Risky and fundamentally misguided

Professor Paul Senior
Tuesday, 24 September 2013

I won't forget 19 September 2013 in a hurry. Though it was my daughter's birthday, that's not the reason.

My mind was focused on the heavily predicted, but no less shocking, news that the Ministry of Justice's Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) agenda was officially now full steam ahead. This had been well trailed and nothing emerged on that fateful day which was a surprise.

I was also gratified to see the coverage that Napo and Unison achieved for their lunch time protests with evidence appearing on Twitter from all over the country showing probation staff standing up for their public service.

However, had you landed on this planet last week and known nothing of this step change you might have believed that this was a logical development.

Inspectorate Reports issued in the past week on life sentence prisoners, and on two Probation Trusts, if you only read the papers, hinted that all was not well in the probation trusts. Of course if you read the reports themselves you would not find those conclusions at all but who reads the real evidence in this just-in-time sound bite world.

And there's the rub, probation's impact is not easy to convey as its largely unheralded but vital service quietly gets on with its difficult and at times thankless task.

The day started with the launch of a research report from Ministry of Justice Analytical Services. This looked interesting and its summary of research supporting reducing re-offending is to be welcomed. But why the same day the TR competition was launched? Well the Foreword by junior minister Jeremy Wright soon gave it a more political edge. Released to coincide with the launch of the TR, competition was laid bare by this introduction.

Ironically perhaps the second section highlighted the key elements needed to develop the key attributes for effective offender management:

  • Skilled, trained practitioners
  • Well-sequenced, holistic approaches
  • Services and interventions delivered in a joined-up, integrated manner
  • Need for high quality services

Now I read this 'evidence' somewhat differently to the minister. All these elements are put at risk under the changes proposed, despite the TR aspirations being objectives we might all support in principle. It may take many years before 21 disparate ‘Contract Package Areas’, a much reduced, highly specialised rump of public probation and a myriad of voluntary sector providers can effectively deliver these four key attributes, particularly as the money available is within the current envelope of funding despite around 60,000 persistent offenders newly on statutory supervision having also to be accommodated.

Transforming Rehabilitation Contract Package Areas

Source: Transforming Rehabilitation: A Strategy for Reform

Qualified and trained expertise is not cheap. And remember that cost cuts are at the heart of these changes. How much will private companies be prepared to invest in high quality training and education to continue to deliver the graduate profession which probation officers have under current arrangements? The importance of the putative Probation Institute to guide training requirements cannot be underestimated here.

Who will case manage the offenders so that 'sequenced, holistic' approaches can be achieved. Risk assessment and sentence planning done by the National Probation Service, then cases transferred to the Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) who may choose not to use case managers as they are costly in more than an administrative role. Co-ordinating provision cannot be achieved by slick software packages alone despite what the salespeople would contend. It needs professional judgement and engagement and co-production of plans with the service user themselves. Even if there was an army of peer mentors waiting – though I applaud the intention we know there are simply not enough people out there – should volunteers without training really do this difficult task professional task of supervision? I don't think so.

Delivering services in a joined up and sequenced manner is exactly why we are seeing such success now from Integrated Offender Management (IOM). But IOM is built on pooling resources, cooperation across agency boundaries, with information sharing on sensitive issues built on trust and mutual respect, with probation, police, voluntary and community sector and prisons leading the way. It has taken nearly a decade to get there without a statutory framework to support the involvement of the under 12 month offender. Ironically legislation would now provide a much needed purchase on this group. IOM is showing just the sort of success the government is seeking without these disabling, untried, untested and potentially fragmenting and, given Payment by Results, competitive new arrangements.

High quality services? Where can we possibly find a public service with top quality kite mark awards, reductions of up to 10 per cent in reoffending from community orders, a highly trained and motivated staff group, delivering integrated holistic services in cooperation with voluntary and private providers? Is this why we are seeking new providers? Wait, these criteria are met by an organisation in existence –  probation trusts. So it makes sense to rip them in two, give it to providers with aspirations but little track record. This is an ideology rather than evidence-based change?

Of course I have made a fundamental error. As someone interested in public policy I took it as axiomatic that looking at evidence would be the basis of change. Of course  this is not the basis of this change. It is policy-based and government driven, based 'eerily' on a similar model developed in the Work Programme. And look how successful that has been!

Probation practitioners may find a home in the new CRCs but the costs in morale, in organisational efficacy, and most worryingly in terms of public safety makes this rush to change simply dangerous. Even if you accepted the new blueprint, would you risk that vision by attempting a nationwide change in just 12 months with no piloting and sequencing to minimise risk?

The 19th was a sad day for an unsung group of people who do their jobs well. Fact. Let's hope the cacophony of noise heard on that day will help produce a pause in this helter-skelter, risky and fundamentally misguided and evidence-bereft approach.

Paul Senior tweets @yorkhull