. One of the agencies whose opinions we sought suggested there was too cosy a relationship. You are based there, are you not?
  (Professor Morgan) We have just moved, and we think our new location is symbolically rather important: we are now in a building just off Great Peter Street which is halfway between Queen Anne's Gate and Horseferry House, the headquarters of the Probation Service. That building we share with the Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prison and Probation Ombudsman. So we have three accountability bodies all in one independent building.

  8. You have obviously grappled with that problem of perception. What aspects of the Inspectorate's work do you most value?
  (Professor Morgan) I think we have to regard the area inspection programme as the core of our work. It is required in the statute, and it is fundamentally important in terms of explaining why the pattern of compliance with the targets laid down by government and the national standards for community sentences are or are not being met. It is our duty to reach behind the data now being collected by the National Directorate to explain why the patterns are as they are.

  9. How many such inspections do you do a year?
  (Professor Morgan) We are planning in the new inspection programme to do all 42 areas during a three-year cycle, so we will be visiting every area at least once every three years, but we may visit more than once. Hitherto, we have routinely done follow-up, and the follow-up to an inspection has depended upon performance. In the future we are not going to have routine follow-up on the grounds that we think that is properly a managerial function, but we will be doing follow-up if there arises out of an inspection serious concern about some aspect of their operation, and we intend that that follow-up should be focused and rapid—focused on the problem and within three to six months. So we may have occasion to return to an area in order to follow up a specific issue.

  10. Of those you have done so far, have you found any probation service that has given you cause for serious concern?
  (Professor Morgan) The new programme, as I said previously, is not starting until June, so this new regime is not yet in operation, but hitherto, of course, some of our follow-ups have been because of poor performance, and they have been therefore quite intensive.

  11. But you have not found any performing catastrophically?
  (Professor Morgan) I do not think I would use the term "catastrophically" but some of the performance has not been good.

  12. You do theme-based reports as well, do you not?
  (Professor Morgan) We do. Hitherto we have done quite a large number, and of those in the past year that I think have been particularly important was one which we conducted jointly with the Inspectorate of Prisons on prisoner resettlement, and that in terms of its focus and its findings was very similar to the Social Exclusion Unit report of which you may be aware published last year. It covered very similar ground. But yes, we have done several thematic reports, increasingly, as I said in my introduction, jointly with other inspectorates. We have recently completed one on children safeguards, and we have others in the pipeline, the most important of which I think is an area inspection which we are jointly going to undertake with all four of the other criminal justice inspectorates in September of this year, when we are proposing simultaneously, all five inspectorates, to go into one area and to look not just at the operation of the five agencies, but also at the interfaces between them. I think you will recognise from your 1998 report how important that is. I asked myself the question: what is the point in the Probation Service standard requiring that, if an offender is in breach of an order, action has to be taken within so many days, if the warrant is not subsequently executed and the case is not listed by a magistrates' court for several months? It is sensible that these issues be looked at simultaneously by the inspectorates jointly, and this we intend to do on a pilot basis in September.

  13. The thing I most remember about our 1998 inquiry was Sir Graham Smith telling us that, of the large number of community service projects he had looked at, which was in the middle two hundreds, as I recall, only four or five had what he would describe as a "robust analysis" of whether they had worked or not, and another 20 or 30—and I am speaking from memory here, so do not hold me precisely to the figures—had some sort of mechanism in place for measuring outcomes, but the rest, he said, did not. Presumably that has changed, has it?
  (Professor Morgan) I think you can approach that question in a variety of ways, and I am not quite sure what was meant by the original statement. I can say that I make it my business to try and visit areas, quite apart from the inspection programme that all my colleagues are engaged in, at least once a week, and I have visited quite a few community punishment projects. Quite a lot of them are challenging, demanding, robust in that descriptive sense, in the sense of what people are required to do. If you look at the latest follow-up data produced by the Home Office, one of the interesting things is, whatever is being done to evaluate the effectiveness of particular programmes locally, the best scores in terms of follow-up reduced re-offending have been achieved by community punishment orders.
  (Mr Hutchings) I think Sir Graham Smith's remark was actually related to group work programmes being run by probation services before the National Probation Service came into being, and they have of course been supplanted by the national accredited programmes that have come into operation since then.

  14. Which was presumably one of the outcomes of the What Works inquiry.
  (Mr Hutchings) Yes. We undertook an inquiry on What Works at that time, looking at the effectiveness of existing programmes run by the probation service.

  15. I think the figures that he was quoting probably arose from that inquiry.
  (Mr Hutchings) Yes, and they were disappointing figures.

  16. What I am trying to check with you is whether things have changed significantly for the better since then.
  (Mr Hutchings) There is a national programme of accredited programmes in operation now, operational in all probation areas, subject to audit by HMIP as well.
  (Mr Ramell) In terms of evaluation, which I think was a particular issue that you raised which Sir Graham Smith touched on, evaluation of those accredited programmes which are being rolled out nationally by the National Probation Directorate is being addressed on a more systematic basis. The Research, Statistics and Development Directorate in the Home Office are working to ensure that those programmes are assessed and evaluated on a rigorous basis, and among other things, examining re-conviction rates when they become available in due course. So that issue certainly is being addressed, and the position has certainly improved relative to the position that Sir Graham Smith reported.

  17. Over what period would re-conviction rates be measured? Is it the first six months or a year or what?
  (Mr Ramell) The period which usually is looked at is two years, and our view in the Inspectorate is that that is an appropriate period. Clearly, in one sense, of course, the ideal is to be able to look at issues in five years and further on. There is also a case for looking at shorter term re-conviction rates, for example one year, to get a quicker picture about what is happening. The danger, of course, is that that may measure short-term benefits, short-term reductions in re-offending, but not lasting ones. So although there is no overall answer, no magic formula, two years is probably the right length of time to look at.

  18. That is the template presently used, is it?
  (Mr Ramell) Absolutely, yes.

  Mr Prosser

  19. Professor Morgan, the Chairman has just been reminding us of some of the views of your predecessor, Sir Graham Smith, and you will also know that he harboured doubts about the formation of a National Probation Service. With your experience so far, could you give us your view? Would you say that the advantages of having a unified national system outweigh some of the drawbacks of losing the autonomy of the local services?

  (Professor Morgan) You may be aware that the National Director, Eithne Wallis, promulgated a document called The New Choreography to describe the new arrangements, and one of the one-liners in it is a commitment to "strong centre, strong local." In the early days of the National Probation Service priority has been given to the need for central direction. I think my predecessor Graham Smith saw the need for that, that there was a need to develop policies to do away with what is often now referred to as "postcode justice" whereby the way that orders were operated varied a good deal from one office and one service to another. So I think there has been a good deal of emphasis in the early days on promulgating policies at the centre, to try and standardise precisely what a community penalty means in practice, and I think we all agree that that was necessary, and my predecessor agreed with that. There are those who think that that has gone too far, and are vaguely critical of the decision to contract out certain services in relation to the estate, to hostels, for example, support services, which are now being handled entirely from the centre so that the 42 areas do not have any discretion over how that is managed; the contracts have been fixed from the centre. I personally think it is too early to form a judgement about that. The central directorate thought that it was necessary on grounds of efficiency, that there were many differences between the arrangements for the estate from one area to another, and that it would be done more effectively and cost-effectively were it all managed on a central contracting basis. I think it is too early to judge whether some of the problems that are arising out of that, and the costs, which the areas are complaining have increased without a concomitant increase in performance in the way services are met locally, are teething problems or whether it reflects a more long-term problem. We would argue that there are some aspects of policy that require yet further central direction. For example, in our annual report last year we mentioned that we thought there should be a standard file for the whole country. I have to say that I found it astonishing when I took this job in August 2001 and started going out with my colleagues on inspections to see that each one of the 42 areas has a different case file system; the manner in which information is recorded literally differs from one area to another. This is a problem, because offenders move; a significant proportion of them move during the course of an order. It clearly is not efficient if probation officers suddenly have to cope with a file that is organised in a different way from that to which they are used. So we think there is further work to be done, and in response to our recommendation the National Directorate has now said that there is to be a national case file recording system, though how long it is going to take to introduce remains to be seen. Another issue about which we think there is need for central direction is the need for more advice from the centre on some aspects of public protection and what constitutes a high-risk case. If you look at our annual report for last year, you will see that we recorded that the proportion of the case load that is deemed to be high-risk varies very substantially from one probation area to another, from literally, at one end of the spectrum, less than one per cent to as many as 40 per cent of cases deemed to be high-risk. That does not make any sense. If a case is deemed to be high-risk, it is covered by certain procedures now, which are themselves resource-intensive, and it does not make sense if people who should not be regarded as high-risk are subject to those procedures. So we think there is a need for more advice from the centre. On the other hand, perhaps not as much attention has been given to "strong local" as might be the case, and we look to see how that will be fleshed out in the future. We now have 42 probation boards. My colleague John Hutchings said we have just undertaken a study—we have not yet reported—on the governance of the Service, and one of the things we are looking at there is the function of the boards and whether they have realised their potential. I think they probably have not yet realised their potential in acting, for example, as ambassadors for the Service within the localities. I am a very strong believer personally in the need for strong partnerships between the Probation Service and the voluntary sector and other agencies, and those "horses for courses" issues should vary a great deal depending upon what infrastructure of voluntary agencies there is locally and what can be developed locally in the light of local offending patterns, which is something that I recall Graham Smith brought to your attention. So I think the jury is out as to how well it is working. I think a lot has been achieved in a remarkably short time. I think conspicuous leadership has been given by the National Director, but whether or not all the potential for local variation, whether there is as yet sufficient manoeuvrability for the local boards and chiefs to respond to local circumstances, is possibly something one will need to look at closely in the future.

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