The role of the Probation Service - Justice Committee Contents

Annex: e-consultation


1.  The Committee set up a web forum in support of its inquiry into the current and future role of the probation service. The purpose of the forum was to encourage contributions from probation staff and others with experience of probation on the challenges currently facing probation services. Although the main target group was frontline probation practitioners, the Committee invited the views of other individuals and organisations who work with offenders (including probation middle managers and probation trust board members), the public, (ex-) offenders and their families, victims of crime, sentencers and small voluntary sector providers.


2.  The forum opened on 17 May 2011 and ran until 21 June 2011.

3.  The site was designed and created by the Parliamentary web-centre. During the registration process, users agreed to a set of discussion rules. The forum was moderated by Justice Committee staff—messages were checked to ensure that they adhered to the discussion rules before they were published on the forum.

4.  Contributions to the forum were used by members of the Committee to inform their questioning of the witnesses who attended hearings as the inquiry progressed as well as during the process of drafting and agreeing a report.


5.  The forum was announced by the Committee via a press notice and a publicity letter was sent to Napo, UNISON, Criminal Justice Alliance, Clinks, Victim Support, Probation Association, Probation Chiefs' Association, Unlock, Nacro, Howard League, Local Government Association, the British Society of Criminology and the Magistrates' Association.

Forum questions

6.  The web forum posed the following questions:

  • To what extent is more direct contact with offenders necessary for effective offender management and how could this be achieved?
  • Probation national standards have recently been streamlined. To what extent are frontline probation staff, and others who work with offenders in the community, equipped to confidently handle such a shift in their role?
  • What will be the impact of creating a system in which probation trusts would compete with other providers from the private and voluntary sectors?
  • Are there ways of improving efficiency and driving up probation performance in addition to the Government's proposals?

Profile of respondents

The e-consultation attracted 2,812 views and users contributed 60 posts. The majority of respondents were probation officers or probation service officers.

Summary of responses

Direct contact with offenders

7.  Participants in the forum stressed the importance of direct contact between probation officers and offenders:

The relationship between the probation officer and the offender is key to the process of rehabilitation. It takes time to build up trust before an offender will begin to disclose personal pertinent information to his/her supervising officer.[503]

The task of probation staff is to focus on those individuals without the will, the skills or the capacity to identify and make changes. In order to do this staff NEED to spend time with their offenders to understand them within the contexts of their environment, relationships and their pasts. Staff need to be able to model effective, realistic ways to solve problems, increase motivation and offer support whilst also holding individuals to account in relation to their behaviour/order/licence. This can't be done from a computer but from actual contact with the person.[504]

You can only engage with a client and build a good relationship with them if you have time to sit down and talk with them. By having this time you have a better knowledge of the client and can make a better assessments of their needs. Making 'remote' assessments with little or no direct contact with the offenders decreases their willingness to engage and reduces compliance. It's human nature, if you take a genuine interest in somebody (and have time for it) they will respond positively.[505]

8.  One contributor thought that direct contact was not necessarily essential for every tier of offender:

We need to get real. Tier 2 cases are dealt with on an office duty basis with little continuity. Put this group out to a tendering arrangement and concentrate on tier 3/4 high risk work. Just think of the resources we could free up to do quality work.[506]

But another disputed this view:

In my experience working for the West Mercia Probation Trust, Tier 2 cases are not dealt with on an office duty basis with little continuity for the above reason. They are managed by trained and experienced PSOs [probation service officers] who communicate with fully qualified POs [probation officers] and who are supervised by SPOs [senior probation officers]. These cases should continue to attract a similar level of resource / intervention by the probation service due the risk of re-offending posed.[507]

The relationship and contact is vital to all tiers of offenders. Tier 1, mainly unpaid work offenders, need appropriate supervisors who model respectful social interaction, work ethic, social responsibility and so on. I have the utmost respect for those who manage it given the nature of how they are expected to achieve it. Other tiers of offenders also require this with the additional support of motivating and managing the offender.[508]

9.  High caseload was identified as a barrier to effective contact between probation officers and offenders:

One of the biggest barriers to building a relationship under the current arrangements is the emphasis on the 'number and frequency' of appointments, not the 'quality or content' thereof. What you do with the offender is what matters, not how often they are seen. Offenders are also legitimately upset when they travel for three hours to a probation office just to be signed in because their supervising officer is too busy with another bureaucratic deadline. Such requirements undermine the credibility of the processes (as do the closure of local offices and centralisation of services in rural areas, where public transport lacks the efficiency of the London Underground). You can achieve more in one hour than you can in 4 x 15 minutes spread over a month. It offers better continuity the time necessary to dig that little bit deeper. Allow staff to manage their own diaries based on their availability or the work required and not on meaningless reporting and the demands of an increasingly voracious IT system.[509]

The former CIP [chief inspector of probation] Andrew Bridges (witness to the JSC) noted in an earlier contribution to this debate with Enver Solomon (in Criminal Justice Matters) that any practitioner having a caseload beyond 32 could not expect to offer quality supervision.[510]

The general public would be appalled if they knew how little time we actually spend working with offenders. The system has become far too bureaucratic and target driven, and it seems to be becoming more bureaucratically intensive. The introduction of OASys quality assurance is an example of this, where rigid rules force staff to do meaningless and repetitive tasks. OASys has many good points, but needs to be streamlined radically. In our area there have recently been some good developments with the introduction of workbooks for one to one use, and this sort of simple, but effective intervention should be encouraged. Time could also be saved by simplifying many of the referral forms that are used within probation, and with other agencies.[511]

10.  Several respondents felt that the day-to-day work of a probation officer had become too bureaucratic. They advocated reducing the use of OASys (Offender Assessment System) and increase professional discretion in order to reduce the burden on probation officers and create more time for direct contact with offenders:

The oversold OASys tool which has become the equivalent of e-servitude, confining staff to endless hours of computer dominated practice, which was shamefully sidestepped by more senior probation voices called to be witnesses to the Committee. Needs urgent revision and streamlined.[512]

I agree that the extensive use of OASys is very time-consuming with little real value as an effective tool.[513]

I find that an OASys led pre-sentence report approach seems to have added to the length of the reports and has increased significantly the time it takes to prepare such a report.[514]

Streamlining national probation standards

11.  Some contributors had concerns that frontline probation staff would find it difficult to handle a shift in their role in the face of new streamlined national probation standards:

I worry that we are moving too fast. Like so much with the Coalition, they want it to happen today. I think it will take some time for the service to adjust to not being tied to rigid standards. I think the way that training has been done over the last few years and the lack of training provided to PSOs has not provided officers who necessarily have professional judgment or know how to use it.[515]

The removal of the social work background training was the biggest mistake probation undertook. Now we have probation staff who suffer from an identity crisis of not knowing what or who they are. A generation of probation staff who are accustomed to using enforcement now have to make decisions based on professional judgment. A difficult task to achieve when you have been taught and developed to follow stringent guidelines and standards with very little flexibility to breath never mind spend 20 minutes with an offender.[516]

Spending hours in front of a computer recording endless information to satisfy NOMS targets and defend the service from political scrutiny has only served to de-skill new practitioners. The tired mantra of "if you haven't written it down it didn't happen" has been taken to the ridiculous—perhaps we should say this to our offender—It's ok if you didn't write it down you didn't do it! Clearly there is no confidence in practitioners to enjoy their work and be honourable to it—micro managing professionals does not work![517]

12.  Others had concerns that the streamlining of national standards had been designed to enable other providers to fulfil the work of probation:

There have also been expressed concerns that this might prefigure a worrying prelude to enabling other providers into the supervisory role.[518]

My concern is that simplifying these standards just for the benefit of easing the transition for other agencies to do the work of probation undervalues all the positive development which the service has achieved in its 100 years of work.[519]

13.  However, several contributors welcomed the change because the standards had proved inflexible and too prescriptive. They argued that probation officers are capable of using professional judgment to do their work effectively:

National standards had become over prescriptive and a barrier to initiative. Strict protocols invite a bureaucratic response and can dumb down practice, as can be seen in the behaviour of a whole variety of organisations from hospitals to building societies. In probation their relaxation is welcomed because it brings with it an increase in discretion and a better chance to build purposeful relationships with offenders as part of challenging their offending behaviour.[520]

I think the skills are there but the culture is not. I think, given the new National Standards (or lack thereof ??), it will afford trusts to opportunity to empower their staff to revisit the concept of defensible decision making. We still have many managers who grew up in a Service that was not tied up in bureaucracy and more able to look at things creatively and sensibly.[521]

I would suggest that probation workers who have worked in different fields and have more life experience are better-equipped to 'use our discretion'. I feel that my training and learning as a TPO [trainee probation officer] has helped to improve those skills. However, our line managers often seem to have insufficient time available to help us as effectively as they wish. It would be good to have more time for development sessions within our teams, to discuss particular issues or clients, but in practice this is very difficult to do.[522]

Paring down national standards is to be welcomed, and staff are very capable of managing this change. More flexibility can only help us to focus on using our resources to the best possible effect.[523]

14.  Many welcomed the new emphasis on professional judgment and individual discretion, but warned that the change needed to be accompanied by proper training and supervision:

The only concern is that the lack of guidance could be used against staff when there are serious further offence (SFO) reviews. Staff deserve support when there is evidence of good work, but all too often SFO reviews tend to seek out any excuse to blame staff.[524]

However two questions emerge: the first about the skill base of the service which has been eroded by confusion over the roles and functions of probation staff which has led to inadequate investment in training. This needs to be remedied. Secondly there is the question of clarity of purpose of supervision. This needs to be defined broadly at a national level and locally on a case by case basis so that there can be proper line management and coaching of all staff.[525]

We have been so used to prescribed NS [national standards] that a relaxation may cause anxieties. I welcome the relaxation of NS (however we have still to be told what these are and when they come into practice). I think with further training and support[ I would welcome the idea that I can make more decisions myself rather than consult a prescribed standard. My only reservation is that managers are available as needed to offer advice and countersign any decision made.[526]

If the new NS are about greater flexibility, discretion and professional judgment then this needs to be supported by a quality trained staff who can make the decisions which are based on sound theoretical principles.[527]

Competing with other providers from the private and voluntary sectors

15.  Two contributors argued that increased competition between probation trusts and private and voluntary service providers would drive innovation:

We need to spark innovation and change and trusts have demonstrated again and again they can't deliver this. Market testing will drive quality in the end.[528]

I have to say I tend to agree with you, in that we do need to spark innovation whilst remaining vigilant when things, as everything does, begin to go wrong. As someone who is very passionate about their Trust but also constantly frustrated at the lack of "thinking outside the dots", I tentatively welcome this move.[529]

16.  But the majority of contributors were against the proposals to open the work of a probation trust to the market, for a number of reasons. Some argued introducing the profit motive into probation would lead to a fall in standards:

Private sectors core values are measured by profitability; in effect they will attempt to do the same job for cheaper compromising quality as a consequence. History indicates that Government bodies never stipulate the finer details of accountability and performance targets within the tender/contracts, introducing a drop in standards instantly.[530]

It can't be more efficient having more people involved, less consistency, mixed messages and confusion passed on to offenders whose lives may already be unstable. Breaches, possibly contested breaches, will increase with the associated costs to the whole system. It's not innovative, the contracts will be worked to the letter, no more, no less, because private business will never see the value in going the extra mile.[531]

I have experienced the limited involvement of private providers in the delivery of criminal justice, and my experience shows their delivery has been inflexible and limited to the letter of their contract, without any understanding of risk management. The provision of services has, in my experience, been limited and lacking in an understanding of "wider issues" or joined up thinking.[532]

Others argued that any savings would be cancelled out by increased costs elsewhere in the criminal justice system:

Creating a market in probation will simply lower standards and appear to lower costs. In fact the costs will simply be transferred to another part of the public sector in some way (rising prison population probably) and leave shareholders happy.[533]

It won't be cheaper, the costs will end up somewhere else, most likely prison places when cases have been mismanaged.[534]

One contributor argued that offenders may be suspicious of the motives of private providers and therefore less likely to cooperate with them:

logic dictates that the offenders benefit from the underlying motivations of the people they come in contact with, meeting people with ££ in their eyes with pound shop attitudes will not encourage behavioural changes. It is the empathy and intangible concepts of human behaviours from Probation employees that change people not cheaper premises or materials.[535]

Several contributions to the web forum warned that private providers were likely to 'cherry-pick' their clients at the expense of those offenders considered too demanding:

The issues that impact on the offending behaviour of individuals are many and complex and the approaches offered by private sector providers have shown them to be incapable of working with the most demanding and difficult clients, preferring, instead, to 'cherry pick' the easy wins in order to 'evidence' their ability to perform. This will serve to marginalise the most difficult and dangerous people in a way that exacerbates risk rather than reduces it. Private sector providers seem to struggle to identify who the customer is. Is it NOMS? Is it the Courts? Is it the community? Is it the offender? The answer is 'it's all of the above'.[536]

This is likely to lead to…a real danger that probation will do what other businesses do, delivering services to the people who are more compliant to show its worth as opposed to working with those who need to be worked with.[537]

I currently work in programmes and the services to be tendered will have to be extremely well written if the harder to deal with offenders are not to be excluded as providers faced with the reality of dealing with such individuals 'cherry pick' the easier individuals to meet completion rates and targets.[538]

Others warned that the introduction of competition for particular elements of probation work (as the Government is currently doing in the case of unpaid work) would lead to a fragmented service, with a number of negative consequences:

Unpaid work has for many years outperformed any other area of probation work. Yet it has suffered from being under under-resourced. In opening it to competition there is the real risk that the service it provides will deteriorate by divorcing it from the "gene pool" that is the probation family. It may not be clear to outsiders but the cross fertilisation that is at the heart of the management of offenders enriches all areas of probation work. In both directions. You cannot spend 6 to 7 hours a day with offenders, many more than any other professionals in the criminal justice system, as supervisors of unpaid work do, without gaining a great deal of insight into their motivation and lifestyle choices of the offenders you are supervising. This is passed on, sometimes inadvertently but often reflectively to other probation staff and is used in every aspect of the work: offender management; programmes; drug rehabilitation units etc. That cross fertilisation would be lost and the whole system devalued if a non-probation body took over unpaid work.[539]

The government sees unpaid work, offender programmes, community supervision etc as distinct and separate arms of community sentences. This is a mistake if you are trying to promote effective practice. As an offender manager I have benefitted from direct contact with unpaid work supervisors and groupwork facilitators who often work from the same office. The loss of one or other to another provider would break the coherent picture needed to effectively manage offenders or assisting them in changing. The fragmentation of the community sentence into 'processes' for drug rehabilitation, unpaid work, etc with a rump probation service writing reports for courts and the parole board will lead in the longer term to a 'layering' of community justice; harder to communicate between and ultimately more expensive.[540]

Historically probation's core value base has been to co-operate with other agencies, debate and discuss how agencies could work together towards a common aim in securing better services for their local areas. There is no doubt that payment by results will have a devastating impact on the relationship with other agencies and instead of working together for a common good they end up working against each other for a few shilling from their masters.[541]

The impact will ultimately be the degradation and fragmentation of services provided to offenders which in turn will lead to a public less protected, and significant damage being caused to government and ministerial reputations. Given the current constraints within which probation trusts operate, particularly in relation to estates and IT, there is absolutely no way in which trusts can compete on a level playing field with the private and voluntary sectors.[542]

Some respondents warned of the negative impact such a change could have on staff:

Compulsory competition decreases staff moral, distracts focus from local offending reduction initiatives, drives down terms and conditions for staff, increases staff turnover and decreases the clients perception and experience.[543]

The introduction of the private sector has served only to lower standards (the fact that the high standards that the Probation Service have offered had to be lowered before the private providers could even consider entering the field is telling in itself), reduce the quality of training and increase the turnover of staff by offering poorer contracts, poorer terms and condition and poorer management.[544]

Improving efficiency and performance and resources

17.  One contributor argued that to increase efficiency, the probation service should concentrate on higher risk offenders and put other areas of its work out to tender:

Move the concentration of Trust work to tier 3/4 activity. Look at tendering other parts of work. Try combining court, court escort and prison reception to reduce costs and improve the experience of the offender.[545]

18.  Some warned that the strain on resources as a result of budget cuts could affect service outcomes:

Basically the question is can we cut costs whilst at the same time get more out of the work force. As an example it's the same thing as taking your car to a back street garage and having the breaks done, rather than taking this to a dealer or a service station. The difference is visible—at the back street garage yes you can get the job done on the cheap, fast and service with a smile but when you drive your car away you'll be back in a couple of months time having more replacement breaks. You take it to a dealer—it'll cost you more but you know what they do is quality, checked and proper monitored. You try and complain to a backstreet garage about the job they did—they'll blame it on the user.[546]

With year on year Ministry of Justice budget cuts of 6% and probation trusts facing significant budget reductions at a point in time when the ambitious aims of reducing the prison population as enshrined in the Government's Green Paper are premised on kick starting a 'Rehabilitation Revolution'. The Gordian knot question is now of finding 'innovative' ways of improving efficiency within an organisation that has been battered and bruised by the ill wind of political expediency, whilst at the same time promoting greater diversity (read marketisation) in service provision with a view to securing reductions in reoffending.[547]

Its seems Governments want more for less. The probation service has driven up standards in recent years and has far exceeded targets in many cases. To expect even more efficiency when the service is running on bare bones will only affect outcomes.[548]

19.  One respondent argued that reducing bureaucracy would drive efficiency:

Its seems Governments want more for less. The Probation Service has driven up standards in recent years and has far exceeded targets in many cases. To expect even more efficiency when the service is running on bare bones will only affect outcomes.

My time would be more efficiently spent doing direct work with clients. Instead I am filling out various forms and ticking boxes at an ever increasing rate. I'm sure the public would be astounded that after paying to train me for two years they hear I spend a lot of my time filling in housing and ETE [education, training and employment] forms and then spend more time in front of a computer inputting data. Efficiency can be improved by cutting 50% of the paperwork/ bureaucracy.[549]

20.  Another argued that increasing efficiency would require deeper cultural change:

There needs to be a real debate about the core functions of probation. The emphasis on risk management is producing an ever more defensive culture, which lacks creativity and purpose. It must be understood that good rehabilitation reduces risk and protects the public and saves enormous amounts of public money. Political leaders must show courage in leading, and there are some signs that this happening. A cultural change is needed—less blame, and more staff time spent on core activities rather than auditing everything excessively to meet inappropriate demands and targets.[550]

21.  Several respondents argued that the political emphasis during the 2000s on punishment has undermined fundamental probation values:

Sadly the damage was done long ago when the political emphasis was on 'punishment'. The punishment for the offender was to keep to tight schedules, travel long distances if necessary and to be returned to Court if he/she was late by 15 minutes. Fundamental social work values and the core task of rehabilitation have been lost in the IT wilderness. Systems and processes have become more important than the core task itself.[551]

Probation practice has been informed from a very rich source of knowledge about offending behaviour that was ever provided under the old social work qualification. It is the values and ethics of the service that had been brutalised not the core understanding. Paul Boateng spouting off "we are a law enforcement agency, that is what we are, that is what we do" nonsense which led to the identity crisis of the Probation Service and the abandonment of the assist, advice and befriend values. The 'law enforcement' rhetoric is responsible for a breach first talk later mentality and an erosion of ethical decision making when dealing with offenders.[552]

The real question for me is, what does the MOJ want the Probation Service to achieve? In 2001 we were moved away from the social and holistic view of supervising offenders and encouraged to be more punitive and target driven. The result is a diluted and fragmented service…If I want an to assist an offender to change his life I have to offer him an alternative. That is the role of the Probation Service. If you are a risk I need resources to monitor you and the authority to have some control in the community.[553]

22.  Several respondents argued that efficiency was currently hampered by national demands and a target driven culture. They argued that probation trusts should be able to set their priorities locally:

In order to re-ignite purpose in the Probation Service policy makers need to decentralise control, devolve policy making to a more local level, confer with local chiefs of probation and other local stakeholders on what we are trying to achieve; enable local probation areas to make contracts with local providers of facilities, empower them to invite competitive bids from providers of I.T. support. Have a compact or mission statement for probation. Separate record-keeping functions from performance measures (let auditors audit and probation staff do their job). Redesign performance in terms of meeting local needs. Allow the Probation Service to become innovative instead of being smothered by auditors.[554]

The objectives and targets set locally within a broad framework would enable energy to be directed at appropriate line management activity that would provide proper oversight of performance at all levels. This is the essence of both efficiency and effectiveness. Furthermore this would not only provide a supportive environment for staff doing a difficult job it would enable appropriate prioritisation of activities at all levels of the service. In a proper line management structure efficient use of resources means that the life licence case or the child abuser is always closely supervised.[555]

Removing some of the demands placed on probation from the Centre will help improve performance and save money. However, NOMS are introducing new ideas and new process as a way of justifying their own existence. Probation was doing very well before NOMS without a culture of rigid structure and regime taken from the prisons and forced onto probation. Probation is accountable what I would like to know how accountable is NOMS. Does the community/public know what they do? These back-office operators who do very little accept create red tape and block localised creativity would serve well to be dismantled.[556]

503   Gaywhymark Back

504   SarahS Back

505   Officer Bazza Back

506   Outofdarkness Back

507   M0nk3y Back

508   SarahS Back

509   Rob Palmer Back

510   Mike Guilfoyle Back

511   Richard12659 Back

512   Mike Guilfoyle Back

513   Gaywhymark Back

514   Christine 456 Back

515   Pete northern Back

516   B. Knight Back

517   Owsbur Back

518   Mike Guilfoyle Back

519   B. Knight Back

520   Rainbow Back

521   Rob Palmer Back

522   Christine456 Back

523   Richard12659 Back

524   Richard12659 Back

525   Rainbow Back

526   Officer Bazza Back

527   B. Knight Back

528   Outofdarkness Back

529   Rafarhubarb Back

530   Charlie Back

531   SarahS Back

532   Northernpo Back

533   Petenorthern Back

534   SarahS Back

535   Charlie Back

536   Robert Palmer Back

537   B. Knight Back

538   John5555 Back

539   Cjdiver Back

540   Jack54 Back

541   B. Knight Back

542   Semantics Back

543   Officer Bazza Back

544   Robert Palmer Back

545   Outofdarkness Back

546   B. Knight Back

547   Mike Guilfoyle Back

548   Officer Bazza Back

549   Officer Bazza Back

550   Richard12659 Back

551   Gaywhymark Back

552   Owsbur Back

553   Redclaws Back

554   Jack54 Back

555   Rainbow Back

556   B. Knight Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 27 July 2011