Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. You say the jury is out and it is early days yet, and I can understand that, but in the past two years are you able to pinpoint your successes and your failures under the new system?
  (Professor Morgan) One thing we can say is that when you have amalgamations in the private sector, in industry, there is said often to be a fall-off in performance. We have had significant amalgamations. The 54 local services have been reduced to 42 areas. There have been significant amalgamations. Those cause major disruption. They challenge traditional cultures, ways of working, reorganisation, etc. There does not seem to have been a dip in performance as a result of these very significant changes that the Service has undergone, but performance remains very variable from one part of the country to another, and no doubt amalgamation is part of the explanation as to why some areas have not made the progress that others have made.

  21. You have given us a view of some of the changes you want to see happening in the future. Are there other matters of the Directorate's policy you would like to see changed or reformed?
  (Professor Morgan) It may be helpful if I say something about my philosophy first of all in terms of our relationship with the National Directorate. I think an inspectorate, if it is going to be effective, should have a close and trusting relationship with the service that it inspects. If it is not regarded as legitimate by practitioners and by those who manage the service, if it is not listened to by the Service, if it is not listened to by ministers, then it can make itself very popular with sections of the press and with some of the penal reform groups, but if no-one is listening to what it is saying and taking heed of its advice, in my judgement, it is failing to achieve much of what it ought to be achieving. I aim to have a trusting relationship with the National Directorate. That must not compromise our independence, but my philosophy is that we should never surprise them. So if we are detecting problems, my first line will always be to give them advance notice, that "We do not think what you are proposing to do here is very wise", "We are encountering problems in relation to this issue," and to communicate that directly to them. If they then fail to heed our advice, if they pursue something which we do not think to be wise, then we will make that known to the Minister, and we may make an issue of it in an annual report. We must be independent but we aim to operate in that way. There have been issues in my term of the last 18 months where we have not always agreed with the National Directorate over some aspects of policy. We brought those issues to their attention, and if they have not agreed, we have sometimes spoken about it publicly. I have already mentioned the issue about the lack of advice which we think is necessary over public protection issues and what constitutes a high-risk case. We made an issue of that in our annual report. There will be other issues. There are some that are happening now. Yes, there will be rubbing points, but that is how we aim normally to deal with it. Hitherto, it has worked very harmoniously. There is an issue as well about public confidence. It is one of the Government's aims that public confidence in the Probation Service and the criminal justice system generally should be increased, and I think that places a particular responsibility on the inspectorates to be judicious in the way they handled their doubts about performance, and I think it points in the direction that I am suggesting. That does not lead us to have a cosy relationship, and I do not wish you to draw that conclusion, but I think it means that we have to be careful as to how we handle issues where we do not think things are going as well as they might be.

  22. Are there any points of disagreement, or rubbing points, as you put it, which are current and which you feel able to share with the Committee?
  (Professor Morgan) One issue which you may wish to follow up in the questioning which is going to follow is my concern about sentencing drift, which in various articles that I have personally published I think implies not only prison over-crowding but also what I have called the "silting up" of probation caseloads with low-risk offenders. I think that is in the long term unsustainable. I think it means that, unless we are going to have a huge increase in resources for the Probation Service, it will be extremely difficult for the Probation Service to do the job that I think is required of it in terms of providing more intensive programmes for higher-risk offenders, many of whom may currently be serving short prison sentences, unless it gives up some of the work that it is currently doing for which I do not think there is need for probation attention. One of the issues that feeds into that is the Probation Service is about to roll out something called Enhanced Community Punishment, what we used to call Community Service. I do not think it will make sense if that Enhanced Community Punishment programme, which is more intensive and requires a greater allocation of resources, is devoted to a very large extent to very low-risk offenders who, frankly, do not need those attentions. I think we have to watch that, and one of the issues we have been discussing with the National Directorate is whether the target for rolling out Enhanced Community Punishment should include low-risk offenders. They have decided that it should, on the grounds that the Probation Service does not determine who gets what sentence; the courts do, so if the courts determine that low-risk offenders will get what will become Enhanced Community Punishment, there is nothing the Probation Service can do about it. They have the task to deliver it and they should be included in the target. I understand why the National Directorate is arguing that, and that is their decision. Personally, I think that could exacerbate the trend of which I am complaining. It could be an easy win for the Service. So I personally think it is unwise, though I understand why the National Directorate is pursuing it, and I think we shall mention this in our forthcoming annual report.

  Bridget Prentice

  23. You have almost seamlessly brought us into the area that I want to discuss with you, which is really about sentencing policy. You have said, and I think it is accepted, that there has been very little change in the number of people who appear before the courts, but that the number who are given custodial sentences in the past ten years has doubled. Do you think that the magistrates and the judges are actually ignorant about what their sentencing options might be, and is there anything that you or others could do about that?

  (Professor Morgan) The last thing I would describe the judiciary as being would be ignorant. I was a magistrate for 25 years, and they are certainly not ignorant. But there has been something which I think is best described as sentencing drift. It is not for me to judge why that drift has taken place. I think a large number of factors have contributed to it. I think the evidence draws us inexorably to the conclusion that offenders who 10 or 12 years ago would have been fined, or even given discharges, like for like offenders, are today being given community penalties, and offenders who 10, 12 years ago would have received community penalties are today getting short prison sentences. I am concerned about that because, as you will be aware, the short-term prison population has increased very significantly, and was the preoccupation of the Halliday Report, whose recommendations are now feeding through into the Criminal Justice Bill. They pointed out, as we pointed out in our report called Through the Prison Gate on prisoner resettlement, which we published last year, that these offenders are statistically the most likely to be re-convicted; the shorter your prison sentence, the greater the likelihood that you will be re-convicted; and they are the offenders for whom in the current system we do least. We put them generally speaking into remand centres and local prisons, which are the most depleted of resources and the most over-crowded. They are the most likely offenders to be shunted round the country because of over-crowding; they are the least likely to be the beneficiaries of programmes, the "What Works" type programmes, that are delivered within the prison system; and they are the offenders who are not subject to any statutory supervision when released. So in terms of public protection, in terms of crime reduction, it is a fairly disastrous situation and we have to address that. There are proposals to address that, of course, in the Criminal Justice Bill, but those proposals will be expensive. They imply significantly increased work for the Probation Service and they will require substantially increased resources for the Probation Service. So the question arises in my mind, if the Probation Service is going to deliver more intensive programmes, if it is going to supervise offenders who currently are not subject to supervision on release under the Custody Plus arrangements, as they are called, that is going to be a lot more work for the Probation Service. Will it get the resources to do that, and if not, should we be thinking about other work that the Probation Service is currently doing which possibly it should not be doing? Part of my argument therefore is that if we are going to redistribute resources within correctional services overall, one of the essential building blocks—and it is much neglected—is use of the fine, which we have to resuscitate. Use of the fine has declined disastrously in the last 12 years. We have the lowest unemployment rate nationally since 1992-93, and yet use of the fine for indictable offenders has reduced from 42 per cent to 27-28 per cent in the last 10-12 years. That is the silting up, as I put it, of probation caseloads.

  24. You would not say then that part of the problem is that there are too many sentencing options, but that in fact some, like the fine, are just not being used as well as they might?
  (Professor Morgan) I find it ironic that we have more sentencing options in England and Wales than any other jurisdiction in western Europe, yet the number of persons we have in prison per head of population is one of the highest. Clearly, one of the problems is that the judiciary, magistrates in particular, no longer have confidence that fines imposed on offenders will be paid and will be collected, and this, I think, was highlighted by your colleagues in a recent report from the Public Accounts Committee. My view is that we have to have proposals which give sentencers confidence once again to fine offenders proportionately, in a manner which means those fines will subsequently be collected.

  25. I have a lot of sympathy with what you have said there, but are there not two problems? One is the public demand for custodial sentences, and the other is that the Probation Service itself has caseload overload. Could the Probation Service cope with any more people on its books?
  (Professor Morgan) I wonder if we can address those issues separately, because I think the latter question is quite a complicated one, to which I think we would like between us to give you a fairly sophisticated answer. I know that there is much concern about the workload of the Probation Service, and I imagine this is something that you may wish to concentrate on. If I could come back to the question of public demand, I am not sure why you say there is public demand for custodial sentences. One of the things that I did before I took this job was to do several pieces of work on surveying public opinion for the Home Office, because I was an academic researcher before I took this job. I think if you look at all of the evidence, it is not the case that there is a ferocious public demand for more custodial sentencing. What the public want is effective sentencing; they want sentencing to work. It is more a question of providing the evidence that certain things do work. What I think the public needs to be educated about is that, frankly, it does not work to place more and more offenders in short-term custodial sentences where very little is done to address their offending behaviour, where they are not subject to supervision and where the likelihood of them re-offending and being re-convicted at a very high rate is rather high. That does not provide public protection. So I think we need to be a bit more sophisticated about the way we use the public opinion evidence, which I think is much more complex than it is often described as being, and that we have to seriously address the whole issue of public education. Let me put it like this. I have been discomfited in the last six weeks by the fact that I go out and I meet probation officers who I think are doing a challenging job and an effective job, and working pretty long hours, delivering accredited programmes, the evidence of effectiveness of which is rather good. If it is being said nationally that anything less than a custodial sentence is being "let off" and if such statements are not being challenged—and I regret to say that such statements have been made in the last six weeks and they have gone unchallenged—I do not think that increases the morale of the average probation officer. There needs to be a much higher and more positive media profile from the Probation Service to explain the work that the Probation Service is doing, and to defend it as being something that is demanding and is challenging and is potentially effective. So I think the public opinion evidence is complex, but we also have a task of public education to undertake.

  26. Before we go on to the caseload, can I just ask you on that, is the Government letting the Probation Service down by not making that case for them too?
  (Professor Morgan) I think it is variable. I think the Probation Service is currently better supported than it has been for many a year. After severe cuts in the mid-Nineties, which had implications for staffing levels overall, and which possibly we can go on to, there have been significant increases in resources in the last few years, and I think there is now a high level of support for the Probation Service, and that this is frequently being expressed publicly and this is much appreciated by the Probation Service. But I think there needs to be more. Sometimes, when controversy is around, it is lost.

  27. Would you like to tell me a bit more about the caseload problem?
  (Professor Morgan) Yes. This is something that the Inspectorate is preoccupied with. There have been quite a few media reports about the workload of the Probation Service which, frankly, have been misguided. If you look at the probation statistics, there is one table which presents the number of offenders being supervised by the Probation Service in relation to qualified probation officers, and you might draw the conclusion from that that the average caseload of the average probation officer has literally doubled during the period 1991-2001 approximately. But of course, that does not tell the story, because qualified probation officers now constitute less than half of all of the staff in the Probation Service. One of the big changes in recent years has been the introduction of so-called probation service officers, who perform a wide variety of functions, including supervision of offenders and the rolling out of the so-called "What Works" programmes, and their work is in many respects just as important as that of qualified probation officers. If you relate the caseload to all front-line staff, qualified probation officers and probation service officers, then there has been an increase in the caseload, but it is nowhere near 100 per cent; it is more like 30 per cent.


  28. Can you just tell us where you say that in your report?

  (Professor Morgan) We do not say it in that report. I am drawing your attention to a table in the probation statistics.

  29. The statistics that I remember are that the caseload has doubled, but I may have taken that from somewhere else.
  (Professor Morgan) This is what I am trying to draw attention to. I think any suggestion that caseloads have doubled is frankly fallacious, and is based upon data which are no longer appropriate. We should be talking about caseloads in relation to front-line staff and not just qualified probation officers.

  30. Are you going to address this point in your annual report or somewhere?
  (Professor Morgan) We are periodically, and we may indeed talk about it in the annual report. What I am saying is there has been an increase in the caseload but, if you take realistic figures of all the staff that are now employed, it is nowhere near a doubling over the last 12 years.

  31. If that is your view, I think you ought to state that in your report, because if it is a misconception, it is a fairly major one.
  (Professor Morgan) Thank you for that advice. However, I would like also to say that you can argue the other way. The workload of the Probation Service is not just represented in terms of caseload. Over the last 12 years we have introduced national standards for reporting, for contact, for breach, etc, and there is no doubt that a community punishment order today is much more professional and intensive than it was 10 or 12 years ago. In addition, we have the accredited programmes. So what offenders now receive by way of contact and programmes in the course of a community rehabilitation order is much more intensive than it was hitherto, and that is not adequately reflected in the statistics, so I am now switching the argument the other way, and I am saying the caseload figures are misleading in some respects, and you need to relate it to all the staff, but equally, the caseload figures do not adequately represent the work that the Service now undertakes and how that has changed.

  Bridget Prentice

  32. I do not know if Mr Ramell wants to add anything to that.

  (Mr Ramell) It might just be worth adding that perhaps the missing piece of information to complete the picture is an indication of the degree of increase in the workload involved in an individual case, and that is an issue which we have raised with our colleagues in the National Probation Directorate as a matter needing addressing, and they are currently working on getting better and updated measures of workload for an individual case, and that will clearly complete the picture in terms of then giving a clearer view about the overall increase in workload over the last decade. As Professor Morgan says, on the one hand the actual increase in caseload has been more modest than is claimed, but equally the work involved in an individual case has doubtless increased.

  33. Much as I would like to ask you if you can specify what that workload is, I doubt you can, given that every individual case will clearly be different, but in some regions there is some form of industrial action going on at the moment, is there not, because of workload? What kind of effect is that having?
  (Professor Morgan) I think the broader question needs to be asked whether the Probation Service has the resources that it needs, and I think what I was trying to do was to move towards the suggestion that I cannot give you a definitive answer to that. We do not have a definitive answer. We think it is an issue that needs much greater attention, and we need to have much more information. The National Directorate is developing something called a workload measurement tool more effectively to look at that. I am sorry to use the phrase again, but I think the jury is out on the issue. What is clear is that there are signs of strain. We have industrial action for the first time for many years taking place in a small minority of areas. We also have a problem that some probation areas are not able to deliver to the courts all of the reports that the courts are requesting of them. This is an issue that the Inspectorate took up last summer following receipt by me of a letter from the Lord Chief Justice expressing concern. The Lord Chief Justice used a rather telling phrase in his letter. He said, "How can the judiciary have confidence that the Probation Service can effectively supervise the offenders allocated to them if they cannot apparently prepare the reports that we request of them in all cases?" For that reason, we decided we would look into that issue and try to discover how many areas were unable to deliver all the reports requested of them by the courts, and what measures they were taking to prioritise their work, and we undertook a national survey to do that. What we discovered was that now most areas have prioritised their work, and we thought that was necessary, but only a very small minority of areas currently are unable to deliver in a timely fashion all of the reports requested of them by the courts.

  34. Presumably, you have made that view known to the Lord Chief Justice.
  (Professor Morgan) Indeed we have. Yes, of course.

  35. Is that partly because of what you were saying earlier about the courts perhaps looking for reports where it might have been better not to look for reports?
  (Professor Morgan) One of the issues that I have raised—and I have raised it incidentally because it is a point that has been raised with me by many Chief Officers—is that, as you noted earlier, the number of defendants before the courts is very similar today to what it was ten years ago, but of course, the number of reports being requested of the Service has increased. There was, incidentally, an error in my letter to you, Mr Chairman, preceding this hearing, when I suggested that the number of court reports had increased by 40 per cent. In fact, it should be more in the region of 20-25 per cent. Nevertheless, there has been a significant increase in the number of court reports requested, and many Chief Officers take the view that many of those reports are not necessary. There is something now called a Specific Sentence Report. You may be aware we have something called a PSR, Pre-Sentence Report, and an SSR, and the idea of an SSR was that it was going to be a more focused, briefer and less time-consuming report to prepare. Regrettably, some of the early evidence suggests that, instead of displacing PSRs, SSRs are being added, ie SSRs are being asked for in cases where possibly a PSR would probably never have been asked for—a familiar net-widening problem. I think there needs to be an effective dialogue between the Probation Service and the courts, particularly the magistrates' courts, where most of these additional reports are being generated, about the circumstances under which it is necessary to have a report, because they are very time-consuming to prepare, and if the court wishes to have a report, what is the most efficient form for it to take. I think there needs to be a more sophisticated dialogue about that. That is possibly part of the overload.

  36. Final question, to which I suspect the answer is no: has spending increased in proportion to the caseload in the last ten years?
  (Professor Morgan) I am not sure that we can answer that question. It is not a figure that I have at my fingertips. Possibly we could send you a note subsequent to this hearing about that.[1]


37. Yes, that would be helpful. It has increased actually since 1991 from £334 million to £577 million, but that is not in real terms.

  (Professor Morgan) That is not related to caseload, and as I have earlier argued, I also think that caseload as a measure of the needs of the Service is very crude and understates the increased nature of the work being required of the Probation Service.

  38. Coming back to workload for a moment, is it a London problem, or perhaps a London and the South East problem?
  (Professor Morgan) There is undoubtedly a problem for the Probation Service in the South East, as there is in the public sector generally, of recruiting and retaining staff, a significant problem. Some of the south-eastern areas are significantly below their complement of staff because of that issue.

  39. That is probably the explanation. There is a danger, I suppose, that the difficulties in London and the South East are represented in some quarters as applying to the whole country.
  (Professor Morgan) It is a particular problem for the Probation Service because, as you may be aware, the new amalgamated London area accounts for some 20-22 per cent of the overall caseload for the whole country.
  (Mr Hutchings) It is about 20 per cent. While the vacancy situation is at its most acute in the South East, there has been a national shortage of qualified probation officers. I know in correspondence this week with the Leicestershire and Rutland Probation Area, they have not been able to fill all their probation officer vacancies at the moment. So I would say the South East has it worst, but there is a national issue as well.

1   See Ev 18-19 Back

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