The role of the Probation Service - Justice Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The offender manager's relationship with offenders

1.  We accept that probation officers have to do a certain amount of work which does not involve dealing directly with offenders. However, it seems to us staggering that up to three-quarters of officers' time might be spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders. No-one would suggest that it would be acceptable for teachers (who also have to do preparatory work and maintain paperwork) to spend three-quarters of their time not teaching. The value which really effective probation officers can add comes primarily from direct contact with offenders. While we do not want to impose a top-down, one-size-fits-all standard, it is imperative that NOMS and individual trusts take steps to increase the proportion of their time that probation staff spend with offenders. The MoJ and NOMS should state explicitly whether they support this aspiration; if they do, they should tell us how they intend to achieve it. (Paragraph 40)

National standards: discretion and professional judgement

2.  While the level and type of contact with offenders should depend on the individual's assessed needs and risks, rather than on the preferences of the practitioner, we welcome the increase in professional discretion provided by the streamlined national standards, and the assurances of many of the professionals concerned that this will allow them to do their jobs better and more efficiently. (Paragraph 47)

Work with victims and restorative justice

3.  We believe that restorative justice has the potential to be used more widely within the probation service and we think that HM Chief Inspector of Probation might usefully undertake some work into the current use of the approach and suggest how best practice might be disseminated. Basing commissioning on payment by results in reducing re-offending risks overlooking the importance of the rights of victims and the obligations of offenders towards them. The Government must give more consideration to how best to incentivise restorative justice measures to increase their availability so that every victim can be offered the chance to take part in restorative justice. There should also be an expectation that every offender should be faced with the consequences of their crime, and should, where possible, be offered the chance to make amends to the victim. (Paragraph 56)

Working with particular groups of offenders

4.  The probation service's approach—where resources tend to be directed towards dealing with offenders who present the highest degree of risk—can fail adequately to support women offenders. The approach recommended by Baroness Corston for the provision of holistic services that address all women's needs is still a long way from being realised, even through this would greatly increase the effectiveness of probation work in diverting women from further offending. Rather than requiring extra resources, it would save public money by reducing the prison population and its associated heavy social costs. (Paragraph 60)

5.  The people supervised by the probation service do not make up a homogenous group and have varied and complex needs. Interventions, for example, accredited programmes, have been developed to meet the needs of the majority: young, white men. Although some trusts do try to offer specialist services for others or to refer people into resources provided by others it appears to us that this is very much a work in progress. It is another area which we think might benefit from the scrutiny of HM Chief Inspector of Probation. Also, the Government should ensure that it considers the needs of minority groups when moving towards payment-by-results: contractual arrangements will need to ensure that appropriate services are provided for all offenders, and not just those who fall into the most common demographic. (Paragraph 66)

The benefits and limitations of the new training arrangements

6.  There appears to be a good balance in the new training arrangements between providing staff with the skills to understand and interpret risk and to challenge and motivate offenders. The quality both of the recruitment process and of supervision arrangements within individual trusts are of utmost importance in ensuring that newly trained staff will have the confidence to operate safely in the context of fewer national standards, and in preventing probation trusts from becoming equally constrained by being too risk averse. (Paragraph 72)

7.  Although the new probation qualifying framework was designed to open new routes to qualification there are concerns that it will not deliver a steady flow of qualified probation service officers and probation officers. There is a significant risk of a shortfall of trained probation officers in future as budget cuts have impacted on the take-up of training and trusts and the Government needs to have regard to this. (Paragraph 75)

Post-qualification and management training

8.  The new probation qualifying framework should be used as basis for building a national system of accredited training for post-qualification development, including leadership and management training, so that there is a consistent quality of training available to trusts and to any new providers of probation services. If significant commissioning responsibilities are given to trusts—a policy which we question later in this Report—then it will be necessary for NOMS to devolve an appropriate allocation of its resources for management and leadership to enable trusts to purchase the training, contract management and governance skills required. (Paragraph 79)

National commissioning of probation services and performance framework

9.  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. (Paragraph 84)

NOMS and national contracts

10.  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. (Paragraph 91)

The tendering process for community payback

11.  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. (Paragraph 96)

12.  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. (Paragraph 97)

Financial management

13.  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. (Paragraph 102)

End-to-end offender management

14.  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. (Paragraph 110)

15.  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. (Paragraph 111)

Review of NOMS

16.  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. (Paragraph 114)

Provision of services to the courts

17.  It is unacceptable that sentencers' hands are tied by the unavailability of important requirements which the probation service cannot provide because of inadequate resources. We are aware that in the current climate, demands for more funding are not realistic. However, the fundamental necessity of giving sentencers all the options they should have at their disposal makes very clear the urgent need to focus scarce resources on the front-line and to continue to bear down on inefficiencies and any unnecessary back-room functions. (Paragraph 131)

18.  Judges and magistrates need to have confidence in the way in which the probation service relates to and provides information to the court. Sentencers should be given accurate information at the time of sentencing about when a community order and any requirements will commence. (Paragraph 134)

Local joint commissioning arrangements

19.  Probation trusts often punch above their financial weight in local partnership work, but such engagement with other agencies is not uniform and probation trusts and local strategic partners have expressed frustration about trusts' ability to participate effectively because of national contractual obligations. Probation work will only be effective if it can draw upon and work with other service providers; NOMS and the MoJ must review those contractual obligations which are a barrier to good partnership working and look to remove those barriers wherever possible. (Paragraph 145)

Partnership schemes and the potential to pool resources

20.  We are concerned that there is a lack of consistency of provision for those offenders for whom probation services do not have a statutory obligation to provide services, but who nevertheless present a significant burden on the system. We welcome the Government's proposals to extend the use of intensive offender management. The Ministry of Justice should collate evidence on the cost-effectiveness of schemes that are currently operating across England and Wales with a view to publishing good practice guidelines. These should be used to encourage those areas where there is not currently a scheme but where the scale of persistent offending may justify the investment. There is also significant potential to extend the IOM model to other groups of offenders. (Paragraph 155)

21.  There is promising evidence that the new requirements that have been placed on local strategic partners to reduce re-offending are beginning to bear fruit in stronger local partnership arrangements, and in achieving efficiencies, but these have not yet had sufficient opportunity to bed in. Nevertheless, they provide a good foundation for the introduction of local incentive models as a mechanism of payment by results. (Paragraph 156)

The role of the probation service in public protection

22.  Work with other agencies to secure public protection through the management of offenders who pose a risk of harm to the public will continue to be a vital and demanding part of the role of the probation service. (Paragraph 160)

Public confidence in community sentences

23.  The use of punitive measures may provide a cheaper yet publicly acceptable alternative to supervision for some offenders, but their use will need to be appropriately targeted, and their benefits carefully explained to the public, as they do not address the root causes of offending. Trusts and sentencers will need to deal more effectively with failure to comply if these measures are to be successful as a practical means of dealing with low level offenders. The Government must also clarify what is meant by more robust community sentences, and the outcomes they are designed to achieve. Making sentences more punitive does not mean that they will necessarily be effective in protecting the public by reducing re-offending. (Paragraph 175)

24.  We endorse the Government's attempt to tackle the factors contributing to the growth in the prison population and probation caseloads in its comprehensive proposals for reform, but the lesson from recent history is that in order to achieve the financial sustainability that it desires, and indeed is necessary, to prevent the need for costly prison building, each element of the reforms must be implemented successfully, and to work coherently together. The strengthening of community orders and reductions in the use of custody are interdependent and both are costly. The Government should clarify how it intends to implement its reforms to community sentences effectively whilst keeping them cost-neutral. It would be a serious error if the Government allowed the search for further savings to replace those it had hoped to achieve from the 50% early guilty plea discount to undermine the development of effective sentencing. (Paragraph 176)

25.  Public confidence is arguably most likely to be gained by setting out clearly what community sentences attempt to achieve, by demonstrating that they are implemented efficiently and effectively and also by challenging a naïve confidence in the effectiveness of short custodial sentences. This will call 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 threaten to undermine the whole set of proposed reforms. (Paragraph 183)

The success of the proposed reforms in the context of fewer resources

26.  Although there are limits to the extent to which the Government's reforms can be effective within limited resources, there is scope for cost savings within the structure of NOMS and the prison service. We refer later to the powerful case for better integrating the commissioning of prisons and probation. If the resources for more intensive and tougher community sentences are not found, increases in the use of short-term custody by the courts will continue. This is a vicious circle in which the criminal justice system has been trapped for too long. The Government wishes to break this cycle, as its Green Paper indicates. This will not happen without a shift in the use of scarce resources. (Paragraph 189)

Creating a mixed economy in probation provision

27.  The evidence we have received suggests that there is significant scope to increase the contribution of private and voluntary sector organisations to the delivery of effective offender management and rehabilitation. (Paragraph 206)

The benefits of paying providers by results

28.  Payment by results provides a potential mechanism for putting the system on a sustainable footing over the longer term by shifting resources away from incarceration towards rehabilitation and towards measures which prevent people becoming criminals in the first place. However, the payment by results models proposed are untested in the field of criminal justice and represent a significant departure from existing commissioning arrangements. Nevertheless, given the problems faced by the sector, there are compelling reasons to test the potential of a radically different approach. (Paragraph 211)

Commissioning for offender management: getting the balance right

29.  We believe that responsibility to the courts and the community for offender management must remain with a publicly accountable probation service. However, there is plenty of scope for specific services and facilities that support offender management to be offered by a range of providers. Examples include the provision of (non-approved premises) accommodation, electronic monitoring, curfews, mental health support, drug and alcohol treatment, learning and training, and family support. These services should be delivered by whichever provider can facilitate them most effectively with the greatest economy. (Paragraph 214)

Achieving savings

30.  Although on the face of it large scale payment by results commissioning arrangements such as those used by the Department for Work and Pensions may be attractive in achieving cost savings, economies can also be achieved at a more local level, for example by probation trusts concentrating their efforts on where there is best value in contracting out other services and through local partnerships pooling their resources and investing them strategically. There is a need for careful thinking and calculation on behalf of the Government on how to strike the best 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. (Paragraph 220)

Commissioning principles

31.  Probation services have been uncertain about their future since the idea of wider competition was first mooted almost ten years ago. The Government must clarify its intentions for the future of probation. We would welcome a clear statement from NOMS about which elements of probation work are considered appropriate for commissioning from other providers (and which are not) as well as those they consider should be contracted for at scale, and the principles that should determine the boundaries. (Paragraph 227)

32.  We welcome the Government's local incentive scheme pilots in enabling commissioning for rehabilitative interventions to be more effectively delivered through partnerships at local level. We consider that the local incentives model would work best if it is introduced alongside a model in which probation is "lead provider". (Paragraph 228)

33.  The Government's commitment to devolving commissioning to the local level is not fully reflected in the green paper or in NOMS' recent approach to commissioning community payback. The decision that it was most appropriate to commission community payback at the level of six large lots across England and Wales is, we believe, flawed in terms of the future direction of commissioning policy; it does not fit the Government's rationale that services should be commissioned at local level. (Paragraph 229)

34.  The separation of the commissioning of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision has a distorting effect on the options available to sentencers. Ministers should, as part of their programme of reform of the criminal justice system, develop proposals which would end this separation and link the commissioning of both prison and probation at a level closer to the communities they are designed to protect. We believe that the responsibility for delivering the sentence of the courts should belong to a single offender management local commissioning body which deals with all aspects of custodial and non-custodial sentences. This would increase efficiency within the commissioning process and provide evidence about how effectual the sentences of individual courts are, which then could be fed back into future decisions of the court. Furthermore we believe there is scope for payment by results to be better integrated with other programmes, such as the DWP Work Programme. There is a real danger that proceeding on present lines will lead to the embedding of contracts which become an impediment to this very necessary reform. We recommend that a geographical area is chosen for piloting integrated commissioning of offender management. (Paragraph 244)

Immaturity of the current market

35.  The MoJ must not underestimate the work required to create a stable market and it must take into account the existing cultural differences across the different sectors and the complex nature of probation work. There is also clearly a possibility of early commissioning failures and, in order to maintain public confidence in the system, the MoJ must have clear contingency plans for dealing with any such problems which may arise. Innovation involves risks and those risks need to be managed. (Paragraph 252)

Transparency and an effective dialogue

36.  There is a need for open communication with providers from all sectors to inform the commissioning strategy as well as in any future competitive processes to ensure that the best balance can be struck between efficiency and localism. We are concerned that this does not appear to have been the case to date. (Paragraph 255)

Implications for training

37.  The success of any new commissioning model in protecting the public will be predicated on the existence of strong safeguards to monitor standards of professional expertise. Staff undertaking offender management work on behalf of other sectors will require the same high-quality qualifying training as probation professionals working for trusts. In order to foster some consistency in the specialist skills required to work with particular types of offender, and a high-quality service provided, we would like to see the MoJ working with Skills for Justice to create a framework for both accredited qualifying and post-qualifying training that is accessible to all providers. (Paragraph 258)

The flexibility of contracts

38.  The Ministry of Justice will need to ensure that contractual specifications include adequate safeguards for public protection. The current work of probation services is not just about meeting the obligations in their contract; its work is about serving the demands of the courts, which cannot be easily predicted, and being sufficiently flexible to meet the offending-related needs of individuals as and when they arise. The Government must clearly specify in its new commissioning strategy how it intends to ensure that contracting arrangements with providers from other sectors will accommodate these needs and respond to unexpected changes. (Paragraph 263)


39.  From April 2011 the public sector has had a statutory duty to take positive action to eliminate gender discrimination and promote equality under the Equality Act. We would welcome a clear statement in the commissioning strategy about how the equality duty will apply to providers outside the public sector and how the Government intends to ensure that probation and rehabilitative practice is fair and inclusive, particularly in the context of increased provider and professional discretion. (Paragraph 265)

Access to working capital

40.  We see that there is considerable potential in social finance, but it will take time to develop. The Ministry of Justice should learn from the experience of other Departments including the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. (Paragraph 273)

Choosing appropriate outcome measures

41.  We welcome the Ministry of Justice's review of the local snapshot measure of re-offending. Once a new, more robust, measure is devised, it would be prudent for the Ministry of Justice to commission research to examine practice in the best and least performing trusts so as to strengthen the evidence base. (Paragraph 279)

Graduated and differentiated payments

42.  As outcome-based payment models in other sectors have evolved, differentiated payments have been introduced to suppress the propensity of providers to focus on those who are easiest to help. We urge the Ministry of Justice to ensure that any model of payment by results builds in incentives for providers to work with all offenders from the outset, and that interventions are especially targeted at the riskiest offenders. We favour the development of a graduated payment system which includes some upfront funding, with additional payments based on proxy measures and then ultimately on reduced re-offending. (Paragraph 286)

Developing a business case

43.  In any new commissioning model there is a need for a balance to be struck in ensuring that the administrative costs of any new system do not outweigh the potential benefits. The Government's pilots should be designed to enable them to create a business case for a viable model of justice reinvestment to be implemented over the next spending review period (Paragraph 294)

Quality of the evidence base

44.  The Ministry of Justice needs to develop a measure that enables the effectiveness of prison and community sentences to be compared more robustly. (Paragraph 296)

Potential to strengthen the evidence base

45.  It is important that data and information sharing is not inhibited by the rules governing commissioning and competition. (Paragraph 300)

Attributing results

46.  The Department needs to address the risk that providers may receive multiple payments under a range of payment by results programmes, for example, for employment, drugs misuse and reducing re-offending. (Paragraph 304)

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 27 July 2011