The role of the Probation Service - Justice Committee Contents


Probation is an essential part of the criminal justice system and at its best the probation service delivers community sentences which are tough, challenging offenders to change their offending lifestyles.

The probation service has undergone extensive change over the last decade, and there is more change to come. We broadly support that change, but we want to see incorporated within it the policies advocated by our predecessor Committee in its Report on Justice re-investment, particularly with regard to strengthening community rehabilitative provision in order properly to manage high risk offenders.

It seems staggering to us that up to three-quarters of probation officers' time is spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders and we call on NOMS and individual trusts to increase the proportion of their time that probation staff spend with offenders.

It is a concern that probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, and we call on NOMS to provide trusts with greater autonomy. Specifically, there needs to be speedy progress towards rectifying problems with national contracts for estates management and IT provision and trusts need greater flexibility. It is imperative that NOMS consults trusts properly when planning the introduction of competition to the provision of contracts; this seems not to have been done with regard to the recent community payback tendering exercise, and we do not think that the large and incoherent groupings used for those contracts are appropriate vehicles for future commissioning initiatives. Trusts also need greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry-over a small proportion of their budgets from year-to-year.

There needs to be a more seamless approach to managing offenders: prisoners are shunted between establishments and continuity of sentence planning is not treated as a priority. The MoJ and NOMS need to ensure that the end-to-end management of offenders is a reality and not just an unachieved aspiration.

The creation of NOMS was described to us as a "takeover" of the probation service by the prison service. It has not led to an appreciable improvement in the 'joined-up' treatment of offenders; its handling of the community payback exercise has not inspired confidence; and it has not proved itself proficient at running effective national contracts. Therefore, the MoJ should commission an externally-led review of NOMS and be prepared to take radical steps to redesign its structure and operation.

It is unacceptable that sentencers' hands are tied by the unavailability of certain sentencing options because of inadequate resources. This makes very clear the urgent need to focus scarce resources on the front-line and to continue to bear-down on inefficiencies and unnecessary back-room functions. The Government needs to clarify what it means by more robust community sentences, and the outcomes they are designed to achieve. Setting out clearly what community sentences are attempting to achieve, demonstrating that they are implemented effectively, and challenging a naïve confidence in the effectiveness of short custodial sentences will help gain public confidence, but calls for leadership and courage from politicians and sentencers. There is a risk that the recent public debate on sentencing policies with regard to short custodial sentences could undermine the Government's proposed reforms.

There is significant scope to increase the contribution of private and voluntary sector organisations to the delivery of effective offender management and rehabilitation and payment-by-results offers a potential mechanism for putting the system on a sustainable footing. The models proposed are untested in criminal justice but there are compelling reasons to test the potential of a radically different approach. Large scale payment-by-results commissioning may achieve savings, but economies can also be accrued at a local level. The Government needs to strike a careful balance between opening up the market to new providers and enabling trusts to operate effectively as local strategic partners, facilitating local solutions to local problems.

The Ministry of Justice needs to recognise the importance of prisons in its proposals for a new devolved commissioning model and link the commissioning of both prison and probation more closely to the communities they are designed to protect. The separation of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision has a distorting effect on the options available to sentencers. The responsibility for delivering the sentence of the courts should belong to a single offender management local commissioning body. Furthermore, the MoJ needs to develop a measure that enables the effectiveness of prison and community sentences to be compared more robustly.

We shall continue to monitor the performance of the Ministry of Justice and of NOMS as the current reforms bed in over the course of this Parliament.

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Prepared 27 July 2011