Probation inspector Justin Russell on coronavirus, Transforming Rehabilitation and the Spending Review

After years of funding cuts and the looming renationalisation of outsourced probation services, Russell calls for extra funding to be “baked into the baseline” for the Spending Review
Photo: HM Inspectorate of Probation

This summer, HM Inspectorate of Probation did something it had never done before: it began conducting entirely remote inspections of probation services for the first time. The change came around a year after Justin Russell was appointed to lead the inspectorate – for the first few months of which, the job was pretty much what he expected. “And then obviously, Covid happened”

When Russell speaks to CSW, the inspectorate has just published its first entirely-remote report on the North Yorkshire Youth Offending Team. It’s now inspecting several other youth-offending services, as well as thematic inspections of the impact of coronavirus on probation services. “We’ve found we can do that – we can do the focus groups and analyse the case remotely,” he says.

And HMIP has been looking at how probation services are adapting to the pandemic, having gone into six local areas over the summer to see how both public and outsourced services were coping. After examining around 60 cases in detail, Russell says “we were positive about how they reacted”.

“They've had to react at a very great pace, they've had to completely switch their operating model. So apart from a small number of high-risk people, everyone is being contacted by phone. They have had to suspend some basic services – certainly during lockdown, they weren't providing any unpaid work sentences for the courts, and they weren't able to start accredited behaviour programmes. They are now starting to be able to do those, but it's been a slow process of recovery.”

And the new arrangements have worked for some people, he says. Many of the probation staff that inspectors spoke to were happy about the arrangements, as well as service users who had a “reasonably stable home life – some of them actually, in some ways, preferred being supervised by phone because it meant I didn't have to sort out childcare or find public transport”.

But the changes have been harder for more vulnerable users, including those with mental health problems. “They definitely struggled a bit more and missed having that personal, face-to-face contact with the probation officer.”

One of the happier consequences of this that Russell has seen is that coordination between public agencies seemed to improve during lockdown. Probation services had more check-ins with police and social services to share information about call-outs they had had, and attendance at multi-agency risk panel meetings went up when they were held virtually. “So that felt like a positive thing.”

And providers are finding other ways to adapt to the pandemic, restarting services they had to cancel during lockdown, using smaller groups and online courses where they can.

But the inspectorate is also aware that the effectiveness of remote supervision in probation is not well understood. A literature review it did a couple of years ago found “there hadn't been any robust research” on the subject, Russell says. There have been no randomised trials exploring whether it provides better outcomes than face-to-face supervision, for example. “So we really didn't know whether phone supervision would be effective or not – and to be honest, we still don't know.”

But while feedback from both probation staff and service users has been “reasonably positive”, problems can arise when the two haven’t met before. “So where professionals have already met someone face to face and done the initial assessment, it’s easier to continue liaising with them over the phone; where you've never met and you’re doing the whole thing over the phone, I think people find that a bit more difficult. So that's where the gap is.”

Many probation services have tried to address this by having an initial meeting in an office before moving to remote supervision, and keeping up in-person appointments for people who have just left prison. Asked if he thinks there should be a standard policy, Russell says it’s for probation services to decide. “What we will continue to do is inspect the quality of the work they're doing, whether they do that face to face, or by telephone.” As it inspects more cases, the inspectorate will be able to build up some of the evidence it lacks on how the mode of delivery affects services, he says.

In fact, HMIP began a two-month study at the end of September on how probation services are recovering from lockdown. The national inspection is looking at six local areas and 250 cases – some that started before and others after lockdown measures were introduced – to see how well services’ planning and recovery is panning out.

“That will start to give us some insights into the quality of work that they're doing, as well as the quantity of it,” Russell says.

“It's a big enough sample that we'll be able to hopefully start to get into what's the quality of work that's been done over that period. You know, recovery is a slow process. I think all the regional directors I'm talking to are saying, ‘This isn't going to happen overnight’.”

In the last couple of months, services have started increasing their face-to-face delivery, starting up unpaid work placements, and opening up behaviour programmes again. And with the courts now sitting again, new community sentences are coming through that the inspectorate will have to keep an eye on.

But Russell acknowledges that the delivery of in-person services could start “going backwards a bit” now that the second wave of coronavirus has hit.

All this is forming the backdrop to services’ preparations for some massive reforms that will come into play next year when the National Probation Service regains responsibility for low and medium-risk offenders, which was handed to private Community Rehabilitation Companies in 2012.

The Transforming Rehabilitation outsourcing programme is widely acknowledged to have been a failure – Russell’s predecessor, Dame Glenys Stacey, concluded last summer that it was “irredeemably flawed”.

But Russell says preparing for the transition next June is a “really big challenge for probation leaders and directors” already dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. The inspectorate will be following their progress closely and will be doing an inspection on transition planning by the end of this year. 

He also warns that bringing services back under public control is no easy fix because “structural change by itself very rarely solves all of your problems – you need the resources to back it up.” Probation officers in both CRCs and the NPS have been struggling with huge caseloads due to a lack of resources, and services have suffered as staff have become more and more stretched – but HMIP’s inspection reports of CRCs have been particularly critical.

While there are signs of improvement in some areas – some CRCs have improved their performance in the most recent round of inspections – some just aren’t getting better. He says a “three-tier” probation service has emerged, “with the NPS continuing to perform okay – although it's got its own issues; two or three providers actually do reasonably okay now; and then some that are still really struggling.” Of particular concern are those in the Midlands and some of the Purple Futures partnerships, which are led by Interserve, the contracting giant that was sold last year after financial trouble threatened it with collapse.

Russell is concerned that shifting the CRCs’ massive caseloads to the public sector without a serious funding injection to hire more staff and spread the load is “not necessarily going to improve quality”.

“And you're going to potentially have issues as people are transferring over, there might also be a loss of focus during that transition process,” he adds. CRC staff moving over to the NPS must get adequate training before they take on high-risk service users.

As with most things, Russell says the success of the latest reforms rests in no small part on whether they are properly funded, noting that “the history of probation funding over the last 10, 20 years has been one of increasing cuts.” For one thing, the Ministry of Justice’s budget has not been protected under the austerity measures that began in 2010. The impact on violence in prisons has been well documented, but Russell says there have been some “big impacts” on probation too.

In fact, there has been a 40% real-terms drop in probation funding per case since 2003 – as HMIP’s submission to the Treasury for the upcoming Spending Review points out. “That's a big gap to make up going forward, and that's why it's so important that the Spending Review does start to address that gap.”

That funding is critical because when probation officers are having to supervise 70 or 80 people at a time, it doesn’t just affect staff wellbeing – although Russell notes the inspectorate has seen very high sickness rates. “It just becomes unsustainable if you're trying to keep an eye on what's happening in their lives,” he says. Things can get missed – things like if a service user changes their address, meets a new partner or moves in with someone who has children, or if the police fail to share the information about an arrest.

“In every service, we look at a sample of the cases they’re supervising and we are consistently finding the area of weakest performance is around managing the risk of harm to people's families or to the wider community,” Russell says. At private providers, fewer than half of cases are being satisfactorily supervised in relation to risk of harm. That figure is slightly lower at the NPS, but still too high.

As well as the funding issue, services are finding it hard to fill vacancies. HMIP has no nationwide data for CRCs, but found the NPS had 600 vacancies in June 2019, and was having to use agency staff to plug the gaps.

Does Russell believe ministers have grasped the enormity of the problems in front of them? “Very much so, and the HMPPS leadership certainly does as well.” He points to a £150m funding increase for probation this year, as well as a capital funding boost that he hopes will address the “pretty shocking” conditions on some premises. And HMPPS has meanwhile committed to hiring 1,000 probation-officer trainees by January.

But he stresses that the extra funding cannot be a one-off, but has to be “baked into the baseline” for the Spending Review. Not only do services have a shortfall to make up after years of cuts, he adds; the government’s pledge to reverse cuts to police forces by recruiting 20,000 more officers in three years will generate extra work “over and above just closing existing funding gaps”.

He says it’s difficult to know whether the Spending Review will deliver that critical extra funding – and adds that it’s not only probation-specific funding that matters. “It's the funding for all of the other services that they work with. There's a whole ecosystem of support that goes around probation and mental health services, drug services and support services. And all of those suffered as well over recent years.”

Homelessness is one such area, he says. HMIP published a study earlier this year showing 11,000 people leave prison into homelessness, including 3,000 higher-risk offenders. It also found the proportion of people who got called back into prison or reconvicted was twice as high for people who didn't have stable accommodation after they left prison services, “so it’s potentially a really big driver of crime and reoffending”.

“So there's a huge need for decent and stable housing for people coming out of prison, which needs to be invested in. Ten or 15 years ago, the probation service actually had its own budget to commission its own accommodation for offenders. That's gone.” Instead, it can only commission a small number of so-called “approved premises beds” for the people at highest risk, which can only accommodate people for 12 weeks.

Another “really big gap” is support for substance abuse, he says. He points to Dame Carol Black’s ongoing review for the Home Office on the misuse of illegal drugs, which has shown funding for drug treatment had plummeted, while Class-A drug deaths are at a record high.

“So it's all very well funding probation, but you also need to fund the services they refer on to, to make a big difference,” Russell says. He hopes the cross-government group on crime and reoffending – which is chaired by the prime minister and is being given evidence on these matters – is a sign things could change.

This is a subject Russell knows well, having spent a year at the University of California Berkeley earlier in his career on a fellowship looking at substance-abuse treatment programmes for offenders in the US, and what could be learned for the UK. “That was a really key year in my career, where I went from being someone with a research interest to a much broader policy interest and realised the difference the government could make in some areas,” he says.

The ideas he brought back from that led directly to the introduction of the drug testing and treatment order, a community sentence including treatment and rehabilitation for people with a record of drug-related offending, in the 1998 Criminal Justice Act. Russell was a policy adviser to then-home secretary Jack Straw at the time. “So that's very satisfying to see that translate into a direct policy initiative,” he says.

“The reason that was so seminal a year was that it sparked off that interest in evidence-driven policymaking and looking at different innovations at the front line and thinking about how you can translate that into practice – and how things roll out, and the interaction of politics and government and evidence and social-policy experts... that ended up being what I've done in my career.”

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