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An inspector calls

Independent researcher and consultant Russell Webster says we need more focus on HMIP ratings

Earlier this week Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP) published its report into the performance of the Merseyside Community Rehabilitation Company which is owned and operated by Purple Futures - a consortium led by the global outsourcing company Interserve.

Like many of the Inspectorate’s reports since the government initiated its new public/private probation system known as Transforming Rehabilitation in February 2015, the inspection was very critical. The inspectors did find some positive features, although the overall finding was that Merseyside CRC was not doing enough to supervise offenders thoroughly and protect the public.

However, this article does not dig into the detail of the Merseyside report reflects on the ever-growing importance and influence of HMIP.

The Merseyside report was important for the Inspectorate because it marked the first publication under its new methodology in which not only do inspectors undertake a forensic examination of local probation performance but also give the service an overall rating.

We are used to this approach from such well-known public sector inspectors such as OFSTED and the CQC, but this is the first time that probation inspectors have adopted a rating system. There are four possible ratings: outstanding, good, requires improvement and poor. The inspectors rated Merseyside CRC as requiring improvement.

Every single private probation Community Rehabilitation Company will be inspected over the next 12 months and it seems inevitable that officials at the MoJ (and interested journalists and members of the public) will construct their own league table.

This will be particularly important since the government has recently announced it is cutting short by two years the current private probation contracts because of the poor quality of performance and launching a new procurement competition within the next six months. Those companies who CRCs are rated as requiring improvement and poor might think twice about bidding for the new contracts.

The new probation rating system which was only possible because Chief Inspector Dame Glenys Stacey convinced various justice secretaries of the importance of a bigger Inspectorate which inspected public and private probation providers more thoroughly and more often, is just the latest sign of the growing influence of HMIP.

While many in the probation field have consistently criticised Transforming Rehabilitation from its initial conception by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, it has taken a long time for the government to accept that its poor performance is due to fundamental design faults and to engage in the current restructuring process. This is unsurprising since it is difficult for any government to acknowledge failures that are of its own making and it was always going to be problematic for a Conservative government to accept that a privatisation project has not been successful.

The government ignored criticism from within the probation field, saying that of course it took time to adapt to change, and brushed off critical reports from the National Audit Office and the House of Commons Justice and Public Accounts Committees.

However, it could not continue to ignore the views of the impartial Inspectorate expressed both privately to ministers and most publicly in last December’s annual report. Anyone who has heard Dame Glenys interviewed on the Today Programme will have been struck by her direct style and striking turn of phrase; unlike many public servants, there’s no need to decode her message. The phrase I remember most from her annual report was: “The [Transforming Rehabilitation] teething problems we identified in a series of early inspection reports have largely been resolved.

"More deep-rooted problems now prevail.”

She was particularly critical of the lack of adequate funding for private probation companies and for those CRCs which attempted to square the financial circle by offering supervision by telephone.

Here’s Dame Glenys again: “I question whether the current model for probation can deliver sufficiently well. Above all, a close, forthcoming and productive relationship between an individual and their probation worker is key.

"This is where skilled probation staff add most value, by motivating offenders, working continuously with them to bring about change, and at the same time protecting the public from harm. Yet in some CRCs, individuals meet with their probation worker in places that lack privacy, when sensitive and difficult conversations must take place.

"Some do not meet with their probation worker face-to face. Instead, they are supervised by telephone calls every six weeks or so from junior professional staff carrying 200 cases or more.”

Over the last three years Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation for England and Wales has become an increasingly authoritative voice, exposing the failings of the new probation system, highlighting the impact of austerity and making clear, common sense recommendations for improvements.

None of this has been done in an attention-seeking style, Dame Glenys has not been on Question Time and you will not find personal profiles of her in the Sunday papers. All her initiatives, including the launch last week of a new series of research bulletins where inspectors put the large amounts of data they have accumulated to good use by identifying good and failing practice, are driven by one simple objective: to drive improvements in our probation system.

During a period when the government has signally failed to arrest the decline in our prison and probation services, and the opposition parties have not been able to suggest a workable alternative, we have been lucky to have such leadership from the probation inspectorate. It is to be hoped that when MoJ officials draw up the next set of private probation contracts, they focus the payment mechanism less on heavy-handed civil service performance measures and more on HMIP ratings.