Reversing probation reforms 'not enough' without funding boost, inspector says

Long-term funding for services must be "baked in" to this week's Spending Review, Justin Russell says
Photo: PA

The government’s plans to overhaul probation services in England by reversing the disastrous Transforming Rehabilitation reforms will not succeed without a long-term funding boost, a watchdog has warned.

In an interview with CSW, Justin Russell, HM inspector of probation, said the ending of the part-privatisation of probation services that began in 2012 must be approached with caution.

The Ministry of Justice announced last year that it would end the outsourcing of probation services for low and medium-risk cases to Community Rehabilitation Companies next summer. They will transfer to the National Probation Service, which has retained responsibility for high-risk cases under the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms – the brainchild of former justice secretary Chris Grayling.

But Russell has warned that unless this week’s Spending Review brings a significant funding injection, the abolition of the CRCs is “not necessarily going to improve quality”.

“Structural change by itself very rarely solves all of your problems – you need the resources to back it up,” he said.

Both the CRCs and the NPS have been extremely stretched in recent years, with staff handling huge caseloads. Russell said the NPS must be enabled to hire more staff, as well as to give sufficient extra training to staff transferring over from the CRCs and who may be taking on high-risk service users for the first time.

“You're going to potentially have issues as people are transferring over, there might also be a loss of focus during that transition process,” Russell added.

He said improving services was critical because its inspections “are consistently finding the area of weakest performance is around managing the risk of harm to people's families or to the wider community”. At private providers, fewer than half of cases were being satisfactorily supervised in relation to risk of harm, he said.

He said “the history of probation funding over the last 10, 20 years has been one of increasing cuts”, which has had some “big impacts” on services. The Ministry of Justice did not have a protected budget under the austerity measures that began in 2010, he noted.

Russell said there had been a 40% real-terms drop in probation funding per case since 2003 – a figure quoted in the inspectorate’s submission to the Treasury for the Spending Review.

“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,” he said.

He said a £150m boost for probation services last year was welcome, and showed that ministers and the leadership of HM Prison and Probation Service understood the importance of addressing the funding shortfall. The NPS was also given a capital funding increase that Russell said should help to improve “pretty shocking” conditions on some premises.

However, he said the extra funding cannot be a one-off, but must be “baked into the baseline” for the Spending Review.

He noted that services were likely to face increased demand “over and above just closing existing funding gaps” thanks to the government’s efforts to recruit 20,000 more police officers in three years, reversing previous cuts.

Read the full interview with Justin Russell here.

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