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The Probation System is not responding to treatment

Russell Webster investigates another critical report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation

Regular readers will be aware of the major concerns about the poor performance of our probation system. Ever since then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling decided to part privatise the probation service and create 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies to manage low and medium risk offenders under his Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) project, probation has been underperforming.

The new private providers started supervising offenders in February 2015 and ever since Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts and Justice Committees have been vocal in pointing out their deficiencies.

Things got so bad that last July, the current Justice Secretary David Gauke announced that the private probation contracts would be cut short and the system would be redesigned, albeit maintaining the public/private split.

It’s still not clear what the future of probation looks like with ministers apparently still struggling to decide on the exact format of TR Mark 2 despite the fact that the new procurement process to decide which companies would run private probation in the future was supposed to start in February this year.

What is clear, however, is that private probation performance remains very poor. Two years ago, the Probation Inspectorate revised its inspection methodology and introduced a new four-band rating system: “excellent”, “good”, “requires improvement” and “poor” along the same lines as school and social care inspectorates.

This morning the Probation Inspectorate published its 13th inspection of a private probation provider under the new rating system. Today’s report examined performance in the four county area of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire (known as BeNCH CRC) and rated it in the second lowest band: “requiring improvement”. Of the 13 CRCs inspected so far, no fewer than 12 have received the same “requiring improvement” rating – the only exception being the even worse “poor” rating given to the Dorset, Devon and Cornwall CRC when it was run by Working Links (a company which has now gone into administration).

While the inspectors were impressed by the commitment of managers and staff at BeNCH, they were distinctly under impressed by the quality of work.

Here are some of their headline findings:

Case management is poor. In particular, domestic abuse and child safeguarding issues were not always investigated or recorded properly.
Staff need to do more to protect actual and potential victims.
Meetings between probation officers and the offence they supervise sometimes took place in open booths, raising concerns about confidentiality.
The CRC’s work to support people leaving prison – known by the shorthand “Through the Gate” – was found to be inadequate. Not only did resettlement plans often fail to fully consider an individual’s personal circumstances or manage the potential harm to other people, in more than half the cases inspectors looked at, there was poor communication between staff working in prison and in the community.

The inspectors noted that despite Sodexo, the multinational company owning and operating BeNCH CRC, investing several years and many millions of pounds into developing a new offender management and assessment system, they had now abandoned this approach relying on the MoJ’s own, and distinctively creaky, IT systems. Probation officers, as they do across the country, voiced their frustration at the slow speed of IT and complained about repeatedly losing work when they got kicked out of the system for no apparent reason.

The ongoing poor performance of our probation service puts members of the public at risk and denies many offenders the proper support they need to have a decent chance of turning their lives around.

The fact that the Ministry of Justice seems unable to make up its mind about what the future should look like means that there is very little prospect of performance picking up in the foreseeable future. The fact that contracts are ending early next year with the new specification still to be announced makes this an uncertain and difficult time for all those operating, working in and being supervised by our Community Rehabilitation Companies. Private providers are unlikely to invest substantially in improving the service they deliver when they don’t know if they will still hold the contract next year, nor indeed what that contract will look like.