The Ministry of Justice’s part-privatisation of probation services was “irredeemably flawed”, its independent inspector has said, in a report that calls for core services to be brought back into public ownership.
In a damning report, chief inspector of probation Dame Glenys Stacey said the MoJ’s 2014 reforms had led to probation being treated “largely as a transactional business”.
The Transforming Rehabilitation programme split the probation system in two, with private contractors monitoring medium and low-risk offenders. The National Probation Service retained oversight of high-risk offenders.
As of last September, more than 150,000 of the 248,146 offenders on probation in England and Wales were supervised by private Community Rehabilitation Companies. The MoJ has already announced that it will terminate the CRC contracts in 2020, ahead of their planned end date in 2021-22. The department has not yet set out its plans to replace the contracts.
The report found both the CRCs and the NPS were failing to meet some performance targets, but that the overall performance of private services was worse.
Eight out of the 10 CRCs inspected in the last year received the lowest possible rating, “inadequate”. They included Dorset, Devon and Cornwall CRC, which was owned by the outsourcing giant Working Links. A damning report, which revealed concerns about staff safety and under-recording of riskier cases by probation officers to meet commercial targets, coincides with Workling Links' collapse in February.
Problems highlighted in Stacey's report included inadequate protection for victims of domestic abuse when offenders were released; caseworkers being overloaded; and offenders being supervised over the phone rather than in person.
“The probation model delivered by Transforming Rehabilitation is irredeemably flawed,” Stacey told justice secretary David Gauke in a letter accompanying the report.
“Above all, it has proved well-nigh impossible to reduce probation services to a set of contractual requirements. Professional probation work is so much more than simply a series of transactions, and when treated in that way it is distorted and diminished.”
Stacey commended Gauke’s “bold decision” to cut the contracts short, but warned that re-contracting the services, even with better terms, would “leave serious design flaws unaddressed”.
Instead, Stacey said, a national, cross-government strategy was needed to improve the quality of probation provision and ensure services are based on evidence.
She said that although some IT and support services could be supplied by private companies, public ownership would be the “safer option” for core services such as the supervision of offenders.
“There’s no doubt about that but it’s all in the detail of the model,” she added. “Public ownership may not work if you don’t get the detail of the model right.”
This would entail services using and adding to the existing evidence base underpinning work to reduce reoffending. “Core probation supervision has been allowed to coast. This has undermined the place of evidence-based and evidence-led practice,” the report said.
The report also called for a national workforce strategy to address a national shortage of probation professionals. It said the number of probation officers was at a “critical” level, and that companies were relying too heavily on unqualified or agency staff.
An independent professional body should be set up to regulate the profession, which is “not protected by the usual bulwarks of other established professions, and [have] little voice”, Stacey said.
The report comes less than a month after the National Audit Office concluded the MoJ had “set itself up to fail” with the Transforming Rehabilitation programme.
Justice minister Rory Stewart said: “Our reforms mean 40,000 more offenders are being supervised, which is a positive move for public safety, but it is clear the current model is not working and there is much more we need to do.
“We have already taken decisive action to end the current contracts early and have invested an extra £22m a year to support offenders on release – and we are carefully considering how best to deliver an effective probation service for the future.”