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Is private probation improving?

Russell Webster looks deeper into today's first positive probation inspectors' report of a CRC

Cue the trumpets.

Bring out the bunting.

Start the dancing.

It’s celebration time.

No, we’re not talking about the new royal baby, but something much more momentous.

Today Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation published an inspection report into the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Community Rehabilitation Company. This is the 14 (out of 21) CRCs to be inspected under the new ratings system but the very first to be rated as “good” – twelve of the other thirteen were rated as “requires improvement” with the remaining area simply rated as “poor”.

The inspectors said that the CRC has in place all the essentials needed for solid delivery and noted that the area’s work with leading academics gives confidence that the quality of probation work will even improve further. This is to be applauded given the uncertainty of the future of private probation. The Ministry of Justice has cut short the private probation contracts by 14 months and has spent the time since last July deliberating on the design of the second iteration of the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation project, with an announcement reportedly “imminent”.

Chief Inspector Dame Glenys Stacey also said that her inspectors found good leadership and a solid understanding of the needs of the individuals under probation supervision and the risks they present. Inspectors found good middle management capacity and skill and, unusually, a healthy range of specialist services available for offenders on supervision. Again unusually, the CRC’s buildings and IT were also found to be of a sufficient standard to support the delivery of a high quality probation service.

Although it is very encouraging to finally have such a positive inspection report, alas, the good news isn’t all it seems. The inspectors rate probation areas’ performance in ten separate domains although only six of these relate directly to work with offenders (the other four domains relate to the organisational delivery and infrastructure of the area). Although inspectors rated three of these six domains as “good” (the assessment of offenders, the planning of their supervision and the quality of Unpaid Work), the other three were rated as substandard. The implementation and delivery of probation supervision, which most people would consider the fundamental element of the probation role, was assessed as “requiring improvement” as was the CRC’s resettlement – or “Through the Gate” – work. The CRC’s work in reviewing its case supervision work was rated on the lowest scale: “inadequate”.

The other cause for concern is even more serious. Inspectors found that the CRC was in the process of introducing sweeping changes to its staffing, including seconding almost one quarter of its more experienced probation officers to the National Probation Service. Unsurprisingly, efforts to recruit new members of staff at a lower grade have proved difficult. The fieldwork for the inspection was carried out this January but it’s likely that the new recruits won’t be fully in place until this autumn. In the meantime, remaining staff are managing around 70 cases each and it must be open to question as to whether the CRC can continue to be rated as “good” if it is deliberately downgrading the quality and experience of probation staff who will be supervising offenders.

It’s a shame to greet such positive news with just two cheers, but I’m afraid the inspection provides more evidence to support the conclusion of the Public Accounts Committee’s progress review of Transforming Rehabilitation published last Friday which concluded:

“In its haste to rush through its reforms at breakneck speed the Ministry of Justice not only failed to deliver its ‘rehabilitation revolution’ but left probation services underfunded, fragile, and lacking the confidence of the courts. Inexcusably, probation services have been left in a worse position than they were in before the Ministry embarked on its reforms.”