Session 2010-11
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U NCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 519 - ii

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

JUSTICE Committee

The role of the Probation Service

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Mark Mitchell, Barrie Crook and Lesley Thompson

Robin Wilkinson and Alan Woods

Evidence heard in Public Questions 159 - 213

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Justice Committee

on Tuesday 2 November 2010

Members present:

Sir Alan Beith (Chair)

Mr Robert Buckland

Chris Evans

Mr Elfyn Llwyd

Claire Perry

Mrs Linda Riordan

Anna Soubry

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Mark Mitchell, Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth, Barrie Crook, Chief Executive, Hampshire Probation Trust and Learning and Development lead for Probation Chiefs Association, and Lesley Thompson, Director, North West Training Consortium, gave evidence.

Chair: Mr Crook from the Hampshire Probation Trust and the Probation Chiefs Association, Ms Thompson from the North West Training Consortium, and Mr Mitchell from the University of Portsmouth-welcome.

We are very grateful to you for helping us with our inquiry into the probation service, which follows on from our justice reinvestment report, because a necessary consequence of doing what we recommended on justice reinvestment is to have some of the kinds of services that the probation service has traditionally provided, so we want to explore how the probation service can do that. In particular, this morning, we have a major focus on training. We are awaiting Government proposals about how some of these facilities are going to be provided in the future. While for today there is a focus around training, some of the wider issues will be raised as well.

Q159 Mr Llwyd: Good morning. If I may, can I just provide some context to the questions I am going to be asking? My understanding is that in December 2009, 241,500 offenders were under supervision, representing a 38% increase on the previous 10 years. In 2008, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s, London, reported that while numbers of frontline probation staff grew by 21% between 2002 and 2006, this was mostly concentrated amongst senior and management grades and the less qualified probation service officers. In actual fact, the numbers of fully qualified and trainee probation officers fell by 9% in that time.

The National Audit Office, to boot, has said that sick leave in the probation service in 2006 ran at an average of 12.3 days per person in 2004-05, and one third of this sickness was attributed to stress and anxiety. There have been some headline cases, and I would refer you to the Sonnex case, which of course is what some regard as the tip of an iceberg but a very unusual case on its own merits. Mr Crook, the inquiries into the management of Daniel Sonnex identified problems with the recruitment and retention of qualified probation staff in London. Is this a wider problem-in other words a nationwide problem as well?

Barrie Crook: I don’t think it is to the same degree, but I think you will find variations across the country in different probation trusts, in terms of their levels of recruitment and retention. So certain probation trusts experience high levels of turnover in relation to probably all grades of staff, but particularly probation officers. Others have very settled staff teams and therefore do not need to recruit so often.

Q160 Mr Llwyd: But I know from my own experience in Wales, for example, that a year ago virtually 20% of those who qualified were offered a job. Is that the kind of scenario that we're looking at throughout the UK?

Barrie Crook: I think that varies from year to year. I think, in the current year, certainly my experience in the south-east is that all qualifying probation officers have been offered employment. That was more difficult in the year before. I think from year to year it can vary. I think Mr Mitchell and my colleagues here would have wider information than I can perhaps bring, but it is not a uniform picture across the country.

Q161 Mr Llwyd: But the truth is, of course, particularly in the probation service, that there is a churn, isn’t there, so some experienced people are leaving?

Barrie Crook: Yes.

Q162 Mr Llwyd: And then youngsters are coming in. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but the balance may not always be right.

Barrie Crook: No, and you referred back to the growth of different grades of staff. Certainly, the probation services officer grade has grown significantly in the last 10 years- actually probably since 1997-which is not unusual because that kind of element of task flexibility where a different grade of staff emerges to support the more highly professionally qualified grade of staff is not peculiar to probation. It happens in health; it has happened in the police.

That particular group of staff grew much more quickly for two reasons. One was that there was the gap in probation officer training in the late 1990s, but, secondly, because some of the increased investment in the national probation service was focused on interventions such as accredited offending behaviour programmes, which are broadly where the front-line officer is a probation service officer rather than a trained probation officer in many cases.

Q163 Mr Llwyd: Ms Thompson or Professor Mitchell, do you want to add anything?

Mark Mitchell: I think there are differences, as Mr Crook has said, in terms of different parts of the country. I think you have identified London and Wales-they are very different. We are the newly contracted HE provider in Wales and I have spent quite a lot of time there over the last five or six months getting to know the Principality. It is clear to me that some of the problems with the recruitment of the TPOs who have come through the previous programme-The diploma in probation studies programme-are that when trainee probation officers become newly qualified officers, they are sometimes not able to travel to the parts of the country where newly qualified officers are needed, because of the problems of moving from north to south, for example. I think there are particular problems in Wales that are not quite as present in other parts of the country.

It is true that both last year’s trainee probation officers, when they qualified, and this year’s-not all of them-are being offered probation officer posts straightaway. They are being employed on temporary probation services officer posts. But I think the trust has a view that over time they will be found PO posts as and when they become available within a reasonable geographical distance of where they live and have worked.

Q164 Mr Llwyd: Ms Thompson, do you want to add anything?

Lesley Thompson: I would agree with everything that my colleagues have said. Certainly in the north-west, we have done everything we can to provide employment in one way or another for qualifying trainee probation officers. I think that, looking forward, the new probation qualifying framework is designed to give more flexibility for trusts in terms of work force planning.

Q165 Mr Llwyd: Mr Crook, again, there is a reference here to the Sonnex matter among others. What would you say was an acceptable case load for an individual probation services officer, and what would you think was reasonable for a newly qualified person?

Barrie Crook: I think it is very difficult to answer the question in quite that form because you may be aware that the probation service grades the level of risk of different offenders in four tiers. Most probation trusts don't work on the notion of an average case load. They try to allocate a level of time and capacity according to each case. A newly qualified officer could take on a larger number of lower-risk cases or a smaller number of high-risk cases. The kind of mix that they inherit or take on when they are qualifying would depend on their levels of experience and the nature of the case load of the team to which they are going. I would be reluctant to say that 20 or 30 cases is the right kind of figure because the nature of those cases could be very different according to the context.

Q166 Mr Llwyd: Do you identify with-or have you heard-the following? Probation officers tell me that-this is an appalling phrase-their "face time" with their clients is limited to under 10 minutes per week and that most of the rest of the week is spent punching information into a computer.

Barrie Crook: I think there is an exaggeration in the way that is presented. If you are looking at a very broad average-again, because of the nature and demands of particular cases-you wouldn't get a true picture of the level of time allocated to a case. That might be very true of someone who is perhaps a tier 2 offender, who may be in the middle of their order, for example, and might not need a great deal of time, but with a tier 4 case coming out of prison with MAPPA implications, an officer could spend several days in that week working around that particular case, so I think it is extremely difficult to generalise.

I am aware of the issue about face-to-face contact with offenders. Most of the recent studies that have been done show that face-to-face direct contact with offenders accounts for less than 30% of an officer’s time. That doesn’t mean to say that 70% is spent on entering information into a computer, because although OASys does demand time and it is important that good risk assessments and sentence plans are completed, there may be a range of other tasks the officer is undertaking in terms of partnership work with agencies, for example, or a MAPPA meeting, and they get credited too.

Q167 Mr Llwyd: I referred earlier to sickness. My understanding is that probation trusts have been successful in reducing absences in recent years.

Barrie Crook: Yes, we have.

Q168 Mr Llwyd: What has contributed to this reduction and can this be sustained if there are to be significant financial cuts in the service?

Barrie Crook: I think a range of factors have contributed to this. I think we can start with the fact that we have a nationally agreed absence policy that is agreed with the trade unions, which is very important for local probation trusts. Local trusts have then agreed their own policy and procedures at a local level with their trade unions.

We have put in place some very good and strong management practices to reduce the length of absence that may have accumulated in the past, and certainly supported front-line managers very much with training and HR advice. Many of us have reinvested in different occupational health services so that we have got a good level of occupational health support and advice for line managers. The issue has been tackled in a number of ways and it is all those factors together that have contributed to the significant reductions that we have achieved over the last three to four years.

Q169 Mr Llwyd: In your opinion-this is a question for you all, I think-how will the new qualifying arrangements address any problems with the retention of probation officers and probation services officers?

Mark Mitchell: I think with the previous programme-the diploma in probation studies-although a small proportion of the people recruited to that programme had previously worked for the probation service, the majority had not. No matter how carefully the recruitment and selection was done, there was always a small number of people who were genuinely put off by their first meeting with an offender and the notion that they had to supervise offenders, and a small proportion of people dropped out or failed to complete the programme as a result.

The new PQF-the probation qualifications framework-will avoid that because people recruited to that programme will already be working in probation and will have demonstrated to their employer that they are competent probation services officers who have the potential to move onwards and upwards and to become full probation officers. I think that that will result in a higher completion rate and less withdrawal from the programme, at least, due to the fact that people did not understand the nature of the job when they were recruited to it.

Lesley Thompson: The framework is designed in such a way that the managers can manage the progress of learners through that framework, so we will not have a situation where we have people recruited as a trainee probation officer for a two-year period, and then when that two-year period finishes, they are no longer a trainee, and there is the question of are they going to be employed or are they not going to be employed.

The feedback I am getting from probation service officers is that they see this as a good opportunity, in that they would have previously not applied to be a trainee probation officer because they would have had to resign from the service as a PSO and then have to be employed as a trainee probation officer. This gives them the opportunity to progress. It gives them career development, but it would be driven by the employers who can manage the progress through so that they can then plan how many people they want to go through each stage and, if necessary, hold back for a period of time and then progress them at a later stage. So, it puts them in the driving seat.

Q170 Chris Evans: Before I begin, Sir Alan, I would like to declare an interest. My sister is actually employed by the probation service in Pontypridd at the moment.

The Ministry of Justice described the diploma in probation studies, which was introduced in 1998, as "no longer fit for purpose". However, the HM Inspector of Probation, when he examined the extent to which training courses equipped new probation officers with the appropriate skills and knowledge in 2003, described the diploma as an "effective means of training probation practitioners". Which one is right?

Mark Mitchell: I think they are both right, actually. I think that we have learned. The diploma in probation studies was a good qualification because it carefully integrated the development of practice competence with the infusion of underlying skills, knowledge and understanding. It has produced the vast majority of the qualified work force in probation, but there were problems with it. For example, the trainee probation officers were recruited at the beginning of October each year and, two years later, large numbers of qualified officers arrived on Barrie’s doorstep and those of other chief officers to be employed. Now, gaps in your work force don’t occur at one point in the year. You need a flexible approach to training so that people are available for employment as probation officers when vacancies become available. So the flexibility of the diploma in probation studies was a problem.

Secondly, as we have already said, probation service officers-experienced staff who had already proved themselves to their employers-had to resign their current posts, take a drop in salary and give up their accrued benefits to take on a trainee probation officer post, without any guarantee of a job at the end. Frankly, one of the great faults of the DipPS was that it missed out the further training and development of a large group of staff in the probation service who were capable of functioning at a higher level as fully qualified officers, but have not been able-for family reasons or financial reasons-to take that opportunity in the past. I think the PQF builds on the strengths of the diploma in probation studies with a more flexible employer-led qualification that is going to serve the needs of the probation service better in the future.

Q171 Chris Evans: When people go into the probation service, do you think that they know what they are letting themselves in for? Some people go in expecting to build a relationship with the offender. Others go in thinking it is an administrative role, as my colleague has said, involving data input. Do you think the trainee is given a clear idea of what is expected of them?

Lesley Thompson: I think it does give a good idea of what is expected of them. From my experience, I think it is when trainee probation officers apply on the spur of the moment. Sometimes they see this and think, "Oh, that would be a good job to go into." I think it is very often the type of work where they do not know what is expected of them. It is when they get into the training and realise that, actually, they are expected to deal with serious offenders.

I have sat there and interviewed numbers of people, and listened thinking, "They think they are joining to work with young people," or, "They've not got the right idea about the type of people they are going to be working with." We train them and I think, as Mark has said, the content of the DipPS has been excellent.

I think perhaps then there is another little bit of a gap when they go out to start to work, and that is where some of the administrative requirements-the hitting of targets-maybe kicks in a little bit. But I think we do give them a good understanding of the type of work and the type of offenders who they need to work with.

Q172 Chris Evans: Where do you think that misconception comes from where they think they are working with young people or they are doing something else outside the main role of the probation service? Is it the way the advertisement is written, or is it the perception or something like that?

Lesley Thompson: I think it is like Mark said. People come from outside and we give them lots of materials so that they know what it is about. I think they just are not quite prepared for what the reality is.

Barrie Crook: I think the general understanding among the general public of what the probation service does is quite limited, so therefore it is often identified with working with young people.

Can I just respond also to your earlier point about the two qualifications? I think the other thing that the new qualification gives us is the opportunity to train more of our staff to a required level-the PSO grades who may not necessarily go on to train as probation officers. Actually, we will lift the standards of that grade of staff, many of whom carry out much of the face-to-face work with lower risk offenders and, until now, have had no qualifications or a standard of that kind for us to train them to.

Q173 Chris Evans: I can't give you any hard evidence; I can give you only anecdotal stuff that I’ve been hearing, obviously. The problem seems to be time. The case load seems to be so high that it is fitting the training in. Is that an issue right across the board or is that just something I am picking up anecdotally? I haven't got any evidence of that obviously.

Barrie Crook: There are specific time allocations within the new qualification that are required at each stage. At the moment I think my feeling is that funding is available for there to be backfill for those cohorts to be undertaken. How that will be going forward, as we build a larger number of staff going through both the VQ level 3 and the kind of higher qualifications, is more difficult to say because, clearly, we don't know whether funding will underpin it or not. But the ability to backfill someone while they undertake a day’s study leave or something like that is absolutely crucial.

Q174 Chris Evans: What are you actually looking for? What qualities are you looking for in somebody who comes to you who wants to be a probation officer? What would you say are the key attributes?

Lesley Thompson: What we are looking for are values in equality and diversity, and a belief that an individual can change. We are looking for good communication skills, the ability to relate to others and the ability to engage with offenders. We are looking for good analytical skills and the ability to make judgments, to work with partners and to work in partnership with other people. Those are the sorts of things we are looking for when we recruit.

Q175 Chris Evans: I was interested in what you had to say there about the ability to change-somebody’s belief in the ability to change. How do you measure that then? That is something I would have assumed is very difficult to measure.

Lesley Thompson: Yes. When we do recruit people, we have a range of exercises as an assessment centre that, across the piece, will demonstrate all those criteria that I talked about. That will include the belief that people can change their behaviour. It is difficult to explain that but, across the piece, we do have exercises in which candidates will demonstrate their values.

Q176 Chris Evans: So if some people come to the end of the training and they are not suitable, do we have any data on the reasons why they are not suitable or anything like that?

Mark Mitchell: Do you mean in the new programme or the previous one?

Chris Evans: The new programme, yes.

Mark Mitchell: We are not at the end of the new programme yet. It has only just started in April. Just to respond to your earlier question about getting the time relief from work, unlike the trainee probation officers under the previous DipPS arrangement who were full time and supernumerary-at least in theory-to the service, of course PSOs are given protected learning time one or two days a week, depending on which phase of the programme they are in, to go through and complete their VQ elements-vocational qualifications-and also their academic study.

I think, just as we had with the DipPS back in 1998 when it started, there are bound to be implementation problems in the early stages of the programme. We started the first group in the country on the new PQF arrangements in May/June this year. One or two people in that cohort have had difficulties negotiating locally with their line manager which days of the week they will have to develop their vocational skills and to do their academic work. But, in terms of the service commitment-this is London probation we are talking about-London probation is fully signed up, has briefed all its local delivery units and has briefed all its senior probation officers, because I have been at some of the briefing meetings, as to what is expected. But with a new programme like this, you would expect local pockets where the implementation is going to take some time to bed in. I am actually quite optimistic that that will work well. Obviously the resource constraints and the uncertainties about the funding in the future are not helping the situation, but there is a lot of goodwill to make this work in the service at all levels.

Q177 Chair: Just going back for a moment to the personal qualities that Ms Thompson has raised, I do not know whether any of you had the opportunity to read or see the evidence that a group of ex-offenders gave to us a fortnight ago. A very clear message that came from more than one of them that they needed challenge from probation officers, not just tea and sympathy. There was a sense that they didn't feel they had always had that challenge to aspects of their behaviour that they were not going to change unless someone challenged them to do so. Is that something that the training does now bring out or not?

Lesley Thompson: Yes. It is quite surprising to hear that sort of response because, certainly, we are not now just in the business of befriending people and providing tea and sympathy. Probation officers’ training does involve a clear understanding of why it is that people offend, and then the tools to challenge them and to move them away from offending behaviour. That is what it will be focused on.

Q178 Chris Evans: I think one of the major criticisms of one of the witnesses was that she felt her probation officer was a friend. She wasn't actually doing anything. She was just a friend to her and she wanted a little bit more. I was wondering if that has come up as a problem for you in the past couple of years. Have there been any complaints like that?

Barrie Crook: We often get complaints the other way-that they haven’t been much of a friend or their risk assessment makes them look more dangerous than they feel they are-but not generally in that respect.

As a chief executive, I often get letters of commendation for probation officers for going the extra mile and being there for them at difficult times. I must admit, although I have not read all the evidence, I was disappointed to hear some of the negative feedback you were getting from that group because, if asked, I could bring a group of ex-offenders who we now employ in Hampshire who would give you a very different account of their experiences going through the probation service.

Chair: I think it was a realistic comment more than being a criticism. Indeed, they were very complimentary about the individuals themselves, but the feeling was that they needed more challenge than they sometimes got. These were obviously people who had changed their behaviour and were willing to do so, otherwise they wouldn't have been on the programmes that brought them in front of us, but they clearly had a sense that challenge was something that they needed in order to change.

Q179 Anna Soubry: Can I just ask on this point? You mentioned judgment in training. I don’t know how you train somebody to have good or bad judgment when they are making decisions about people. How do you do that? How do you ensure that people somehow are trained in judgment skills?

Lesley Thompson: What we are looking for when we recruit people is that they are demonstrating that they have the potential to be a probation officer. With the sort of skills that we are looking for at that level, we give them exercises to do, so they would be provided with information, and then they would have to analyse that information, provide some sort of recommendation and make some judgments on the basis of that information. That shows if they have got the potential to do that.

What we would then do in the training over the next two years is that they do the degree and they get the underpinning knowledge. Mark will probably talk a little bit more about the contents of that. They get the practice of working with offenders and starting to write reports, because what we want at the end of the two years are people who are going to be coming out who are competent and very capable probation officers who are able to provide that service to the courts, the community and the offenders, and who will need, as part of that, to be able to analyse information, make recommendations and make judgments.

Q180 Anna Soubry: Are they ever effectively asked, actually, to challenge the OASys system and the OASys analysis? I don’t know if you know that a lot of lawyers sit on this Committee, and some of us have only just finished practice, either as solicitors or barristers. A common complaint is that a probation officer nowadays is often over-reliant on the prescriptive system-i.e. OASys-and their own judgment, especially if they feel experienced, almost they feel perhaps doesn’t count for very much.

Mark Mitchell: I think it is increasingly recognised in the service that OASys is a very important tool but it won’t give you the answers. You are putting lots of figures into a computer and expecting it to give you the right judgment, but you have to make a judgment based on all the evidence. One important piece of evidence, of course, is what assessment and other actuarial tools are telling you but, in the end, it is a professional judgment.

If you are writing a report to the court, for example, about advocating a community order or a report to the parole panel about the release of a prisoner on an indeterminate public protection sentence or whatever, you have to make, in the end, a judgment. You don't make the decision, obviously, but what you say in your report is based on all the evidence. If you find, for example, that there is an OASys score that comes out but there are important protective factors in terms-I don’t know-of family relationships or a job that might be at risk if the offender is sentenced to a custodial sentence, your judgment might be that the way to ensure that those protective factors are harnessed best to reduce future reoffending or hopefully eliminate future reoffending is actually to go for a community order. That is the kind of professional judgment you have to make.

Whether you can teach that I am not sure, but it is important, I think, for probation officers to recognise, as indeed it is with all professionals, that an element of professional judgment is very important. That is why it is a profession rather than just going through the motions of doing something.

Barrie Crook: Could I just add that I think staff supervision and practice supervision are very important, particularly in terms of the element of judgment, because that kind of coaching is often the best way to help someone to reflect on their own judgment, looking at particular cases they may be handling or case material? I think that is one way in which you can help people understand and develop their judgment better.

Q181 Anna Soubry: One of the other topics that I would like to explore, if I may, is the objectivity-or perhaps the lack of it-when looking at the offence that the person has committed. There is a perception-it may be wrong-that if you have committed a sexual offence, or, as a man, if you have used violence against a woman, the person who compiles your report is already biased against you. Are you aware of that criticism and, if you are, how do you, when you are training new probation officers, ask them effectively to strip away their own natural instincts against people-obviously a paedophile would be a classic example-so that they can give as objective and honest an assessment as to sentence as possible?

Mark Mitchell: I think you have to recognise that the criminal justice system actually takes special interest in people who are guilty of sexual offences, so it is not just the probation service. You are on the sex offenders register, and even when your sentence is completed, you remain on that register for a period of time, so it is not just probation officers.

I think one of the things that Lesley was talking about earlier about values is that it is very important to have a recognition of the human being behind the offence with which we label, even with the most heinous crimes. That is one of the important starting points of probation. But probation officers have to protect the public, and when you have serious sexual or violent offences, it is very important that public protection is at the forefront of a probation officer’s mind when they are making a recommendation about sentence or the arranging of a multi-agency public protection system to ensure that the offender doesn’t reoffend. There are a relatively small number of offenders who are dangerous and need to be supervised properly. You can have all the basic human values you like but, in the end, it is the job of the probation service to protect the public in that situation.

Barrie Crook: I think a challenge that is often levelled at either social work or probation is that there is too much optimism about the capacity for individuals to change, rather than too much negative view about them. So I think that achieving the balance between realistic risk assessment, and controlling and containing your own feelings, which I think a professional staff member does over time, is a very important skill to be learned. But I think in relation to those serious offenders, this is where the multi-agency approach of something like MAPPA is very important because it is not just one individual who is making a judgment about someone’s risk assessment. It is a group of people who will have different perceptions about them and see them in different circumstances.

Q182 Mrs Riordan: Does the new qualifying framework for existing probation service officers reflect adequately the skills and responsibilities that they need for the work they are doing now-and, if there is a shortage of probation officers, the work they would need to do then-and is the time frame realistic?

Mark Mitchell: Yes, to the first question. One of the interesting changes in the new qualifications framework-you remember what I said earlier-is that it is not throwing out all that we learnt with the DipPS. It is building on the experience and the success of the diploma in probation studies.

We have a new vocational qualification at level 5, which is known as a diploma in probation practice. That reflects a recognition, I think across the service, that the skills and competencies required to manage high-risk offenders in the community are no longer at level 4, as they were in the diploma in probation studies, but actually at level 5 and, in some cases, with a small number of component units, at level 6. This is a very high, very specialist, highly demanding set of practice skills and competencies. To satisfy those is an absolute minimum requirement for becoming a professional probation officer in the future. I think that those and the required skills have been taken into account in the new PQF.

Q183 Mrs Riordan: And the time frame?

Lesley Thompson: I think, as well, you were talking about the qualification for PSOs and I want to come back to the level 3 qualification, which is the minimum qualification. That is now the mandatory qualification for all PSOs appointed after 1 April. That is pitched at level 3 and that is the level at which those PSOs work.

The beauty of the framework is that as people move through it-this is what I have already said-they start to increase the level of their skills and move towards the highest level at level 5, which Mark has talked about. The time frames are such that people, if they are able, are able to move through more quickly, but managers can drive that as well. So, in terms of workforce development, if they are looking forward to needing people in the future but not just yet, they can move them through and they can be working at that level. Then they are at a position where they can move forward more quickly if they are finding that they need more qualified people. So it gives them more control of the movement of people through.

Q184 Mrs Riordan: Are the finances, now that that money is not ring-fenced, going to be found within the budget?

Lesley Thompson: Is that a question for you, Barrie?

Barrie Crook: All trusts have done work force planning to a degree they had not done before in order to become trusts, so we have been projecting forward our work force needs over a three and four-year period. Clearly, in the light of the comprehensive spending review and whatever its outcome is for trusts, we will have to go back to the drawing board and start again. But I think everyone is aware that it would be foolish to filter that money away elsewhere and not look to the future and invest in qualified staff for the future. Most chief officers and chief executives will remember the period between 1997 and 1999, when we had no qualifying probation officers coming through. We wouldn’t want to repeat that.

Q185 Chair: Ms Thompson, you are from a regional training consortium in the north-west. You are the last of a disappearing species, aren't you? You are the only one left.

Lesley Thompson: No. The midlands consortium is still in existence, so there is still a consortium director in the midlands.

Q186 Chair: What is going to happen, given that there are obviously places such as London that are big enough to manage the training themselves?

Lesley Thompson: London and Wales, yes, there are single trusts there. I can only speak on how we operate in the north-west. Certainly, we have found that the way in which to start to implement the PQF, and thinking about some of the teething problems that Mark was talking about beforehand, requires excellent planning and good partnership working between-I have five trusts in my region-the trusts and the consortium.

For me it is about building on the strengths that are already there, using the infrastructure that was in place to deliver the DipPS, and then to build on that into the new PQF arrangements and the strong support of the chief officers in moving this forward on a regional basis. Being able to work together means that we have been able to learn together as well, because obviously the environment in which we are now operating, with it being employer-led, is different to that under the DipPS. So being able to learn from each other and moving forward has been vital.

Q187 Chair: What is going to happen where that doesn’t happen because there isn’t-

Mark Mitchell: Perhaps I can say something about that, Sir Alan, because we’ve been delivering the DipPS in four of the 10 regions in England and Wales since 2003, and we are now going to be delivering in five of those regions. None of those regions has a consortium, although two of them in London and Wales are single trusts.

I think it is a challenge. In the south-east, for example, there are now four trusts but no consortium, but there is a good degree of collaboration between those trusts to ensure that there is the regional co-ordination required for the implementation of the probation qualifications framework.

In the north-east, there are only two trusts now and the collaboration of those is relatively easy. Again, things are going quite well. For the south-west, where there are five trusts, I think I would have to say that it is still lagging behind. The consortium has disappeared in the south-west and the degree of collaboration that is required on a regional basis to get the PQF up and running is not quite there yet. I have got a meeting later this month to try and push that forward.

Q188 Anna Soubry: And the midlands?

Mark Mitchell: I am not delivering in the midlands, but the midlands does have a consortium. I know my colleagues at De Montfort University are working with the consortium well.

Q189 Chair: What about post-qualification training in specialist skills and in, also, some of the management responsibilities that arise? Is the system providing that?

Lesley Thompson: In terms of the specialist skills, I think that the individual trusts deliver specialist training. I think that what the PQF will require is the opportunity for that to be more easily grafted on to that framework. The new vocational qualifications are not NVQs. They are on a new qualifications and credit framework and that provides more flexibility for smaller rewards. For example, working with sex offenders and working with mentally disordered offenders, there is the potential there to develop that training from the point at which people complete their diploma in prevention studies. They are qualified as probation officers as a starting point, but it is then picking up that additional specialist training and getting that integrated with practice and validated as a qualification. I think there is more potential to do that with the PQF framework.

Chair: Thank you very much. We are very grateful to the three of you and we have some further evidence to take. Thank you for helping us.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Robin Wilkinson, Director, NOMS Human Resources, and Alan Woods OBE, Chief Executive, Skills for Justice, gave evidence.

Chair: Mr Wilkinson of the National Offender Management Service and Mr Woods of Skills for Justice-welcome.

I am grateful to you for helping us with this inquiry. Obviously, you have been hearing some of the evidence that we have just been taking, and I want to invite Mr Llwyd to resume the questioning.

Q190 Mr Llwyd: I think my question is directed to Mr Wilkinson initially, although that does not prevent Mr Woods from chipping in, of course.

The inquiries into the management of Daniel Sonnex identified problems with the recruitment and retention of qualified probation staff from London. Is this a broader issue? In other words, we know that that is a London issue, but is there a problem throughout the UK?

Robin Wilkinson: I don’t believe there is a problem across the UK. I think that my colleagues talked earlier about differential rates of retention around the country. I don’t have the exact regional breakdown with me, but I could certainly provide the Committee with that, if they want.

As an indication, over the last couple of years, as was said previously, a number of trainee probation officers were unable to secure full-time permanent contracts at the end of their studies because there were not the vacancies available at the time. As I think has already been said, that was a problem with the previous diploma arrangements that the new qualifications framework is trying to solve. But I think the fact that there were trained and qualified trainee probation officers who were unable to secure employment at the time suggests that there isn't a national shortage.

I think what we are seeing just at the moment is trusts being cautious about decisions on recruitment and offering posts until they are clear about their longer term financial settlement following the spending review. So I think, at the moment, it is difficult for us to predict in many sectors. Obviously, London is a more dynamic area for recruitment and there is a high churn rate in London, as there is in many other sectors-the Prison Service as well as the probation service.

Q191 Mr Llwyd: I think, again, the Sonnex inquiries found that there was quite a substantial churn within the service in London. I think that only one of the 22 probation officers in Lewisham at the time had more than two years’ experience. That is astonishingly high, isn’t it?

Robin Wilkinson: I think the response to the very tragic circumstances demonstrated the importance of properly looking at deployment of more junior and senior colleagues across areas, and there were clearly problems in the Lewisham area at the time. That was very clearly stated as a result of those inquiries following the tragic events that took place.

As I said, I think it is an area that I think the probation service has learned from. The importance of locally managing case load and properly ensuring a proper balance of case load across your more experienced and junior colleagues is very, very important and something that is properly the responsibility of local management at all levels.

Q192 Mr Llwyd: That was the failing, obviously, in regard to the Sonnex case, wasn’t it?

Robin Wilkinson: The inquiries that took place identified that as an issue that needed to be addressed.

Q193 Mr Llwyd: If I am right, there was some reference to an individual having 127 cases to deal with?

Robin Wilkinson: I don’t know. I couldn’t comment on that, sorry.

Q194 Mr Llwyd: Could you help us? In your opinion, what would be an acceptable case load for an individual probation service officer and, also, a newly qualified probation officer?

Robin Wilkinson: I am not sure I can offer the Committee much more than what my colleague said earlier, really. It really does depend on the nature of the cases and whether you are dealing with high-risk offenders or lower-risk offenders, and it is very dependent on the individual PSO or probation officer.

There isn’t a nationally set figure for very good reasons, as was explained earlier. I think it is right that this is properly left at the discretion of local management. They are in the best place to determine the best mix of resources between individual members of staff, individual teams and the individual types of cases that they are dealing with.

Q195 Mr Llwyd: I learned from the Probation Officers Association that probation officers, hard pressed as they are, spend fewer then 10 minutes per week actually speaking with their clients.

Robin Wilkinson: Again, I think there is little more I can give you than the earlier witnesses. It really does depend on the nature of the offender. Particularly with high-risk offenders, probation officers will be spending significantly more time with those offenders at the right points of their supervision.

Q196 Mr Llwyd: I realise that, and obviously the earlier witnesses have said the same thing, but the point I am putting to you is that either I am terribly misled by the Probation Officers Association, or it is right in saying that it can spend fewer than 10 minutes with each individual, which, to my way of thinking, is not going to change anybody’s behaviour.

Robin Wilkinson: No, absolutely. As was said earlier, the amount of time that you are able to spend with an offender-and, crucially, in response to questions earlier, how you spend that time-and your ability as a professional probation officer or PSO properly to challenge and help the offender to change, and to enable them to reintegrate into society, if they have had a custodial sentence, are crucially important. There may be some circumstances in which there needs to be only a limited amount of time spent with that offender at a point of their sentence, but the important point is that it would be wrong to suggest that there is an average of 10 minutes spent per offender by a probation officer. I do not believe that that is the case.

Q197 Mr Llwyd: Moving to a more successful aspect of things, part of the problem has been absence through sickness. Those figures have been improved of late. Trusts have been successful in reducing absences in recent years. What do you think has been the main contributor to this reduction?

Robin Wilkinson: I think there is a clear nationally agreed framework policy in place that has got buy-in with the trade unions. It was developed with them and has their support, and that is crucially important. There are many disadvantages as well but one of the advantages of a focus on targets over the last few years has been a focus on this particular area, with managers spending time understanding cases, spending time in case reviews and using occupational health resources-a kind of holistic approach to the management of absence. It is clearly paying dividends. Absence rates have dropped markedly and the performance in the current financial year again is encouraging. So I think it is that holistic approach, but with a focus-a focus from the top; from the chief executive officer downwards-that sickness absence needs to be managed proactively, with proper job design so that the potential for work-related stress and such like is reduced. There is proper occupational health support for minor injuries so that people can get back to work quickly but, also, robust dealing with instances where people are not at work and are unlikely to be able to give regular and effective service. So it is a combination of those efforts and I think the probation service should be commended for the efforts that it has put into managing their sickness absence and the efficiency improvements it has delivered as a result.

Q198 Mr Llwyd: How confident are you that this improvement will be sustained in a period of cuts?

Robin Wilkinson: None of us yet know, I think, what the realities of the next few years hold. We have had the comprehensive spending review. Work is now going on to assess exactly what that means for individual budgets.

I think, personally, that the focus on sickness absence will be renewed during this period because it will be even more critically important that the staff who we employ and the staff who are in place are at work, and that they are supported to be at work to do the important job they are doing. I think there will continue to be a strong management focus, probably even more so during this difficult period.

Q199 Mr Llwyd: We referred earlier to the churn or the turnover. In your opinion, how will the new qualifying arrangements address any problems with retention of probation officers and probation service officers?

Robin Wilkinson: I think, as was said by the earlier witnesses-and I wholeheartedly agree with this-the new qualifying framework builds on the diploma. It didn't replace it. The diploma was good and we had an opportunity, after 12 years, to build on that. The advantages of it really are in the career framework that it provides for probation staff, particularly PSOs, who are now able to progress while as PSOs.

My ambition here is that we will have a cadre of people in the service-PSOs in the service-that are ready to become probation officers. They are properly trained, they are ready and they are still working as PSOs, but when there is a probation officer vacancy, they can be moved into that and such like. So you have got an internal talent pipeline rather than having to anticipate three years hence your probation officer needs, as used to be the case under the diploma, and having to take an educated guess about how many staff you would need in three years’ time.

So, for me, the intention behind the new framework is that you will have a group of PSOs who are properly trained and properly qualified, and who can move into probation officer jobs as and when they are necessary. I think it will provide a real, important opportunity for PSOs to be properly valued. The framework, I think, properly respects the role of PSOs in the service and gives them a career development opportunity that wasn't easily theirs to take previously, as the earlier witnesses said. So, for me, I expect it to be a positive. We are in the very early stages of it. Your inquiry comes very quickly on us launching the new framework and this is obviously something we will want to keep under very close review, but I am optimistic that it will deliver an improved position.

Q200 Mr Llwyd: It is going to provide a career structure but, also, it deals with the problem that earlier witnesses identified of people not quite knowing what is expected of them when dealing with some serious criminals. The PSOs will have been through that already.

Alan Woods: Just to comment on what Mr Wilkinson was saying there, I really do think that the probation service is to be commended for actually training this para group of professionals to the standards that are now defined within the new probation qualification framework, which is to some extent different to that which is provided within legal services more generally. You were saying that there are a range of barristers and solicitors sitting around the table. There are a whole range of people that work in paralegal professions who do not have those very same standards defined. So, actually, the work which the probation service has undertaken to define a standard for the supporting group of staff to probation officers, I think, is one that should be commended.

Q201 Mr Buckland: Really developing on the themes that Mr Llwyd, my colleague, has been dealing with, and just coming back to the fundamental objectives here, there has been an analysis, with which I broadly agree, about the shift away from direct engagement between probation officers and PSOs, and offenders and their families, and the management of risk. The perception is that we have gone down the road of managing risk much more than one of direct engagement. I wonder whether that particular dichotomy has been focused upon when reaching an objective for training. What are we training probation officers and PSOs to do? Are they there just to manage risk and to deal with processes, or are they there to challenge offending and provide the environment for offenders to be rehabilitated?

Robin Wilkinson: It must be both, mustn't it? That is certainly the objective around this. There has to be a framework, and colleagues earlier talked about OASys and the important information that it can give. But the reason for putting this investment into the training of probation officers is because they have a professional judgment to play in this. The management of the risk in the community is so dependent upon all these other factors: their ability, a stable relationship, employment, housing and such like. So the ability of the probation officer to engage with the partners that are necessary to enable those factors to be stable and put into place is so essential.

So it has to be both the ability to understand and interpret risk. As colleagues earlier were saying, probation officers are there to protect the public the best that they are able to do. They have to understand that risk, but then it is about challenging. It is about their role in the engagement they have face to face. It is about challenging offenders to change their lives and do things differently, and about motivating them to do so. That might be about being a role model; it might be about properly challenging individuals. At certain times, it might be about being a friend, but it is not just a friend. It is very important that the role of a probation officer is to challenge and motivate somebody to want to live differently.

Q202 Mr Buckland: The problem is-and this might well be what my colleague Anna Soubry is going to ask-that OASys tends to categorise risk as an objective thing, whereas we all know that it is very subjective and depends on the context of each different offender. There are a myriad of different contexts within which that risk needs to be managed. It comes down to discretion really, doesn’t it, rather than processes?

Robin Wilkinson: I think the OASys process is a good process that provides really good, solid, information to enable and support probation officers in making the judgments they have to make, so I think we shouldn’t look to throw away the strength of that in any way, shape or form. I think it is a good part of the process to be worked at-to be validated. But it cannot be viewed in isolation. All of the factors that you mention, I think, are very, very important. It is about using the information that OASys gives you as a starting point, to be able then to provide the input that a professional probation officer does.

Q203 Mr Buckland: But how much time does it take to put together the OASys matrix-the graphs that those of us that have seen PSRs know about? How long does it take? Is the bulk of the work on the case being spent doing OASys rather than directly engaging with the offender and their family?

Robin Wilkinson: I couldn't give you a view on that. I can certainly aim to provide that information if you would like me to do so.

Mr Buckland: Yes, please.

Robin Wilkinson: But work is going on looking at whether or not there are ways to streamline the amount of time that is required on OASys, whether a full OASys assessment is necessary for every offender and such like. But, for the offenders where the risk is highest, we would need the best information available to enable and support probation officers to do what is a very, very difficult job, which is taking finely balanced judgments and then acting on those judgments.

I think we should view OASys as a very, very important influence and mechanism to help in that kind of judgment process. I think it would be wrong to throw it away. We shouldn’t be completely bound by it. As I said earlier, it is a process that comes up with a result. The reason we are putting this effort into training is so that we have got professional probation officers who can use that information to form and act on the judgments that they then make.

Q204 Anna Soubry: My question was: what is risk? As we sit here, conscious that there is a public beyond who may read this, what is the definition of "risk"? Is it the risk of reoffending, or is it risk to the public of a violent attack? I think we need to understand what the probation service or yourselves mean by the word "risk".

Robin Wilkinson: Risk could be either of those scenarios, couldn’t it? The risk of a violent attack would be reoffending and such like. A prolific offender, with lots of low-level activity, could be as disruptive-is disruptive-to a community and such like. So "risk" is about the risk of reoffending. The risk could be higher in some cases-it could be assault or any other such factor and such like-but it covers all of those issues, I think. You should not differentiate between them.

Q205 Anna Soubry: I just think it is important we understand what we mean by risk. It is not just the risk to the public on a physical level, also the risk, as you said, of low-level crime-a repeat burglar, for example.

Robin Wilkinson: Yes. It is the risk of reoffending.

Q206 Mr Buckland: I wonder if I could just digress for a moment away from the training of probation officers to a difficulty that perhaps, Mr Wilkinson, you can help us on, as HR Director of NOMS, when it comes to the budgets for training and rehabilitation of prisoners. There is a particular problem that the budget is split, with 40% of the prisoner training budget coming from NOMS and 60% from OLASS-the Offender Learning and Skills Service-which is coming out of the FSA, in effect another Department of Government. There are two funding streams there. Do you see that as a problem when it comes to trying to co-ordinate the funding for all training within the prison estate?

Robin Wilkinson: I am not the best person, I think, to give evidence to you on that point, I am afraid. I think what you are talking about is training for prisoners rather than training for prison staff, which would be my responsibility and such like. I do not think that I am the best person from NOMS to give evidence on that point.

Chair: We will put the point to somebody else at an appropriate time then.

Mr Buckland: Thank you.

Q207 Chair: We were asking earlier about professional development and, particularly, professional development post-qualification in a variety of skills. We heard from the other side of the table, so let us hear from a NOMS standpoint. Are there not going to be continuing gaps in training for those specialist skills?

Robin Wilkinson: I think it is certainly important that each of the trusts has, as part of its work force plan, a clear plan for skills development for training and such like. My expectation is that all of my HRD colleagues in probation trusts will have clear work force development plans. They will understand where any gaps are and will be looking to fill them.

What I am confident about is that there is a framework in place for continuing to develop professional staff who work in the probation service. Mr Crook mentioned, very importantly, the role of line management and colleagues to mentor and coach existing professionals through difficult cases. That is very, very important.

There is also a framework in place and a training provision in place, for example, for staff who are working on accredited programmes. As those programmes are updated and changed, that training programme keeps pace with them and such like. So, I think there is a strong ethos within the probation service. It is a profession, as Mr Woods said earlier. There is a strong ethos for maintaining individual skills both through formal learning and through peer mentoring and coaching. I think that is strong in the service, and I think it will continue.

Alan Woods: I think I would also like to add that the qualifications framework that has been developed will also take account, as you have heard from previous witnesses, of the qualifications and credit framework. So, instead of having to deliver full qualifications at NVQ level, they will be able to have bite-sized learning accredited on the actual qualifications and credit framework. You could see a position in the future where CPD-type activity could be actually accredited and given a qualification under the new framework. I am hoping that the probation qualification framework will embrace this new way of working so that bite-sized learning can be accredited as well, which will help in CPD issues.

Q208 Chair: How is all this going to work out in a world where the skills that are going to be required of some people are actually commissioning skills, which is moving to a potentially very different structure? Here we are urging you to make sure that you are training people properly to deal with sex offenders or other repeat offenders and you are actually having to learn how to do commissioning properly-or the people you are responsible for are.

Robin Wilkinson: The formal skills in how to manage effectively a sex offender in the community will always be important and necessary. As you know, the Government are proposing to issue a Green Paper on a number of these matters shortly and we obviously need to await the outcome of that.

Commissioning-buying services from others-isn’t something new. The probation service already accesses a whole range of partners to engage and work with. Whether that expands or not, I think we need to wait for the Green Paper. There has already been quite an investment in thinking through what commissioning means, and in training and developing key staff within probation trusts around those skills, but it is clearly going to be an ongoing part of our world. It is something that we need to continue to look at and focus on, particularly at the more senior levels, in terms of ensuring that we have proper structures in place to enable the understanding of need and then the provision of that need, however that is sourced, whether in-house or from an external provider, is properly met.

Q209 Chair: Mr Woods, you view this from a rather different experience, don't you?

Alan Woods: I am not sure that I do, really. In terms of the learning and development plans that each individual probation trust has, I think there is this greater decentralisation to the trust to make its own learning and development plans from both centrally cascaded materials that are delivered by the National Offender Management Service and, also, within the individual trusts themselves. I think that there is a greater opportunity in those issues around professional development.

Q210 Claire Perry: I apologise to the Committee for my late arrival. I don't think this has been covered before, but we have obviously taken evidence from clients of the probation service on previous occasions, and I think many of us on the Committee felt that at least one of the members of that team would make an excellent probation officer having experienced the system herself and having some very strong views about what works.

The issue I suppose I have in reading about the new qualification framework is that it moves away from perhaps experience, common sense and life skills, towards a slightly more sterile framework of tick-box qualifications. What are you doing to get people in the system who perhaps might never pass an honours degree in probation-related matters but would be excellent probation officers, given your experiences of the role?

Robin Wilkinson: I think what you have said in terms of the importance of life skills and such like is so, so important for the role of a probation officer. I think, actually, the new framework should help substantially on that in terms of the fact that we have a PSO workforce that is 5,000 strong in the service. As we have said previously, they had no easy route to progress, and what this new framework does is to provide a supportive environment for those PSOs who have the potential and who maybe wouldn't necessarily have thought about a career through an external degree route but, through the supportive environment of their current employer, they have clearly got the skills to be a great probation officer. This new framework gives them the structure to be able to develop over time in a structured and coherent way to become a probation officer in time. I think we will therefore see a much broader range of people becoming probation officers in the future, taking advantage of this PSO progression route, than previously we would have done, which was much more of an external graduate entry route. So I think it will help. It will deliver and support the notion that you are pursuing there.

Q211 Claire Perry: But if you identify a fantastic PSO currently who you know has all the makings of a probation officer, surely it should be a judgment call of a manager to make that person a probation officer without putting them through perhaps a quasi-academic route to get them to something that you know they will be able to do anyway?

Robin Wilkinson: It is interesting how far judgment goes on that. I think it is important, as we said previously, that the judgments that probation officers are taking are very, very difficult and they are finely balanced. What the framework does is to provide a structured basis both to gain the underpinning academic understanding, criminology and risk and such like, along with vocationally-based work on how to put that into practice. I think what the structure therefore does is to give you both the knowledge of how you should activate it as well as the important academic underpinning. I think, as a probation officer, that that level of qualification is necessary. I think we have shown that that is the right level of qualification.

I wouldn’t like to see a scenario where, just on a manager’s judgment, we were suddenly putting someone into the role of a probation officer, which is so, so important in terms of public protection.

Q212 Chair: Do you get many people who move from other jobs in the probation service into the PSO grade who maybe hadn’t thought when they just took a job in the probation service-perhaps an administrative or even a clerical job-that they had the potential but discovered that they could make the move into the PSO grade and, of course, potentially then have the opportunity to become probation officers?

Robin Wilkinson: There is that movement. I couldn't quantify it for you, I am afraid, but there is that movement within the service. As earlier witnesses said, the ability when working in an organisation to know that actually it is what you want to do, but also that the organisation can see how you operate within that organisation, is such an important and valuable part of assessing whether or not this investment in the academic qualification of a probation officer is important. I think retention will be improved for probation officers by virtue of the fact that more will come through the PSO route.

Q213 Anna Soubry: I was just going to ask-forgive me, I don't know if it is in the papers-what percentage of the training as you move to the higher level is actually academic training and what part of it is practical? What is the percentage?

Robin Wilkinson: I couldn’t give you that percentage breakdown, I am afraid. I suspect my colleagues behind could, but I couldn't, I am afraid.

Chair: If you would like to drop us a note on that point, that would be very helpful. Thank you very much for your help this morning.