Blog by Richard Booth - Nepacs' Trustee
The title of the latest Probation Institute conference seemed to promise much…. What light might it throw on the voluntary sector’s future role in the unfolding Transforming Rehabilitation probation landscape?
From the outset Paul Senior, Chair of the Probation Institute, acknowledged that these were turbulent political times dominated by the Brexit issue and the recent general election. Since the snap election the criminal justice system had found itself with its fourth Chancellor of State in only four years!
So what of the imagined future? It soon became clear that much of the focus of the conference would be on the problems brought about by attempts to Transform Rehabilitation. There was a tacit acknowledgement by Sarah Chand, Divisional Director for the NPS in the Midlands, that there was a need for further development of the ‘relationship interface’ between the different agencies. NPS had not bought into the services offered by CRCs. This situation had to change and she made a plea that supply chain organisations should strive to provide evidence of effectiveness to ‘aid NPS commissioning’.
She also indicated that NPS’ role would be much more prison focussed in the future with many more probation officers being moved from community roles to prison based ones. Clearly there would need to be a much more effective and coordinated relationship between NPS, the Prison Service and CRC’s, to avoid duplication in the provision of services such as accommodation advice on release.
On a more optimistic note Ms Chand commented that the early indications are that the new Lord Chancellor, David Lidington, viewed prisons as having a rehabilitive role rather than just a purely punitive one.
Richard Garside from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies lambasted the current state of probation in England and Wales in the post TR world. Again he highlighted that when implementing Transforming Rehabilitation, Ministers had promised that it would increase the role of the third sector in the criminal justice system. In reality he said that the CRCs were now almost universally dominated by global corporations intent on profit for their shareholders with little sign of the promised innovation. He also highlighted his view that NPS and CRCs had become culturally different organisations, which were continuing to drift apart.
His hope for a future probation landscape was one with greater transparency and accountability, so that organisations could not hide behind the mantle of ‘commercial confidentiality’. He also expressed the view that probation work belongs in the public sector rather than in a commercial for ‘profit market’.
The final speaker of the event, Dame Janet Stacey, gave a sobering summary of the strength and weaknesses in performance of CRCs and NPS based on the results of recent HMIP inspections.
The Chief Inspector’s answer to the protracted problems is a new inspection regime by which all probation agencies would be graded on an annual basis to drive up performance. Future performance measures would be reviewed with a new planned Ofsted-style grading system with less emphasis on process and with a common agreement on what ‘good’ looks like. Inspections would also take place via CRC area, thus avoiding the current geographical complications over NPS/CRC jurisdiction. Work was ongoing to introduce new national standards.
So reflecting back on the conference, what impression of the future probation landscape did I come away with?
Although some of the workshops had offered interesting examples of local practice there was little in the way of really original ideas. I came away feeling that in the short term at least, the probation landscape will continue to muddle along in its present TR form. Yes, efforts will be made to improve the NPS and CRC relationship, but culturally NPS will continue to take on the civil service way of working, whilst CRCs will move away from a public service ethos to a much more commercially focussed one.
Somehow the third sector will have to continue to steer a difficult course through this complex and fragmented system in order to continue to provide quality services to individuals and families who are caught up in this confused system. Sadly on this occasion I did not leave this conference feeling energised or particularly optimistic about the future probation landscape.