From 26th June this year, the probation service will return to public sector management. We explore what this means for the criminal justice sector as a whole.
In 2014, former Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, presided over the partial privatisation of probation services, with the aim of reducing reoffending and improving costs to the public purse.
The reforms allowed part of the National Probation Service’s (NPS) responsibility to be passed off to companies known as Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs). While the NPS continued to monitor probation for high-risk offenders, CRCs became responsible for low to medium risk offenders, managing their behaviour programmes and unpaid work.
A series of reports by parliamentary committees and watchdogs, including the Justice Select Committee, National Audit Office and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation, has begun to raise questions over the shortcomings of the existing system, deeming outcomes a risk to public safety.
Following a reassessment, former Justice Secretary David Gauke declared in May 2019 that the government would be re-nationalising some areas of the probation service. The current Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland QC, believes the reforms are a necessary response to COVID-19.
In a recent statement to the House of Commons, Buckland said, "The disruption caused by COVID-19 makes delivery of other parts of our plans considerably more complex, and looking ahead, it is vital for public and judicial confidence that we have the flexibility to deliver a national response to any future challenges that COVID-19 presents."
What will happen?
Contracts with current CRCs will be cut short by two years and there will be no tenders to new companies. About 2,000 staff will be transferred from abolished CRCs to HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) when the switchover to a unified model happens in June this year.
From 26 June, the new probation service will be responsible for managing all those on a community order or licence following their release from prison in England and Wales. It will also deliver unpaid work and behavioural change programmes in England and Wales.
There will be 12 probation areas across England and Wales, introducing 11 new probation areas in England; arrangements in Wales will remain unchanged.
In a parliamentary address, Robert Buckland, told the house, “A unified model means responsibility for the supervision of all offenders transfer to the NPS, while each NPS region will have a private sector partner—a probation delivery partner—responsible for providing unpaid work placements and behavioural change programmes.”
However, according to a report in The Independent, “charities and private companies will still be invited to bid for £100m in annual funding to run other services, such as education, employment, accommodation and addiction treatment”.
Managing a smooth transition
The transition of offender management back into public hands will need to be carefully managed. In England, each area will be overseen by a new dedicated Regional Probation Director who will provide strategic leadership and be responsible for the overall delivery and commissioning of probation services.
HMPPS plans, laid out in its Target Operating Model document published in February 2021, outlines in detail the changes that will be implemented and how services will be improved.
Professional standards, skills for effective engagement and development (SEED) and realistic caseloads will be a focus as probation officers are brought back into the public sector.
The Ministry of Justice said: “We have already announced plans to reform our probation system to better support officers and ensure stringent, enforceable community sentences. Our changes will recognise the specialism and value of probation work, while supporting staff to develop the right skills and expertise.”
HMPPS will be reprioritising resources to those areas that will support a smooth transition. Existing delivery models will be kept where feasible.
The impact of the probation service returning to public sector management
Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, says, the revised plans will:
- End the competitive process for probation delivery partners
- Retain a dynamic framework for specialist rehabilitative services, taking into account the pressures that the market is currently facing
- Make best use of the talents and skills in the public, private and voluntary sectors
There are six key objectives for the new model:
- Better use of community sentences as an alternative to custody
- Increased judicial confidence and influence in the court setting
- An improved, higher quality service
- Increased collaborative working within the organisation and strengthening work with partners
- Developing the workforce
- Greater flexibility enabling change to be driven across the system
Returning probation services to the public sector, under one umbrella, is a strategic move that is designed to reduce reoffending, streamline and strengthen service provision, and ensure consistent training and support for probation officers.
The new probation model is grounded in the overarching HMPPS Business Strategy, which sets out the vision to work together to protect the public and help people lead law abiding and positive lives.
Amy Rees, Director General for Probation & Wales, HM Prison & Probation Service will be delivering an update on plans to strengthen the probation service at the Modernising Criminal Justice 2021 virtual event, on 23rd June - just three days before the re-nationalisation comes into effect.
Jessica Kimbell, GovNet