The role of the Probation Service - Justice Committee Contents

3  NOMS and national governance

80.  In this chapter we consider the national governance of the probation service and in particular assess whether NOMS provides effective and efficient support for local probation services and ask whether it has succeeded in bringing prisons and probation closer together.

National commissioning of probation services and performance framework

81.  NOMS has developed a tight grip on the probation service which is illustrated in its performance framework. We received universally negative comments about the drivers in the framework, currently called the Probation Trust Rating System (PTRS), which is viewed as an unnecessary example of micro-management that pushes trusts into activity that militates against positive outcomes for offenders.[110] For example, West Yorkshire Probation Trust told us: "The majority of the targets relate to timeliness, volumes or other tick boxes. Very few bear a relationship to reducing reoffending, which in any event is measured separately. Even the domain heading public protection is a misnomer, as the targets within that domain only have a loose connection with protecting the public from serious offenders. This therefore is an example which the collection of data has become an end in itself, which is only tenuously connected with what the public or government might reasonably expect from the probation service."[111]

82.  These comments from the London Probation Trust are echoed in all of the trust submissions: "Probation trusts have been held to account by a series of performance frameworks e.g. Integrated Probation Performance Framework (IPPF), Probation Trust Rating System (PTRS). These are made up of a range of mainly process measures that in many cases record the time it takes to undertake activities e.g. complete OASys in 15 days, and very few outcome measures. The lack of focus on quality is compounded by measures such as "complete high risk OASys in 5 days"—these are the most difficult and complex cases and yet there is much less time to undertake a proper assessment. Trusts acknowledge that timeliness measures are important but to have a framework based on so many such measures which can drive perverse performance is frustrating. Several of the measures require a great deal of recording, chasing and auditing e.g. number of offenders who sustain employment for 4 weeks. Time spent on counting would better be spent actually helping offenders into work."[112]

83.  The worst excesses of this tick-box, bean-counting culture should be curbed by the introduction of the streamlined national standards we considered in chapter 2, which effectively abolish most of the targets currently in the PTRS. However, the new standards are inconsistent with another symptom of micro-management within NOMS, namely the outputs of the Specification, Benchmarking and Costs (SBC) programme. These detail the components of every aspect of prison and probation work, times it if possible and allocates a cost to it. The Probation Chiefs' Association questioned the fit between the SBC programme and its impact on their ability to deliver an effective service: "Probation trusts, in recent years have already achieved substantial efficiencies. However, some of the processes informing these efficiencies (for example the Specification Benchmarking and Costing Programme) need to take more account of the effectiveness of services delivered."[113] The impact of the SBC programme on service specifications and thus trust budgets is such that there must be a question about how much real discretion trusts will have to allow offender managers to exercise theirs in their work with offenders.[114]

84.  Probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, imposed on them via NOMS's Probation Trust Rating System. We welcome the fact that this culture is to be weakened by the introduction of streamlined national standards which should allow trusts greater discretion. However, it has been raised with us that the Specification, Benchmarking and Costs programme continues to constitute a form of micro-management from the centre, and we call on NOMS to re-assess this programme to see how the burdens it imposes on trusts can be lessened and those trusts provided with greater autonomy.


85.  When the National Probation Service was established a number of national contracts around estates and facilities management and IT were introduced. NOMS has subsequently let two contracts for direct work with defendants and some convicted offenders: electronic monitoring (tagging) and the Bail Accommodation Support Scheme (BASS). All of the submissions that addressed these contracts, including from partner agencies who witness the outcomes, were negative about the cost and operation of the national contracts.[115] The Probation Association summed these up: "The current system of commissioning has three tiers—national, regional and local. Probation is a relatively small "business" and such multiple layer commissioning processes carry the risk of fragmentation and disconnection in provision. This is already a problem in relation to national contracts for estates and facilities management, where probation trusts must use services commissioned by NOMs and the Home Office from private sector providers who deliver on a sub-national structure. The poor value for money of these contracts has been recognised and NOMS is currently taking remedial action. We would not want similar experiences with other provision, for example, direct work with offenders where the public may be at risk from commissioning failures."[116]

86.  David Chantler, Chief Executive of West Mercia Probation and Assistant Chief Constable John Long of Avon and Somerset Police gave examples of how inflexibility of the estates contract continued to impede service development and the ability to reduce costs by pooling local partnership resources.[117] In West Mercia and Avon and Somerset they wished to close or reduce the size of probation premises in order to co-locate staff in either one stop multi-agency shops or with the police. Protracted negotiations had as yet been unproductive. When we questioned the Minister about this he did not indicate any likelihood that property management would return to probation trusts.[118]

87.  Similar concerns were raised about the IT contract. Heather Munro, the Chief Executive of London Probation Trust, captured some of the frustration: "Because we have a national infrastructure the needs of individual trusts are often not met because small areas have different needs to large areas. The ability to innovate is severely constrained, for example, it would be good to develop hand held devices for staff on community payback placements or out on home visits. This would be much more efficient and when trusts are facing competition it seems to give other providers an advantage."[119]

88.  There could have been value in the national contract had the promise of a national prison and probation database and single case record for each offender come to fruition. As it was C-NOMIS (community) was abandoned and only P-NOMIS (prison) achieved as the costs spiralled out of control.[120] The prison service therefore has its database and OASys but cannot share it with probation. This was to have been a crucial building block for achieving end-to-end offender management. The probation service still has to pay the costs and is charged above market prices for basic IT equipment. While individual trusts do not want to re-invent the wheel and to create their own individual bespoke systems, we were told that they needed an efficient and responsive service to be provided by central suppliers. Christine Lawrie from the Probation Boards Association said "I don't think we want to go back to owning our own systems, we do want trusts to be treated as proper clients. The money is top-sliced from trusts' budgets, and we want to be able to have a proper client function so that we get what we need from what are very expensive systems."[121]

89.  The Northumbria Trust put forward an option that looks efficient and practical and would meet trust needs: "[i]n relation to ICT, we accept the need for an overarching strategy across the wider Ministry of Justice and the potential benefits of economies of scale but the current national contract does not fit with an approach in which trusts are expected to be responsive to locally identified needs and work collaboratively with local partnerships. In our view, future contracts should agree key specifications within a framework which allows local flexibility through a range of approved suppliers. Such an approach would, in our view, maximise the benefits of large scale procurement whilst at the same time allowing trusts to select services that are most suited to local needs."[122]

90.  The contract for the maintenance, cleaning and refurbishment of the probation estate has generated much publicity over the years. Examples were submitted by Napo: "two carpenters travelled from Birmingham to North Wales to look at a cupboard, only to confirm that it needed a new door and then go away without fixing it. A painter travelled from Manchester to South Wales to carry out work; he bought the paint at B&Q when he got there, discovered it was too late to start the job, stayed overnight and did the work the next morning. On another occasion a plumber travelled from Birmingham to Norwich to mend a toilet seat."[123]

91.  The experience of national contracts currently in place has not inspired confidence that NOMS understands its business sufficiently well to draw up robust contracts that meet the needs of future stakeholders. Trusts need the freedom to make their own arrangements for property and maintenance, including the ability to co-locate with partners or with other trusts. This will be necessary if the Government's intentions for joint working are to be realised. Probation trusts have lost confidence in the ability of the national IT system to meet their needs. Both the management of risk and the development of evidence-based policy and commissioning require that there is an effective national system used by prisons and probation. In our view, NOMS should identify those systems that work well for individual trusts with a view to adapting a successful system for national use.


92.  Confidence in NOMS's ability to commission and manage large-scale contracts has not been strengthened by the ongoing competition in which organisations—probation trusts, private sector firms and consortia—are bidding for the contracts to run community payback. Criticisms of the competition have centred on both the manner in which information about it has been communicated, and the decision to tender for six, very large, cross-regional 'lets'.

Source: Ministry of Justice

93.  Christine Lawrie of the Probation Association explained: "To start with, there was no consultation with probation about whether community payback should be competed, and how it might be done. This was an entirely NOMS internally driven process...[subsequently][…] all the messages were that as long as trusts were performing well—most were—they need not concern themselves with what competition would look like. It was therefore a surprise to be invited to a briefing in November, and to receive subsequent letters later in November, to say that the decision had been made that there would be an open competition for which other providers could compete."[124] And finally, after being told that competition would be trust based, it was announced that the bids were for six lots across England and Wales that cross regional boundaries. The wide geographical basis of the contracts means that local charities and not-for-profit organisations operating at local level fear that they will be excluded from the tendering process.[125]

94.  When asked to explain the logic behind the shape of the lots, Martin Copsey of NOMS told us: "The answer to that is that there is probably no ideal design in terms of lots. What we try to do in lot construction is to have roughly equal proportions of volume of activity. The ambition through that and through the competition process would be to deliver a number of outcomes."[126] No account appears to have been taken of the experience of earlier contracts or of the ability of probation trusts to compete for very large contracts across more than one region.

95.  The Minister explained to us the basis on which the decision about the community payback lots had been made:

There is an issue about trading off a number of different factors against each other in trying to produce the appropriate competitive lots. The truth is that there is not a right answer that would best meet this. If we had insisted that localism was an appropriate commissioning base, you might be tempted to run 35 different competitions based around each probation trust. That would have been beyond the capacity of the Ministry of Justice to manage and beyond the capacity of the market to invest in.[127]

96.  Regardless of the merits of introducing competition for the provision of services, it is imperative that NOMS communicates its plans to trusts in a timely and genuinely consultative way. This seems not to have been the case with the community payback tendering exercise, and NOMS should do a 'lessons learned' exercise once the competition is completed to make sure that any mistakes are not repeated in future exercises.

97.  The very large and incoherent groupings created for the community payback contracts would not be appropriate vehicles for commissioning other probation initiatives, and would undermine links between probation work and other participants in the criminal justice system, such as the police, courts, local authorities and local prisons.

Financial management

98.  There is a general agreement that going through the process of obtaining trust status successfully has strengthened the business capacity of those who manage local probation services. The outgoing Chief Inspector told us that: "the process of making everybody go through this trust application has made a lot more of the areas become better, better-organised, better-managed organisations than they were before."[128] The Ministry of Justice has said that "[t]he latest published results show that probation met or exceeded all but one of its KPIs, including its contribution to joint prison and probation indicators."[129]

99.  Trusts were promised 'freedoms' in both the first and second waves of trust applications. However, instead of freedoms we heard evidence of organisations tied to inflexible contracts which mean that NOMS controls activity down to small details, inhibiting trusts' ability to respond to local needs, as we saw in relation to the existing national contracts.[130] There is no recognition that the characteristics of local communities and crime and therefore of the agencies that serve them differ and that they need to be free to respond to them. However, the single most frustrating issue about the contract according to several respondents related to budget management. The London Probation Trust told us that: "One of the biggest barriers to good management of the budget has been the lack of any year end flexibility. There were periods in the past when trusts could have limited flexibility e.g. 2 or even 4% carry forward or overspend, this was removed several years ago. This makes financial planning extremely difficult particularly in times of reducing resources so, for example, a Trust cannot make savings in one year to carry forward to help manage further cuts in the year ahead. Any underspend is given back to NOMS."[131] This is very different to the freedoms enjoyed by trusts in the NHS.

100.  West Yorkshire Probation Trust gave further details of how trusts are treated: "Very little is delegated and comparatively small payments require approval from NOMS or sometimes even the Treasury. For example, in order to settle an Employment Tribunal claim, the Trust Chief Executive is given a delegation of only £3K (almost useless), the Regional Director of Offender Management was given a delegation of only £30K (a bit more useful). Everything else needs approval from central NOMS. This involves not only the submission of legal advice (the assumption seems to be that trusts would not know how to take legal advice without the system) but also the preparation of business cases in the correct format, and while approval is nearly always forthcoming, the time and bureaucracy creates an industry in itself."[132] This centralising approach to managing budgets is consistent with the NOMS approach to performance management. In addition, trusts have to find resources to manage VAT and Corporation Tax which they did not do before trust status.

101.  Hertfordshire gave an example of how trusts might use greater freedom to manage their own budget: "The scope for joint commissioning with local providers could be increased considerably if the Trust had the capacity to carry over under spend for longer term investment. Such a freedom would significantly increase the opportunity for longer term planning and joint commissioning. This will also promote value for money and opportunities to achieve greater efficiency savings to reinvest for improved service delivery."[133] Such joint commissioning might support, for example, intensive alternative to custody projects or integrated offender management work.

102.  Trusts need to be given greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry over a small proportion of their budgets from year to year. We have also received evidence that they do not have sufficient autonomy in terms of how they can spend that money, and that relatively trivial amounts of expenditure can require consent from the centre. The overwhelming impression we have formed is of trusts being over-regulated and unable to fulfil local needs because of the top-down, centralising tendencies of NOMS. NOMS reflects the command and control structure and culture of the prison service and is not responsive to diversity of local needs; it has yet to make the shift from being the managers of trusts (the legacy of the National Probation Service and early NOMS) to being a commissioner from the trusts (and others), which calls for a different kind of relationship.

End-to-end offender management

103.  The national Offender Management Model, published by NOMS in 2006, sets out in detail how offenders should be managed (although it is mostly about process rather than content in its detail). The model differentiates between management and supervision and management and interventions. The theory is that highly trained probation officers assess need and prepare a sentence plan which in most cases is delivered by other personnel or agencies. In addition, it gives responsibility for the management of individual offenders who are serving prisoners to community based "offender managers". The rationale for this was explained by Martin Narey, the first head of NOMS: "What I wanted to do was give probation officers much more authority and influence over what happened to their offender when they were in prison, rather than the Prison Service, which I led for seven years, taking them over and doing what they thought was best. I thought that from the moment someone arrives in prison, unless they were a very long-term prisoner, the probation officer as the offender manager should be preparing for their release and making sure that the things that happen to that prisoner while inside, as far as the resources allow, contribute to a successful release."[134] So the role of offender supervisor was created in custody and in probation offices, fulfilled by prison officers in prisons and probation service officers in the community.

104.  All offenders subject to community orders and licences are managed according to the Offender Management model. No more than a small proportion of the prison population is currently classed as 'in scope' for offender management as there are too many prisoners and too few resources to implement it for all yet. This means that, in the main, only Prolific and Priority Offenders (PPOs), those serving an indeterminate sentence and those assessed as posing a high risk of harm ought to have a community based offender manager during the custodial part of their sentence and an offender supervisor in prison. The offender supervisor role is quite separate from the personal officer role—a role much more familiar to prison officers—and this causes duplication. In our predecessor Committee's Report Role of the prison officer, the role was defined thus: "The role of Offender Supervisor in custody uses the skills of the prison officer to engage and motivate offenders towards achieving their sentence plan objectives and to liaise with other prison, probation and Third Sector staff to ensure compliance with the sentence plan."[135]

105.  A recent joint thematic inspection by HM Inspectorates of Prisons and Probation, A joined up sentence?Offender management in prisons 2009/2010, found "Prison officers were often enthusiastic about their role as offender supervisor, but frustrated by the limitations of the time available to them. A consistent feature of prison life in most institutions was the need, at times, for prison officers to be allocated to other operational duties, leaving little time for acting as an offender supervisor. There was little guidance available to define what supervisors were meant to do in their contact with prisoners. In some prisons their role was unclear. Since the implementation of the Offender Management Model, the role of the personal officer had also become less defined. However, within the time available to them, we found that offender supervisors worked efficiently to refer or signpost prisoners to the interventions available to address offending related needs. In reality the role of the offender manager was limited in most cases, and the supervisor tended to drive the management of the case."[136] This last comment was a reflection of how impractical it was for offender managers, even with the use of video conferencing to "drive" what happened to a prisoner in prison in most, though not all, cases.

106.  We heard evidence from trades unions and from chief executives of trusts that they supported the concept of end-to-end offender management. Napo told us: "Theoretically, we would be supportive of the offender management approach because we are fully supportive of the idea of end-to-end joined-up thinking and process of the way we work with offenders, whether it is in prisons or in the community."[137] In their submission, the Leicestershire and Rutland Probation Trust explained what this meant to offenders: "Consultation with offenders has shown that they value a consistent service and we have ensured through effective offender or 'case' management that the range of interventions and the work of various providers is consolidated into appropriately sequenced and coherent plans."[138]

107.  Witnesses did however agree that whilst the Offender Management Model is embedded in practice for offenders in the community, that was not the case in prison.[139] We heard two potential reasons for this. The Probation Chiefs' Association said: that "[w]here we have perhaps had less success has been in the full integration between prison and probation, and that's primarily because of the volatility of the custodial population, with prisoners who tend to move around a lot under national prison population management procedures. It can be more difficult, therefore, for offender managers based in the community to manage that part of the sentence as well as the model would like them to" and Napo explained "[i]n practice, we have struggled to see it work properly, it has to be said. Not least, a lot of that has to do with the very different ways in which the Prison and Probation Services work, and quite legitimately so because of the nature of the work they have to do in relation to the sentencing outcomes." [140]

108.  In all of the submissions which refer to end-to-end offender management there is an implicit acknowledgement that it has not been successful. With some exceptions, the probation officer has been unable, practically, to direct the management of individual offenders whilst in prison. Martin Narey ascribed this to prison overcrowding.[141] Clinks essentially agreed with this analysis:

The major barrier to its effective functioning has always been the degree of control and influence that the offender manager has in relation to the offender's experience of custody. The prison service has, necessarily, retained the authority to move prisoners around the system in order to deal with the effects of overcrowding, and this has often resulted in disruption and delay in the implementation of the sentence plan.[142]

109.  Useful work can be undertaken in prisons that are either local to the home of the prisoners or reasonably accessible, and where efforts are made by local probation services and prisons to work closely together. (We look at such an example in Brighton and Hove in our discussion of intensive offender management below.) The reality for most prisoners is that they are housed where there is space and they are moved around to meet the needs of the system. David Chantler, Chief Executive of the West Mercia Probation Trust, gave an illustration of how the prison service manages some of its population problems:

...being between London and the less-populated-but-more-prisons north, from the ripple effect of London prisoners being sent to our prisons and our prisoners being sent to the north. We need to go back to Woolf's recommendation after Strangeways and make a priority of community prisons. When the prisoners are physically available and accessible, you can do all sorts of things through the prison gate, like Connect demonstrated. I would urge you to make that a key part of something that you attend to, or as much as possible: seal prison regions so we can physically work together.[143]

110.  There needs to be a better, more seamless, approach to managing offenders. Prisoners are shunted between one establishment and another, in an attempt to avoid over-crowding, and the need to ensure continuity of their sentence plan is not a priority. This is unacceptable. The Ministry of Justice and NOMS need to devise and implement a strategy to ensure that the end-to-end management of offenders is a reality and not just an unachieved aspiration.

111.  If NOMS is to work effectively through the two services, there does need to be an enhancement in prison of offender management skills. This could be achieved through better training for prison officers or the appointment of probation officers or probation service officers to work in prisons on sentence management and to follow the prisoner 'through the gate'. Unfortunately, neither of these scenarios is likely given the current prison population and funding restraints.

112.  The outgoing Chief Inspector of Probation described the creation of NOMS as "a takeover of the probation service by the prison service" but conceded that there had been some benefits and that some "Prison Service top managers seem to have shown themselves much better at managing resources effectively than many top probation managers in the past". He concluded that, while he would not have created NOMS in the first place, he would not now revert to the old system.[144]

113.  Others argue that NOMS has experienced a diminishing level of knowledge and experience of the probation service at the highest levels of the organisation. Napo sums up the impact that it believes this has had on the governance of probation: "NOMS undermines the ability of the probation service to achieve its aims. Senior managers in NOMS now create policy and strategy in relation to the probation service while their background and bias is exclusively in the prison service and they have little experience of working with offenders in the community. They are not therefore well placed to know how to introduce efficiencies and prioritise spending in the community without compromising public protection."[145] However, it is the case that the current management structure includes directors with direct experience of working in probation.

114.  The creation of NOMS has been described to us as a "takeover" of the probation service by the prison service. This might have been desirable had it resulted in a more 'joined-up' treatment of offenders but, as we have seen, that has not happened to any appreciable level. Furthermore, NOMS has not proved itself proficient at running national contracts which deliver what probation trusts on the ground need in a cost-effective and efficient manner. The way it has handled the community payback tendering exercise to date has not inspired confidence. The Ministry of Justice should commission an externally-led review of the operation of NOMS to assess whether it is: delivering value-for-money; giving trusts the appropriate levels of support and autonomy they require; and integrating the supervision of offenders in prisons and the community effectively. Our evidence suggests that it is not doing those things well. Should the review reach similar conclusions the Department should be prepared to take radical steps to redesign the structure and operation of NOMS.

110   Ev 85; w122; w144 Back

111   Ev w144; see also Ev 194  Back

112   Ev w147 Back

113   Ev 156 Back

114   Ev w26; w80; w88; 184 (annex) Back

115   Ev 184; 173; w26; w85; w147  Back

116   Ev 173  Back

117   Qq 701-702  Back

118   Q 735 Back

119   Ev w147 Back

120   Ev 184 Back

121   Q 337  Back

122   Ev w85 Back

123   Ev 184  Back

124   Q 343; see also Ev 177; 194 Back

125   Q 344 Back

126   Q 747 Back

127   Q 746 Back

128   Q 295  Back

129   PB 36  Back

130   Ev w6; 184; 173; w18; w26; 156; w74; w80; 216; w85; w93; w95; w99; w103; w110; w122; w125; w144; w147 Back

131   Ev w147 Back

132   Ev w144 Back

133   Ev w139  Back

134   Qq 365, 461  Back

135   Justice Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2008-09, Role of the prison officer, HC 361, para 173  Back

136   Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, A joined up sentence? Offender management in prisons 2009/2010, March 2011,
p 7 

137   Q 365 Back

138   Ev w48  Back

139   See e.g. Ev 196; w26; w122; Qq 329, 364, 461 Back

140   Qq 329 [Ms Hall], 365 [Mr Ledger] Back

141   Q 466 Back

142   Ev 196  Back

143   Q 691 Back

144   Q 292  Back

145   Ev 184 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 27 July 2011