The role of the Probation Service - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from Northumbria Probation Trust (PB 39)


Northumbria Probation Trust welcomes the opportunity to participate in this Inquiry and the following pages contain our detailed response to the key questions posed by the Select Committee. Our response may be summarised as follows:

—  We question the current NOMS business model in terms of how it is set up for the commissioning of services, its sometimes intrusive interface with Trusts as supposed arm's length providers and the unclear way in which local Probation Trusts are locked into restrictive national contracts for property and ICT.

—  We emphasise the importance of the end-to-end Offender Management process which holds together and makes sense of the totality of intervention for individual offenders. We believe that diluting that process by contracting-out core elements is potentially risky.

—  We stress the expertise and long experience that exists within Probation Trusts in commissioning services from other sectors and see no difficulty in expanding the amount of sub-contracting that takes place. Indeed we see some sentencing options, such as mental health treatment, as being very reliant on an active contribution from other agencies. We note some problems, however, in relation to the TUPE transfer of staff should existing tasks be contracted-out and in terms of how volumes may be specified in contracts where demand and capacity are largely in the hands of a third party, the courts.

—  We welcome the potential to work with more offenders who currently receive short custodial sentences and come out of prison unsupervised. There is a caveat here, of course, in that Trusts would need the resources to do this additional work in a wider context of severe budgetary constraint across the public sector.

—  Similarly, whilst we would welcome the opportunity to do more Restorative Justice work we are constrained by the NOMS Specification, Benchmarking and Costing and Best Value approaches which have put a price on our victim work, no doubt to be reflected in Trusts' contracts, which leaves a limited amount of room for expansion.

—  Also on the same theme, all Trusts would be keen to work more differentially with groups of offenders presenting different mixes of risks and needs but, again, available resources and an increasing emphasis on NOMS specifying the detail of our work are potential barriers. Nevertheless, Northumbria has a good record of innovative, cross-agency work with women offenders, for example, and highly developed multi-agency public protection arrangements.

—  We comment positively on recent internal changes to how probation staff are trained and on the emerging potential for us to generate income by offering more training than currently to other agencies.

We commend our full submission to the Inquiry and would be more than willing to provide further evidence if needed.

Northumbria Probation Trust's response to questions posed by the Justice Select Committee:

1.  Are probation services currently commissioned in the most appropriate way?

1.1  The 35 Probation Trusts created in April 2010 are arm's length providers of services to regional Directors of Offender Management (DOMs) operating now in a National Offender Management Service (NOMS) business model featuring active contract management, a national performance framework, tight budget control and potential competition from other providers. However, we are not sure whether this model is the most effective way of commissioning probation services. We have, effectively, two commissioners. Firstly we have the DOM and secondly we have NOMS / Ministry of Justice. We believe that having both does not provide the most effective commissioning model. Overall, we believe the current model does not work effectively for the following reasons;

—  There is a conflict with the principle established by NOMS of probation trusts as arm's-length operators.

—  The way in which the DOMs' regional offices have been set up are inappropriate. Currently, our "commissioner" also holds our budget thereby creating a conflict of interest.

—  The lack of a competitive market obviously limits what "real" commissioning can be but the removal of demand management from the commissioner also limits effectiveness. No commissioner can truly buy services with unknown and uncontrollable demand.

1.2  We also believe that for a commercial model to work, trusts need to have more freedom from the restrictive national contracts agreed by NOMS for areas such as estates and facilities management and for ICT. For example, it seems illogical to us that all trusts pay the same flat rate per square metre for their property regardless of location. In order to be truly competitive Northumbria should work to true North East property costs not a notional national average. We believe Trusts should have control over all of their assets, including property, and the freedom to acquire and dispose of them in a commercial way.

1.3  In relation to ICT, we accept the need for an overarching strategy across the wider Ministry of Justice and the potential benefits of economies of scale but the current national contract does not fit with an approach in which Trusts are expected to be responsive to locally identified needs and work collaboratively with local partnerships. In our view, future contracts should agree key specifications within a framework which allows local flexibility through a range of approved suppliers. Such an approach would, in our view, maximise the benefits of large scale procurement whilst at the same time allowing Trusts to select services that are most suited to local needs.

2.  How effectively are probation trusts operating in practice? What is the role of the probation service in delivering "offender management" and how does it operate in practice?

2.1  The performance of Probation trusts is a matter of public record: they are measured on a wide range of targets in the Probation Trust Rating System (PTRS) although we would welcome a move from an over-reliance on many numerical measures to fewer outcome measures, more qualitatively by HM Inspectorate of Probation, by DOMs under their contract management arrangements and, from this year, as part of local authority scrutiny arrangements given that trusts are now part of the responsible authority for community safety.

2.2  One major strength of probation is its involvement at all stages of the criminal justice process, from providing information in bail decisions, through the provision of pre-sentence reports to court and the delivery of community sentences to the supervision of prisoners post-release: in the case of Life sentences this can literally mean till the offender dies. Offender Management (OM) is thus seen as providing a consistent thread in an end to end process by allocating an Offender Manager to an offender, for the duration of at least the current contact, starting either pre- or immediately post-sentence. Done well, OM can create a positive, proactive and motivational relationship between supervisor and offender, maintain the best possible, up to date assessment of risk and needs and broker exactly the right package of interventions

2.3  For the individual offender, regardless of who provides each element. OM can be the glue that holds the work with an individual together.

3.  Are magistrates and judges able to utilise fully the requirements that can be attached to community sentences? How effectively are these requirements being delivered?

3.1  As far as we are aware no probation trust provides the full menu of accredited programmes and other options created under the 2003 Criminal Justice Act but all will work with local sentencers, through well-established liaison systems, to offer a menu of options which best meets local needs in the context of limited resources. We believe that some requirements need further development on an inter-agency basis as their availability can be patchy even within the same probation trust catchment area. We are thinking particularly of requirements concerning drug and alcohol misuse and the provision of mental health treatment requirements where success depends on active support from health providers and commissioners.

4.  What role should the private and voluntary sectors play in the delivery of probation services?

4.1  Probation services have previously had targets (reaching 7% of total budget at one point) for spending on the commissioning of offender-facing services from the private and voluntary sectors. Most services achieved that target and some over-achieved it. When the value of externally-generated income (European Soclal Fund, Single Regeneration Budget etc) was taken into account the sums being managed and the added value achieved were considerable.

4.2  Currently, there is no spending target. Various sums of money have been taken from trusts and pooled with other agencies' funding to create, for example, Supporting People budgets to provide supported accommodation for all vulnerable groups in a locality. The spending by trusts on outsourced offender services is thus much less than it once was, though the expertise still exists within probation to administer the more modest budgets now allocated to sub-contracting (in Northumbria this is currently about 1% of our budget).

4.3  We believe probation trusts would welcome an expanded local commissioning role. However, we do believe that certain core aspects of our work, such as offender assessment, managing risk etc, should remain within probation trusts. The real value is around commissioning those activities that provide the added value / wrap around offender services. We believe that organisations should play to their strengths, delivering what they have the skills and capacity for, eg the private sector is successful in running electronic monitoring. The voluntary sector is successful in adding value but neither sector wants to run, or is equipped to run, the full scheme of offender management. We believe that our strengths include the core service of offender management and report writing for sentencers.

4.4  That said, there are some potential barriers such as TUPE arrangements applying to the contracting-out of existing services. We also feel there will be problems over volume targets which may be summarised in the so far unanswered question of what would happen if an external provider were to meet all delivery targets well before the end of the financial year?

4.5  Probation trusts will generally have no objection to supporting a role for the private and voluntary sectors in the provision of some offender services. However, other key partners will also need to subscribe to that direction of travel. How far will partners like the Police be willing to engage with other sectors on the sharing of highly sensitive information in relation to public protection? There is a risk in diluting the invaluable end to end Offender Management process if parts of it were to be contracted-out.

5.  Does the probation service have the capacity to cope with a move away from short custodial sentences?

5.1  Yes, given the resources to deal with a greater number of offenders in the community. Those who have been given a community sentence rather than a short. The custodial one will tend to attract more requirements, and thus more costs, than average. Any significant increase in community sentencing could be funded by a proportion of the savings made from a reduction in custodial sentencing.

5.2  Northumbria has particularly strong relationships with its courts and this is evidenced by the fact that our rate of imprisonment in Magistrates Courts cases is only 2.1% whereas the national average is 4%. Put another way, we are already trusted to deal with a higher risk group of offenders in the community than is usual. If the government is considering targets for more community sentencing care must be taken to ensure that the extra cases genuinely come from those who otherwise would have gone into custody and not from those who may have had fines and discharges. Any targets might have to be differential ones, depending on the existing sentencing patterns in individual trusts.

6.  Could probation trusts make more use of restorative justice?

6.1  Probation trusts all work with victims of sexual and violent offences where the offender has been sentenced to at least 12 months in custody. As part of that statutory role many trusts also offer elements of restorative justice (RJ). For example, Northumbria has facilitated exchanges of letters between offenders and victims where both parties agree and we have also gone further by setting up a limited number of face to face meetings. The main barrier to extending this work is cost. Trusts have recently gone through both a NOMS Best Value review and a Specification, Benchmarking and Costing (SBC) appraisal of victims work and the costs that are now expected to be incurred in this work do not allow for any easy expansion into more sophisticated RJ approaches. Should NOMS wish trusts to do more, the expertise certainly exists in probation if the funding is available and if contracts are varied to commission the extra work.

7.  Does the probation service handle different groups of offenders appropriately, eg women, young adults, black and minority ethnic people and high and medium risk offenders?

7.1  There has been much renewed interest in women offenders since Baroness Corston's report on women in the justice system. In Northumbria each local OM team has appointed a "women's champion" and all locations have women-only reporting times. There is support across the trust for the development of "one-stop shops" for women with a range of problems, including offenders, in the main centres of population. Newcastle upon Tyne already has two such facilities and rural Northumberland has developed a "virtual" service which includes, for example, staff from outside agencies spending some of their time on our premises and in other, neutral locations. One of our women's champions was shortlisted in the first NOMS national Probation Awards in 2009.

7.2  In other parts of the country we know some trusts have developed great expertise in working with BME offenders though this has never needed to be a high priority in Northumbria given local demographics.

7.3  Across the whole of England and Wales the probation service displays a high level of skill in dealing with offenders posing a risk of harm to the community. This is only made possible with the support of our partner organisations including the Police within Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA). For prolific offenders who do not pose a risk of serious violence or sexual offending most trusts also have well-established Prolific Offender Schemes, often with significant extra resourcing drawn in from Police, local authorities and other partners. Many of these schemes are now being extended to a more holistic "integrated offender management" approach to involve, for example, short term prisoners not subject to licence supervision on release. The potential for further development of this work, and for making a real impact on reoffending rates, is huge.

8.  Is the provision of training adequate?

8.1  Yes. We have only recently implemented a new national qualifications framework for probation staff and this has seen many improvements including the fact that our staff can become qualified Probation Officers without needing to resign, take a pay cut and risk not having a job at the end of their training. As well as these changes to how people qualify as Probation Officers we also have very good arrangements for the NVQ training of Probation Services Officers and our support staff. We are also committed to maintaining a range of non-accredited but otherwise excellent short courses on aspects of our role such as enforcement, pre-sentence report writing, risk assessment and management, public protection and safeguarding children, mental health, working with racially motivated offenders, working with female offenders and (very soon) work with offenders who are armed forces veterans. These courses are based on locally identified needs and make full use of local partnership arrangements to ensure effective dissemination of knowledge across criminal justice agencies in Northumbria. This ability to reflect local need in addition to the more generic probation qualification and NOMS programmes is an important part of our commitment to addressing the concerns that affect the local community across Northumbria.

8.2  Northumbria recognises the new environment that the creation of probation trusts has brought and has ensured that its training provision reflects this. In addition to our core service delivery training we have active programmes on leadership and management development that support the effectiveness of our management team.

8.3  Training within Northumbria has been rated as high quality in both the most recent HMIP Inspection and its most recent Investors in People (IiP) Assessment. Further evidence of this is our ability to "sell" our expertise to others and recently Northumbria staff have trained local Police and Prison staff in a variety of risk assessment and management methods. This perhaps reflects that though not as well funded as these agencies, our expertise is such that we are the first port of call for in-depth training in areas such as risk assessment.

September 2010

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