HC 717 Reducing Costs and Transforming Delivery in the National Offender Management Service

Evidence from HM Chief Inspector of Probation

Tension between the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and Probation Trusts

The National Audit Office (NAO) rightly identifies tensions in the relationship between NOMS and probation trusts. In my view, these result as much from the history of NOMS’ development and the different organisational structures of the prison and probation services as any failings in its management. The restructure of NOMS HQ was, as the report states, well received and both the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NOMS and the Director responsible for the probation service are spoken of positively by probation trusts.

Nevertheless, there is, I believe, an inherent dissonance in the NOMS model, which essentially incorporates two organisations with different functions and governance arrangements. Unlike the prison service, which is a national organisation, the probation trust CEOs report to a locally managed Board but are accountable to NOMS for their achievement of targets. When these arrangements are considered in the historical context of a probation service that has gone through four major reorganisations over the past 15 years, and is currently awaiting the response to the probation review which will herald yet another one, it’s not surprising that relations are a little tense.

What this means is, given that the line management arrangements of the probation service is different from those of the prison service, as is its history and its focus on the community, so the dialogue NOMS has with probation trusts also has to be different. And this isn’t achieved with sufficient consistency. As a result, the work of the probation service is not fully understood at the centre and as a consequence not properly valued and too easily dismissed.

On the other hand, many probation staff, particularly operational staff, see very little difference between NOMS, the MoJ including the Justice Policy Group, and consequently attribute decisions made by the wider Ministry of Justice to NOMS.

Implications - Have the cuts had an impact?

The Probation Service has faced a significant drop in its resources over recent years but most trusts have worked well within the reduced resources and continued to not only meet their targets, but, as our inspections have shown, make incremental improvements in practice. They have a central and vital role in the management of those who pose a risk of harm to others in the community, a responsibility which, as we have shown by our inspections, discharges effectively (cf our report, Putting the Pieces Together, on the multi-agency public protection arrangements). The service also has a long history of working effectively with the voluntary and private sectors, police and other local authority providers in the community. Individuals subject to community orders or post release licence are seen regularly and the vast majority of orders and licences are appropriately enforced. As such, offenders are held to account and the ‘control’ element of the sentence effectively delivered.

The cuts have made probation trusts reprioritise much of its work. The increased use of fast delivery probation reports has brought savings and contributed to swifter justice but is not without risk. The information presented to courts is critical in determining the sentence most likely to protect the public and reduce reoffending. Those preparing the reports have little opportunity to verify the information provided or to investigate the case further. As we have shown in our report on electronic monitoring (cf It’s Complicated: The Management of Electronically Monitored Curfews), sentencers, who after all are the primary commissioners of probation services, are not always sighted of either the risk of harm to others presented by the individual or their likelihood of reoffending when passing sentence. The example I quoted in my evidence to the committee illustrates this point.

We have also seen in our inspections, a move away from accredited programmes, whose development was based on research into the most effective ways of working with individuals who offend. Examples of such programmes include the sex offenders treatment programme, the domestic violence programme and cognitive skills and consequential thinking, which continue to be run but with less frequency. Shorter programmes (delivered as specified requirements) are now being adopted across the probation services as less expensive and easier to deliver. They may be a pragmatic way of managing offenders but their impact on reducing reoffending remains largely unproven.

The third area I wish to highlight relates to the relaxation of national standards and greater reliance placed on the professional judgement of the probation officer. While we in HM Inspectorate of Probation welcomed the consistency in practice achieved through the implementation of the standards, we were, as were many others, also concerned at the somewhat mechanistic approach to managing individuals who offend that the unthinking application of the standards could encourage. As shown by evidence from research, effective engagement with offenders has a significant impact on both the successful completion of orders and on changing behaviour, thereby reducing their reoffending.

We are therefore encouraged by the move towards the exercise of greater professional judgement when working with people who have offended, and the accompanying emphasis placed on engaging them in the supervision process. It is still not clear, however, how this work will be incorporated in practice or how commercial companies will respond when professional judgement conflicts with commercial interest.

This is not to say that the new arrangements cannot promote good practice and we can see from examples both within England and Wales and across Europe how public and private sectors have worked together successfully to reduce reoffending, but such work takes time. Any changes need to be undertaken with care, built on incrementally and not rushed.

Proposals for community sentences

The current impetus given to the introduction of a component of punishment into all community sentences, whilst understandable, needs to be thought through further and the cost implications considered. Punishment undoubtedly forms an important element of sentencing and can also be redemptive and contribute to rehabilitation. It therefore follows that it should be proportionate to the offence and targeted on the individual.

As we have already seen through our report on electronic monitoring the ‘blanket’ inclusion of a curfew or a period of unpaid work as a punishment on all offenders, risks increasing the number of cases, already high, breached for non-compliance. Research has shown that non-compliance increases with the length and duration of the order so particular attention needs to be given to these issues. Some of these breaches will undoubtedly result in short prison sentences, at further expense to the public purse, often where the circumstances of the index offence is such that a prison sentence would not normally have been considered as appropriate.

The success of the Payment by Results proposals will depend very much on how the results in such schemes are both defined and measured. The adoption of a simple binary measure, of a single incident of convicted reoffending, would mean that many cases would fail even though both the rate and the seriousness of their offending had significantly reduced.

Conclusion

We are still waiting to hear the outcome of the probation review, which will determine how work with those who offend is taken forward. Its implementation will require careful thought and planning, otherwise we are in danger of losing a whole way of working with offenders which has a proven track record and is emulated by other jurisdictions.

Liz Calderbank

15 November 2012

Prepared 11th December 2012