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January 2022 – The Role of HM Prisons and Probation Inspectorates

Minutes of the virtual Extraordinary General Meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 11 January 2022


Guest Speakers

Justin Russell, HM Chief Inspector of Probation
Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons


Paul Maynard MP (in the Chair)
Lord Bradley
Lord Carlile QC CBE
Kate Green MP
Lord McNally
Lord Ramsbotham
Ellie Reeves MP

Paul Maynard MP opened the meeting by paying tribute to Lord Ramsbotham, who was stepping down as the long-term co-chair of the APPG, and honouring his outstanding work as a parliamentarian. He said that members of both Houses, and the Prison Reform Trust, would always be among his greatest fans, and he thanked him most warmly for all he had done.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked the Chair for his kind remarks, which were much appreciated.

Paul Maynard MP went on to propose the nomination of Kate Green MP as Vice Chair of the group. He was delighted to welcome her back, and praised her forensic approach. The proposal was agreed unanimously, and Kate Green MP was duly elected.

The observers were then admitted to the meeting, and welcomed by the Chair. He introduced the two speakers: Justin Russell, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, and Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, who would speak briefly about their roles and that of their inspectorates.   He encouraged members of the meeting to use the chat function to record their questions, which he and Peter Dawson would monitor, prioritising questions from members of both Houses as was the custom of the Group.

He welcomed Justin Russell to speak first.

Justin Russell thanked the Chair, and the meeting for its invitation, and said it was good to be speaking with Charlie Taylor since the two inspectorates worked closely together.

I have been Chief Inspector of Probation since June 2019, and will be serving until June 2024. I want to talk about who we are, what we do, about some key findings from our local inspections, two or three of our big thematic national inspections over the past year, and finish by saying a bit about what I see as the future challenges and opportunities for the Probation Service. I’m going to be focusing on Probation but we do also inspect youth justice and I am happy to answer questions on that afterwards.

We are an independent inspector of both probation and youth justice services and we do that across the whole of England and Wales.  We are very much about promoting excellence and improvement in the way that probation and youth justice services are delivered.  We are very much independent: independent of the Probation Service and HMPPS more generally and we are independent of ministers, and that independence is protected through a number of mechanisms.  Particularly, we decide on our own standards and ways of measuring quality.  We decide what topics to inspect and when, and we decide what to publish and when, and control the content of all our publications.  We are perhaps best known for the problems that we identify in our inspections and the areas that we think need to be improved, but I am very keen as well to promote effective practice.

Just a quick list of the different things that we produce: as well as local inspections we do big thematic enquiries.  Since I’ve been Chief Inspector we have done enquiries into integrated offender management, serious further offences and race equality.  We have looked closely at the impact of Covid on both youth justice and probation, and we have done some important work on drugs and mental health in the past year.  I will say a bit more about that in a minute.  We are also occasionally commissioned by the Secretary of State to look into particular individual serious further offence cases of particular public interest or concern.  That has included a review of the case of Joseph McCann and of Leroy Campbell recently.  We were asked by the previous Lord Chancellor to establish a function for independently quality assuring the quality of the local serious offence (SFO) reviews that the Probation Service does, and since April last year we have been looking at a sample of twenty percent of those SFO reviews and will be publishing a summary of the outcomes of all that this year.  We publish research analysis – we have an excellent research team - and we have been publishing a range of effective practice guides for probation practitioners and for youth offending staff on where we see our standards delivering well, and collecting together examples.  I have got 45 inspectors on my team, nearly all of whom are drawn from probation or youth offending leadership backgrounds.

Our local inspections: we inspect all YOT services, which we are doing on a six-year cycle, and we inspect every Probation Service, which we are doing on a three-year cycle.  We look at two things in particular: firstly the way the services are led and resourced, looking at things like their staffing levels, the types of intervention that they offer, the quality of their  accommodation and ICT, and how well led they are. Also in every service that we inspect we take a fairly large sample of individual cases and we crawl over the case files, we interview the relevant case manager or probation officer and we make a judgment about how well they have been supervised.  Then we pull together the evidence from both of these sources to rate a number of different standards.  For probation we have nine different quality standards which we rate: each of them from inadequate up to outstanding, then we sum.  We collate all of those ratings into an overall rating for each local service, which again, with an OFSTED type methodology we rate from inadequate up to outstanding.

To give you an idea of the range of those ratings, we introduced a new set of standards in 2018 for probation and inspected all 28 private and public sector services over that year.   We found a really big difference between the performance of the private sector community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) and the public sector National Probation Service (NPS).  Only one out of 21 CRCs we rated as good, whereas with the public sector NPS supervising the more serious offenders we found that five out of seven rated as good.

Our second round of inspections was seriously disrupted by Covid in the beginning of 2020 as you might expect.  So we were only able to inspect 14 services over that second round period before the service unified last year.  We did see some improvements in private sector CRC performance, so three CRCs we rated as good in our last round of inspections: South Yorkshire, Thames Valley, and Durham-Tees valley all came out as good, with particular improvements round the quality of work they were doing in ‘through the gate’ services – provision for people leaving prison, which had been helped by significant additional investment in an enhanced ‘through the gate’ service from 2019 onwards, and we found reasonably good performance around unpaid work as well, which was a specialism of the private CRCs.

So that’s where we had got to by the point that the service came together in June of last year into a unified service.  Looking overall at the thousands of individual cases that we assessed, what we found was this broad pattern of performance. For every case we look at, we see how well the case is assessed. Is there a good sentence plan?  Are interventions delivered? Is it properly reviewed? And against each of those broad headings we are also looking at how well the Probation Service engages with the people on probation and identifies the criminogenic needs that need to be addressed.  Although the Probation Service does a reasonably good job of engaging with the people it supervises and is fairly good at identifying the needs that need to be a met, and to a certain extent delivering on those needs, although that’s not quite as good, the real weakness that we found is around protecting the public and identifying the risk of harm that people under probation supervision may present to their immediate family or to the wider public.  We found that less than half the cases that we looked at were sufficient on that key aspect.

If you dig down a bit into that issue of risk of harm, and the quality of work being done around risk of harm, you’ll see that the cases where less than half were sufficient were particularly around the medium risk cases being supervised by the CRCs, and also the lower risk cases.  As we go further into the unified service we’ll be keeping a particular eye on those medium risk cases which have transferred over to the unified public sector service to see whether the quality of the work done with them improves.  That’s important because they can still be highly risky.  Two thirds of all of the murders committed by people under probation supervision were committed by those who had originally been assessed as medium risk.  It’s quite commonly the category where you’ll find most domestic abuse perpetrators for example, so it’s really important that those medium risk people are properly supervised and assessed.

A key reason why we think risk of harm needed improvement, and what was impacting it, was just the sheer size of some of the caseloads that we found probation staff, particularly in CRCs, were having to supervise.  Two thirds of the CRC probation staff that we interviewed pre transition to the unified service were managing more than 50 cases and it wasn’t that uncommon to find people managing 60 or 80 cases. As caseloads increased, the proportion of probation officers saying that their caseload was manageable dropped like a stone, and the judgements that our inspectors made about   the quality of work that was being done also declined.  So caseload has been a big driver of why there needs to be a better quality of work, particularly with those medium risk cases.

Having moved to a unified service we have had to adapt the way we do our inspections, and going forward we will be focusing in particular on more local inspections, looking at local probation delivery units.  There are 108 of those in England and Wales so we will do about a third of them each year.   We will do a sample of them in all twelve regions every year.  So that will give us a good feel for how the Probation Service is performing nationally each year, and I think it will also give the public, and perhaps also you as MPs and members of the House of Lords, a better idea of how your local service is performing against our key standards.  We have already started this programme in South Wales and we will be publishing our reports in the next month or so.  We will be moving on to Kent, Surrey and Sussex at the end of February.

In addition to local inspections we also do big national thematic inspections on key issues, with a particular focus on issues which we know drive reoffending rates.  In the summer of 2020 we published a report on accommodation for people on probation including those leaving prison.  Very worrying to find well over 11,000 people being released literally to street homelessness from prison in the year before our inspection.  That included high risk people who were under NPS supervision.  When we analysed a sample of cases being released we found that the recall rate for people who were being released without proper stable accommodation was almost twice as high as it was for those being released into stable housing.  We found a big drop in ring-fenced funding, supported accommodation funding, for people on probation and some really disturbing words and stories about the lack of accommodation provision for this group.  (eg ‘People come out of jail and commit crime to go back to jail ‘cause they feel safer in jail’. ‘It’s easier inside than outside….i was begging them not to put me back out on the street, but they said if I didn’t leave the cell I would be forcefully removed’).  It’s been positive that since that time Covid has led to a much more rapid and intense focus on accommodation for people leaving prison, and investment in accommodation at least in the first three months after release, and it’s pleasing to see in the spending review that that will be extended across the country.  That’s good but I still think that we need to be looking at supported accommodation that’s not just a roof over someone’s head but that helps them with the other problems they may have so that they can hold onto those tenancies longer term.

A couple more big thematic inspections that we have done: we published a report on drugs in August last year, as to whether people on probation with a drugs problem were getting the treatment that they need.  We found a really big gap between what we think may be 75,000 people on probation at any one time who have a drugs problem and the less than 3,000 that are being referred to a specialist drugs service for help with that problem.   We found that austerity and the cuts to local authority drugs services in particular had meant that previous pathways that had been set up for this group had withered on the vine, with commissioners telling us about severe budget cuts.  Then when we looked at what was happening in court and after release from prison again we found some real problems.  A big drop in the use of drug rehabilitation requirements and poor delivery of the ones that were being given out.  We tracked all 25,000 people who been treated in prison for a drugs problem after their release and found that only a third were being picked up for follow-up treatment, and only a third of those were being retained in treatment for the twelve weeks or more that you need.   Since we published that report the Government has published its drugs strategy and it is very positive to see the response to Dame Carol Black’s recommendations and to the issues that we have identified.  Particularly the additional investment in 50,000 more treatment places over the next three years has to be welcomed, and a focus on some of the workload issues as well.

Finally we also did a fully joint studied thematic on mental health, the first since Lord Bradley looked at this issue in 2009, and I thank Lord Bradley for joining the expert reference group.  Since he reported, we found that there had been some improvements at the front end of the criminal justice system.   His recommendations around liaison and diversion schemes in police custody suites have been rolled out nationally. Very few people are now being taken into police custody as a place of safety while they are given a Mental Health Act assessment.  But other parts of the system still need serious work.  In particular the police aren’t passing on information about people’s mental health needs when they pass case files to the CPS, and we are still a long way from people being transferred out of prison into secure mental health beds when they are acutely mentally unwell.  The target of fourteen days was a long way from being met, in the areas we looked at.

Just some overall thoughts about probation.  There are huge challenges for probation at the moment.  Twenty-one or two months into the pandemic, Covid is still having a big impact on the service.  They still cannot deliver a business as usual service.  They are still having to work quite often from home.  There are quite significant backlogs of unpaid work orders reaching twelve months without being completed, and also accredited programmes not starting as quickly as you would like.  There will be long-term impacts on staff and service users. Staffing is a really crucial issue.  I think there are something like ten percent of probation posts vacant at the moment.  In some areas of London and the South East we are finding it is more like twenty or thirty percent.   So gaps are having to be filled by agency staff, and where new staff are coming in they as yet lack the skills and experience needed to take on the more complex cases.  There are ongoing issues not just because of Covid but because of previous spending cuts to the sorts of services that probation relies on.  So I think the Probation Service itself quite rightly recognises that they are on a long term transformation during the year, and that unification was really just the beginning of that.

Having said all that, I do think there are reasons for optimism from the last year to year and a half.  For the first time in a very long time, probation has had a significant real-terms increase in funding this year, £155 million, and that was also secured into the baseline in the spending review for the next three years, which was good to see.  That will significantly increase the recruitment of new probation staff.  On top of that there was some welcome new resource in the spending review for investment in reducing reoffending including accommodation and drug treatment.  Staff have broadly welcomed the shift back to a unified service within the public sector and that brings with it the chance to clarify their operating model and to build strong relationships with local partners.  I think it’s welcome that the service now has a Director General leading it, and has come out of the shadows of the Prison Service which was one of the issues with the old NOMS arrangements.

Just finally, as I said, as we went up to unification we were starting to see some signs of improvement in the performance and the quality of work being done in the CRCs, and I am hoping that will continue in the new world as resources start to go into the service. I’ll finish there and let Charlie continue.

Charlie Taylor: I have been Chief Inspector of Prisons since November 2020.  We are independent, and I would say a very independent organisation. That independence has been carved out by a number of distinguished predecessors of mine, some of whom I think are on this call.  We have been conducting independent inspection of places of detention, which was set out in section 5A of the Prison Act in 1952.  But in our current format we are coming up to our fortieth anniversary this year from when we came into operation as we currently stand.

We inspect all of the currently 123 prisons in the country, that includes Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and it also includes the one secure training centre (STC) that is currently open. We are also responsible for the inspection of immigration detention; that’s immigration removal facilities such as those at Heathrow or Gatwick, and short-term holding facilities, where people who arrive in the UK are held, for example at Dover, and we put in our report recently about that. We also look at escorts of people being deported and we will board some of those flights as well to look at it.  We work with our colleagues at Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire and Rescue (HMCFRS), and we look at police custody with them.  We also inspect court custody.  We inspect military detention as well, the main facility in Colchester and also the short-term holding facilities around the country.  In conjunction with colleagues in Northern Ireland, from the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice Inspectorate, we inspect the three Northern Irish prisons, and we are also commissioned from time to time to look at British overseas territories, and also places like Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

We report on conditions and treatment in detention and we do it at least every five years for mainstream prisons, and at the moment we do it every year for YOIs and STCs.  Our aim is to promote positive outcomes for those who are detained, and also for the public as well.  We have four healthy prison tests, which have been developed by I think my predecessor but four. Those have remained in place and have been our gold standard by which we continue to inspect.  They are: safety, respect, purposeful activity, and rehabilitation and release planning. Against each of those tests we will score prisons. One is a poor score and four is a good score, on a scale of one to four.  Confusing for those of us who come from education, where OFSTED actually score in the other direction.  We also inspect with our colleagues from OFSTED as well, who look at education, and also with colleagues from the Care Quality Commission, who are the regulator of health services within prisons.

We have a budget of roughly £5.4 million and we’ve got 72 staff, as of November last year.  We produce around 80 reports a year, that varies a little bit, and we also do a number of thematic reviews as well.  We are currently doing a review into the teaching of reading in prisons.  We are also doing a big piece of work on the experiences of black people in prison.  We consistently see poorer outcomes for black prisoners and also in our surveys we see poor perceptions of treatment amongst black prisoners, and also over-representation in areas like segregation and use of force. In the last year we put out a number of reports, but in particular one that was known as ‘what happened to prisoners during the pandemic?’  That was where we went round six different prisons, and talked to seventy prisoners, about simply what it was like being in custody during the pandemic.  That was a really interesting piece of work.  We were also commissioned by the former secretary of state to do a report on neuro-diversity, and I know that many of you in this APPG will have an interest in this area.  We know that across the range of neuro-diversity, from traumatic brain injury, to learning difficulties, to speech and language communication difficulties, to autistic spectrum disorder, there is an over-representation of many types of neuro-diversity within the criminal justice system and particularly within prisons. We also work closely with colleagues, particularly Justin but also colleagues in HMCFRS and produce joint thematic work with them as well.

Since 2020, when the pandemic struck, my predecessor Peter Clarke was very keen, with the support of the Prison Service, to maintain a presence in the field.  There was a short hiatus of not much more than a few weeks before the Inspectorate was continuing to carry out some form of inspection.  We began with short scrutiny visits, where we would visit a number of prisons of a certain type, for example women’s prisons, and then feedback.  But we’ve been back to full inspections since May last year.

We also have the ‘urgent notification’ within our armoury of responses, when we come across a prison where we think things are particularly bad.  Our criteria for this are set out, but to summarise it would be where somewhere is really dysfunctional, possibly delinquent in the way the prison is operating, where we have huge concern, and not necessarily faith that things are going to be getting better any time soon.  Since I have been Chief Inspector, in the last year, we have done an urgent notification for Rainsbrook STC with our colleagues at OFSTED, and at Oakhill STC. At Rainsbrook we were horrified to see children being locked in their rooms for extremely long periods of time, and without proper oversight arrangements in place for those children.  At Oakhill STC we saw very high levels of violence and a lack of grip amongst leadership and management. And then finally in the summer of last year we put out an urgent notification for Chelmsford Prison, where we saw a very disengaged staff group in a crumbling Category B local prison.  Enormous issues with prisoners not being able to get the very basics, whether that was sheets or soap, and just a sense of despair about the whole prison, and we felt we had no choice but to issue an urgent notification, particularly since my predecessor Peter Clarke had got very close to doing that at the last inspection, but held back because there was a sense that new governance arrangements were going to make things better.  When we went to Chelmsford this time, again we were assured that new governance arrangements were going to make things better, but I think we felt once bitten twice shy.

What I’ll talk about a little bit now is some recent findings and themes that we are seeing in prisons at the moment.  The first of these is of course the recovery from Covid.  The second is leadership and the quality of leadership.  The next thing is about the varying levels of violence that we see in prisons.  And then finally if we have time, and I hope we do, I’d like to very briefly just touch on open prisons because I think they are very important but often a neglected part of this world.

So I’ll talk briefly about Covid.  Prisons were beginning to make some progress with their Covid recovery. Regimes were opening out more, prisoners were beginning to get out of their cells more than they had done. We were beginning to see some prisoners arriving in education and beginning to get back into work.  But this has taken, in some prisons, a remarkably long period of time.  If you look at the inspection report into Wandsworth which we put out recently, you will see a photograph I took which had the date on the board, 20th March 2020, which was the last time the education provision in the prison was fully up and running.  But since Omicron has hit, prisons have generally locked down again, so they have moved back to a much more restricted and a much more command and control type regime, whereby prisoners are now stuck in their cells for, on average I would say around twenty two and a half hours per day, and often for longer than that, and sometimes even more at the weekend. In a typical crumbling Victorian local prison, that is a six by twelve cell, with a small window which may or may not be open-able, with very poor ventilation, a lavatory in the corner, and two prisoners sharing together.  So a huge amount of pressure put on prisoners, and very little purposeful activity has been in place.  This has been an on-going concern from my predecessors, and so even though Covid has certainly exacerbated this, we know it is a huge issue.

I think a lot of the challenges in prisons are being exacerbated also by staff shortages.  There is a shortage of staff particularly in inspections we have done in Belmarsh, at Thameside, at Woodhill, at Oakhill.  In the South East of England we have seen some real shortages and a struggle to hang on to existing staff, particularly with a fairly vibrant labour market at the moment. But even in our inspections in the North West, at Styal and at Manchester prison, we also saw a struggle to hang on to staff and some difficulties with recruitment.  Over the course of the pandemic we have also seen restrictions on visits.  Some of those have now been lifted, but for a time prisoners were unable to hug their children, and as you can imagine that was extremely difficult, particularly with young children.  One mother at HMP Styal told me that she had stopped seeing her child entirely because it was just impossible to see her child and not be able to give him a hug.   Visits have ramped up a bit, but they are nevertheless restricted as a result of the latest round of Covid restrictions.

We have also seen a lack of interventions taking place in prisons, so some of the rehabilitation work we would normally expect to see has not been taking place.  I am also very concerned by the diet on offer for foreign national offenders.  The Home Office staff have not been on site or have only just returned to site and in a prison like Wandsworth nearly half the prisoners are foreign national offenders.

As one of my priorities as Chief Inspector I wanted to focus in on the quality of leadership, and I have introduced a separate section in all our reports now where we focus in on that.  We know that leadership is one of the critical factors in the quality of prisons.  We see some fantastic leadership in some places, but also some leaders who we don’t feel are doing enough.  This work on leadership has also helped us to focus on functional leadership, at deputy governor level, but also on some of the brilliant leadership we see on the wing as well.  My particular concerns are about the quality of leadership overall, which I think needs to improve substantially; the turnover of leadership, where leaders are not in individual prisons long enough to really make a difference, to really be able to grip the culture.  We were recently in HMP Manchester where they had ten governors in the last twenty years.  I am also concerned about the pipeline of leaders.  I don’t think there are enough good people coming through and that concerns us as well.

Another concern is the amount of violence we are seeing in prisons.  It varies a lot. Inevitably, Category B local prisons, the likes of Chelmsford, continue to be the prisons that we have the most concerns about, where often there are the highest rates of violence.  But also in the youth estate where we are seeing levels of violence, despite the restrictions, that are as high as they have ever been, in some cases higher.  So we have some big concerns.  What I think is interesting is the disparities between the levels of violence even in similar sorts of prisons.  So incidences of violence. In June 21 we saw 32 in HMP Swansea and 354 in HMP Wandsworth in the year to date. So you can see very different amounts of incidences of violence going on. The cause very often is associated with drugs and the drug economy.  The Prison Service has done some good work in reducing the supply of drugs into prison, particularly body scanners which have made a big difference, and also the ability to be able to use technology to scan and assess mail as it comes into prisons.  Nevertheless drugs continue to be a big issue.  But what we saw in a recent inspection of HMP Durham was that by a real focus on reducing the supply of drugs we saw a good and impressive reduction of violence in that prison.  However the desire to take drugs is not simply driven by their availability.  It is also driven by the level of purposeful activity.  So having something productive for prisoners to do, that prevents them from feeling the need to take drugs, is important.  It is still concerning for us that we see people coming into prison without a drug habit, and leaving with a drug habit as well.

Finally I am just going to touch on open prisons.  We visited a number of open prisons over the course of last summer before we went back to full inspections.  And because we did them in close proximity we were particularly struck by the differences in culture between them.  These are enormously important establishments that don’t always get the attention they should unless prisoners abscond.  But actually they are often supporting some potentially very high risk people back into the community.  For example, somewhere like Thorn Cross, just outside Warrington, was a really impressive, really productive place, but similarly, not that far away, probably 50 miles away, at HMP Sudbury, we found a very unrehabilitative atmosphere, poor relationships between prisoners and officers, and a sense that prisoners were prisoners, rather than citizens of the future.

I’ll leave it there, as a quick gallop around some of the themes that we’re seeing, and hand back to the Chair.