Our public-private probation system is irredeemably flawed

Russell Webster reports on the Chief Inspector of Probation's damning verdict

In her three years as Chief Inspector of Probation, Dame Glenys Stacey has forged a reputation for straight talking.

The world of probation isn’t usually very newsworthy but ever since 2013 when then Justice Minister Chris Grayling introduced the split public/private probation system known as Transforming Rehabilitation, it has regularly featured on news programmes, newspaper editorials and special investigations by documentary makers such as Panorama.

Although the public side of probation, the National Probation Service, has now more or less stabilised and is delivering a reasonable quality of service, the 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies who supervise low and medium risk offenders have struggled to deliver an adequate service and have rarely been out of the news.

Many of these news bulletins have been stimulated by the publication of a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation into yet another failing CRC. As Dame Glenys’ appearances on the Today Programme have become more regular, so have her criticisms of Transforming Rehabilitation become more trenchant. Such a major overhaul was always likely to take time to settle down and initially the Chief Inspector was prepared to give the new probation providers the benefit of the doubt.

Recently, though, she has taken the gloves off. When the multinational provider of outsourced government services, Working Links, went into administration earlier this year, its demise had been hastened by an inspection of one of the company’s three CRCs. Inspectors found that probation staff in the Dorset, Devon and Cornwall area were so overworked and subject to such commercial pressures that some had taken to undertaking assessments of offenders (a contractual requirement linked to payment by the MoJ) before actually meeting the individuals in question.

Dame Glenys did not mince her words, stating that “The Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall CRC is not delivering probation services to anywhere near the standards we and the public expect.” She went on to detail the impact of privatisation in a memorable phrase: “The professional ethos of probation has buckled under the strain of the commercial pressures put upon it here, and it must be restored urgently.”

Today, in a lengthy annual report, the Chief Inspector goes further still, describing the Transforming Rehabilitation model for probation as “irredeemably flawed”. She enumerates these flaws, reporting that the probation profession has been diminished by the new model and lamenting the national shortage of qualified probation officers. Probation currently relies much too heavily on unqualified or agency staff – reminiscent of some of the recent criticisms of areas where health and social care provision was failing. She goes on to say that there has been adrift away from best practice, which was historically underpinned by a constantly developing evidence base and that the relationship between the individual offender and their supervising probation officer, the very cornerstone of effective probation work, has been paid scant attention and has started to deteriorate as a consequence.

In addition to this trenchant criticism, Dame Glenys’s report includes a lengthy section setting out a series of design principles which could inform a much more coherent probation system. She endorses both an integrated service and one that is delivered locally. She places faith both in probation leaders and frontline staff and urges government to get out of their way and enable them to focus once more on rehabilitating offenders while protecting the public.

Dame Glenys’ annual report is particularly timely because the Justice Minister David Gauke took the unprecedented decision last July of cutting short the CRC contracts by 14 months in order to redesign Transforming Rehabilitation with a new procurement competition due to start early this year. The MoJ initially published a consultation paper which looked to make relatively minor changes to the TR model, retaining the public/private split. The final detail of the new model and the formal start of the new procurement competition has been delayed by several months with MoJ insiders reporting that ministers have had a hard time in deciding what to do next. Many consider that they are caught in a political bind knowing that a single probation system is likely to be more effective but not wishing to acknowledge that the current system, devised by a Conservative Justice Minister in the face of widespread criticism, was fundamentally flawed and ideological driven.

The Chief Inspector’s annual report, combined with a damning progress review by the National Audit Office published earlier this month, will have intensified the decision-making process.

It is possible that Mr Gauke might not be terribly upset if the current Brexit impasse resolves itself by way of a new general election.