Covid-19 is an unprecedented public health crisis and has come at a time when probation is in the midst of its second major reform programme in the past five years. This report looks at the measures the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) have taken in response to Covid-19, focusing on the Exceptional Delivery Model and the change in how probation supervision is delivered, staffing challenges and the resettlement needs of those released from prison.
In addition to adapting to a second major reform programme in five years, low staffing levels, and high caseloads for staff further add to the pressures that the probation service face during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and wider stakeholders deserve praise for the vital work they continue to do. In particular, front-line probation staff have adapted well to the current climate and continue to delivery vital support and services to those under their supervision, and thus continue to protect the public.
On 24 March 2020, the probation service moved to an exceptional model of delivery, which changed the way in which probation services were delivered. With many offices closed, and staff working from home, the way in which offenders are supervised in the community has changed dramatically, going from face-to-face supervision, to digital via phone, Skype and messaging. For those high-risk offenders, the probation service has made doorstep visits. Offenders have been unable to complete sentence requirements, such as unpaid work. Additionally, shifting our focus to the recovery phase, we are concerned about how the backlogs that have built up, such as unpaid work, will be addressed in future.
Covid-19 has exacerbated already present staffing issues within the probation service. Low staffing levels and high case-loads present challenges during the current pandemic, given that in addition to existing vacancies, around 2,000 staff (about 20% of the total) are off work due to Covid-19 each day. We are aware that staff morale and wellbeing are being affected by current circumstances, but we are unclear what additional measures the Ministry have put in place to support staff.
The resettlement needs of those released from prison are also a concern to the committee. We know that the transition from prison to the community is crucial in terms of addressing risk and reoffending. For those leaving prison, society may be very different to how it was when an individual may have entered prison; probation offices, and other services that often provide crucial support have mostly closed their offices, and many staff are working from home. We are unclear what additional measures have been put in place to support prison leavers to transition into the community under the current circumstances.
In terms of financial support for prison leavers, we welcome the increase in the Subsistence Grant available to those who have been released early under the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme, and recommend that the same increase be made to the Discharge Grant, for those released in the ordinary course of events. Both cohorts of prisoners will have resettlement needs that may be more difficult to achieve in current circumstances.
Housing is often a particular resettlement challenge for those leaving prison, and we welcome the measures in place to find accommodation and prevent homelessness upon release from prison. The Ministry have set up seven Homeless Prevention Taskforces (HPTs) to coordinate the sourcing of accommodation for offenders released early and have secured up to £8.5 million to support individuals at risk of homelessness on release—a scheme initially due to run eight weeks, but extended by five more weeks to 31 July. These measures are welcome, and we thank all those involved in securing and implementing them.
We broadly welcome changes set out in June by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, in regard to probation reforms, however, we recognise that transitioning to a new service model by 2021 under the current circumstances is a huge undertaking.
Published: 20 July 2020