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Sebert Cox OBE, Chairman, Probation Association
Sue Hall OBE, Chair, Probation Chiefs Association

Lord Ramsbotham, in the chair

Tom Blenkinsop MP
Jenny Chapman MP
Pat Glass MP
Paul Goggins MP
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
Baroness Howe
Bishop of Liverpool
Earl of Listowel
Claire Perry MP
Ian Swales MP
Mike Wood MP

Lord Ramsbotham welcomed everyone to the meeting, and especially the two speakers.  He had been looking forward to this meeting, as an unashamed supporter of probation. He and others remained concerned about what they saw as something of a rough deal for probation as a result of the various developments in the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. It was particularly valuable to be brought up to date on the main problems from a probation perspective. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) consultation paper, ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’, mentioned ‘opening the majority of probation services to competition …to improve value for money’, whereas he had thought the main aim of probation was about managing offenders and protecting the public.

He introduced the two speakers, Sebert Cox and Sue Hall.  The meeting could not have two speakers better equipped to inform them.

Sebert Cox thanked the Chairman most warmly for his introduction, and the meeting for the invitation to speak. He explained that the Probation Chiefs Association represented senior staff and was the professional voice of probation while the Probation Association represented the employers, representing the members’ interests in forums such as this, and also dealing with national collective bargaining with the Secretary of State, who is responsible for deciding pay and conditions. The two organisations work closely together to ensure that the leadership speaks with a single voice, particularly in relation to important matters such as the current proposals.

Mr Cox said that the 35 Probation Trusts in England and Wales employed approximately 20,000 staff who: prepared about a quarter of a million offender reports for courts and the Parole Board each year; supervised around 250,000, adult offenders in the community at any one time; offered contact to between 15,000 and 16,000 victims of violent or sexual crime a year, and managed more than 40,000 adult offenders either before or after release from prison. In addition to this, Trusts worked to ensure the effective management of around 50,000 specified sexual, violent and other dangerous offenders in the community. Much of this work was done in partnership with other organisations, including voluntary sector as well as an increasing number of private sector bodies.  The entire national budget for probation was currently £814m.

He continued: “Usually when I am asked about this there is a gasp of amazement that there is less than a billion pounds to run the entire operation. In fact that’s a budget that has been decreasing over the last three or four years.

The Transforming Rehabilitation consultation paper anticipates a much smaller probation public sector, which would deal with risk assessment, court advice, advice to the Parole Board, allocation of community sentences, sentence enforcement, and supervision and management of high risk offenders.   In other words the people who come under MAPPA and the more serious end of the market would be supervised by a public- sector-led organisation.  All other current probation services would be competed - including offender management for people who sit in the medium tiers of risk: in our language that would be tiers one and two and possible even some in tier three. We have got very serious concerns about that but we will come back to that later on.   That would include all the current interventions, and some programmes including community payback (unpaid work).

The proposals also include dealing with short term releases from prison, people who have served less than 12 months. It is assumed that there would need to be legislation to produce enforcement, some sort of license conditions, for those people who at the current time have no sanctions, get no form of supervision, to fall in line with those proposals.  This would also be competed. We estimate that between 70-80% of the cases currently supervised by the public sector would transfer to new providers.  That would include those 40,000 short term prisoners annually.

To deal with the contracting out proposals, our current understanding is that there are likely to be 16 or 21, contracting areas.  The competed areas would then be let by Payment by Results (PbR) contracts.  A significant component of payment would be dependent on a reduction of reconviction rates.  There is as yet no clear timetable for how all this restructuring work will take shape, and be implemented, although our understanding is that as soon as there is an announcement, expected sometime within the next month or so, there will be a timetable fleshed out with some details about how that is to happen.  Almost immediately we anticipate that the programme will begin to separate out the two aspects of the new approach to delivery.

The PA and the PCA joint response, among some other 598 received by the MoJ, effectively raises our concerns as well as the matters that we support. In essence, what we want to do this afternoon is to share with you what we said in our response, and hopefully be able to generate some discussion.  My colleague Sue Hall will take us on to the next stage.”

Sue Hall began: “When the current Coalition Government came into power, there was a very strong emphasis on the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. That was certainly something we welcomed, as probation professionals. We have felt that for far too long there has been too much emphasis on imprisonment, and we know that imprisonment rates in this country are very high. So any initiative that was going to potentially redress the balance, and involve more and better use of community sentences, was something that we would whole-heartedly welcome.  In the current proposals we continue to welcome the emphasis on rehabilitation. We think that is critical. We also particularly welcome the emphasis on providing support and supervision for adult offenders serving less than twelve months. They are the cohort in the system whose reconviction rates are increasing, which is in stark contrast to everybody else in the system.  For those on community sentences, prisoners serving longer term sentences, juvenile offenders, we are seeing crime falling and reconviction rates falling. But that very highly recidivist group in the revolving door system get no supervision at the moment and we welcome the proposal to provide that.

We also welcome the proposal to try and drive in less bureaucracy, and more innovation. However – and there are some big ‘howevers’ coming from us – the probation service is not large. You have heard Sebert say that the total budget is £814m. That is really quite a small drop in the criminal justice ocean. One would think there is not a lot of money to be made out of competing probation. We get the distinct impression that in order to drive competition for probation services, a model has been put together that maximises the amount that can be competed but that is based on an idea of service delivery that we think is untried and untested. Prior to the current Secretary of State, the last set of proposals, which was looking at competing aspects of probation over time – so community payback  would start to be competed – felt manageable.  The current proposals, however, amount to a total reconstruction of community sentences, and the supervision of post custodial licenses in the community.

The proposal to divide up offenders by risk, retaining just the high risk offenders in the public sector domain, all other offenders being supervised and managed through contracted providers, strikes us as risky.  We know that risk is not a static issue. We know that somebody who is potentially a low risk today can go out tonight, get drunk, get in with a group of offenders, and can commit a very serious offence which will change their risk profile. We know that the risk profile of people who have committed serious offences can reduce over time. We know that risk goes up and down, it is not static. So to try to try to divide provision on the basis of high and low risk is not straightforward. What you will see is a movement of offenders between the two sectors. We know that when there is movement of cases between organisations, the information flow can be disrupted, information can be lost, and people can fall through the net. So we are really very concerned that there will be a fragmentation of offender management.  

If contracted providers then sub-contract to other providers, as we have seen with the Work Programme, so that there is quite a lengthy supply chain, we fear that accountability will not be clear, and it will not be clear who is responsible for an offender. If the police need very quickly to get hold of information, intelligence or an assessment, where do they go? At the moment they know that they go to the probation service. It will become much more complicated in the future. We are worried that the competition is being driven through, without this very different model of service delivery having been piloted, tested, and stress tested. We need to feel confident that we’re not going to have to put in place a whole raft of new bureaucracy to manage relationships between the public sector and the new providers.

We are also concerned that about the number of contracts that are being proposed.  We don’t know the final number yet. It started off as 16. It may have increased, but it won’t be 35 which is the number of probation trusts, or the number of police and crime commissioners. So we are going to have contracts which will inevitably cover more than one police and crime commissioner. At a time when a lot of the provision in the public sector is going very local, it feels counter-intuitive to be pulling back to much larger, nationally commissioned contracts for probation which will be centrally managed.

A further concern that we have is around the impact of the all-important multi-agency relationships within which probation is completely embedded at the moment. If you are familiar with your local multi-agency partnerships, you will know that community safety partnerships exist in each local authority. They oversee strategy for managing crime and offending in local communities. You will know that police and crime commissioners have got police and crime plans which look at how to bring together the local community safety partnerships and other organisations operating in the community, and you will see probation being withdrawn out of those and moved into much larger national contracts.  The consultation document does talk about the need for the new providers to have regard to integrated offender management relationships, but there will, as we understand it at the moment, be no requirement on the new providers to take part in current partnerships. The proposal is that if it makes sense then the new providers will do it, because it will reduce reoffending, and these new contracts will be paid by results. But actually in our view it is taking a gamble about where the future of inter-agency relationships will go. Probation is often seen as the glue which holds it all together where offenders are concerned, and the proposals are introducing risk into the system, which may well see the dilution of contribution to interagency relationships.

Just a couple of other concerns: the concerns I have mentioned at the moment are about the model of service delivery and the fact that it’s all on paper: it has not been tried out yet. We are having the competition based on a model which is not properly tested. The contracts will be based on payment by results, and also will be very complicated where criminal justice is concerned. How will they be measured? How will we avoid any perverse incentives in the system? How will we make sure that new providers do not cherry pick the easy offenders to work with? How will we make sure that they continue to work with those intractable prolific offenders, managed through integrated offender management schemes, who are not a terribly good bet in terms of reduced offending in the first instance. Payment by results raises significant questions for us. We do not know how large the PbR percentage of each contract will be. That will become clearer in the near future. If it’s significant, will the market tolerate it? If it’s tiny, is that worth disrupting the whole system for?

Our final concern is around the pace at which all of this has to happen. Sebert has said we don’t know the time-table yet, but what we do know is that it is proposed to have this up and running in 2015. Probation trusts have been given a 12 month contract for this year (2013-14). It has not got a final date on it. We think it might be extended by a few months into 2014-15. But we would be very surprised if the current probation trust contracts last much beyond mid-2014. So we will start seeing new arrangements coming into place, with these contracts being let in autumn 2014, in order for them to be mobilised by 2015. That is massive. We are talking about a system that at the moment has 20,000 probation staff, 235,000 adult offenders, plus the 40,000 or so additional offenders serving short term prison sentences. So we are talking about a simply huge restructuring of probation, to a system that we feel is not adequately thought through at the moment.

We have raised all these concerns in our submission to the consultation document, as have many other stake-holders in the system, and we are hoping that they will be adequately addressed when we see the ministerial response in a couple of weeks. If we were in charge, I guess what we would like to see is this not being done at such a pace. If we are going to introduce PbR and more competition into the system, we would like to see this introduced in a more phased, managed way, potentially starting with contracts for the under twelve month prisoners, where we utterly accept support is needed. We could see that being funded by a reduction in probation budgets, although we would probably accept that that would not cover costs for all 40,000 prisoners. If that works, and works well, then by all means extend that further into the system. We also would like to see the public sector being allowed to compete for some of these contracts. PbR precludes the public sector from competing because, as we understand it, the public sector is not allowed to carry that sort of risk. So the only way that staff currently in the public sector can compete for contracts is by forming staff mutuals, probably over the next six to eight months, and somehow to get those into a position where they can either compete or become sub-contractors to the prime providers.

Is this needed? We would say that probation is not a failing organisation.  If you look at our targets, you will see that we hit them all. We were the first public sector organisation ever to be awarded a gold medal by the British Quality Foundation. Last year Sebert and I had the honour of receiving it from Princess Anne on behalf of the probation service. You will see that reoffending rates have consistently reduced: by 10% since 2000 for example. If you talk to other criminal justice jurisdictions in Europe, you will see that the England and Wales probation service is seen as the gold standard. We are seen as well resourced, well organised and successful. Having just come back from doing some work in Europe, I would say that there is complete astonishment – ‘why are you doing this?’  There are many such questions around, when we are seen as the model for so much of what is developing internationally.

So we would say: we are not failing. If change is needed – and we always accept that you need to go on improving and developing services – do it in a well-thought-through way, in a tested and tried out fashion. Do it in a systematic and a phased-in way, but don’t bring in the sort of risk that we fear is being driven in at the moment. Thank you.”