Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Another Step towards the Strange Death of the Probation Service

Today will almost certainly see a further nail being hammered into the coffin of the probation service as the Offender Rehabilitation Bill reaches Third Reading and Report stage in the Commons. Twenty or so amendments have been tabled, most of which are last ditch efforts to save the service, delay its demise or failing that, instil greater health in the new bodies which will replace it.

The most radical “wrecking” amendments would keep the new statutory supervision of short term prisoners with the existing Probation Trusts or at least the National Probation Service, thereby seeking to undermine what passes for the Government’s rationale for the changes. They will at least provide an opportunity to press Ministers on the proposed system for allocating cases between the NPS and the new companies, previously described as straightforward but looking anything but.

“Delaying” amendments would make the restructuring of probation dependent on parliamentary approval separate from the Bill itself; or on the independently evaluated results of a piloting process; or on a review of the prison service’s ability to implement the Transforming Rehabilitation changes.  The Opposition front bench will be pressing the first two of these, but it is only the piloting option which might produce sufficient delay to enable a new labour Government to call the whole thing off next year.  The Justice Secretary was famously quoted as saying that you don’t pilot a revolution, so a change of heart seems unlikely.

Gaining parliamentary approval from both houses would be a headache for the government but probably not the 16 month migraine needed to prevent contracts being signed before the election.   Although the Commons are unlikely to pass the amendment requiring such approval today, the Lords will have a chance to do so when the Bill goes back there.  They are likely to back down in any resulting ping pong since the reforms could be seen to be part of a manifesto commitment.

“Improving” amendments   would regulate more tightly the new providers of probation services requiring greater transparency about contracts and performance and require certain programmes to be provided. These may have the best chance of success given the growing concerns about outsourcing and the commitment the Public Accounts Committee extracted from four big private providers to show more openness about government contracts.    But they would be scant consolation for those who see the Government’s plans as fundamentally misconceived, ideologically driven and very likely to fail.

 In a recent paper for the World Bank, Paul English and I argued that   “the starting point before the consideration of private sector involvement in prisons must be a full analysis of the infrastructure and processes required by a country in its criminal justice system in order to meet international norms and standards”. The same is every bit as true for Probation. British MP’s should be asking whether such an analysis of Probation has been carried out, before they vote this afternoon to dismantle it.   

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I now truly realise the demise of the English and Welsh Probation system began when what was considered as 'nominal' and a 'Hobson's choice' - the consent of the convicted offender to be supervised was removed along with the oversight of Magistrates.

    Matters further deteriorated with the introduction of unassessed early release from prison, so again the prospective supervisee did not need to 'apply' to be released.

    The only way a prospective ACR Licencee could avoid supervision was to refuse to sign the release licence - one of mine almost did - but the system was not geared to cope with that, and eventually he did sign but resisted every condition, whilst just doing enough for compliance sake - He did complete without further conviction, though soon after committed a very serious sexually violent offence and got the life sentence he had previously avoided as a consequence of the precise convictions he had received earlier, as he could not be convicted for the things he was on the point of doing when he was arrested.

    Probation, deal with very vulnerable and damaged people some of whom can do great harm and hence all assessments need to come from within personal professional relationships rather than computerised formulations of risk - that clever instrumental criminals will out smart.

    But we cannot expect a parliamentarian to understand what it 'feels' like to be in such a relationship and so they see probation as series of processes, somehow not relating the experience to relationships of trust and mistrust they have experienced at times of personal stress.

    I have digressed, when the inevitable failures and hurts happen, it will be as a consequence of political arrogance and others of us colluding by continuing to endeavour to carry out the work, as I foolishly did after the CJA 91 was implemented.

    Andrew Hatton