Probation offices. Taken at a protest over the 2014 splitting of the probation service. Photo: Phil Hedges
Unaccountable providers, service chaos, workforce pushed to the limit: Probation after the ‘reforms’
A new report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) does not know how well the companies responsible for running probation services are performing, due to “limitations around data quality and availability.”
The findings follow controversial government reforms, in which 70 percent of probation services were privatised to new Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) in early 2015, after the service itself was split into two parts in 2014. The NAO’s findings add weight to existing evidence, while independent research commissioned by trade union Napo has delved further to reveal the disastrous impact of the government’s reforms on the probation workforce, including a reversal of progress on gender equality.
The process of reform has met with serious criticism and concern by a range of organisations from the Public Accounts Committee (in two reports) to the MoJ itself. As Napo has made clear, the CRC contracts were awarded despite evidence of serious safety concerns, including that revealed by the MoJ’s own testing processes. Prior to the privatisation, the service was split into 24 CRCs managing medium-low risk offenders and a new National Probation Service (NPS) managing high risk offenders, the latter remaining in the public sector. Reports appeared immediately following the reforms of a near total breakdown in communication between the two parts of the service, as well as a chaotic working environment, with IT systems failing, significant staff shortages and excessive workloads.
The new NAO report reveals that until data on reoffending are compiled in late 2017, data on performance of the new CRCs and the NPS are extremely limited, which presents a very real challenge to holding the new privatised CRCs to account. In May 2014 the Public Accounts Committee published two reports on the probation reforms, concluding the reforms carried significant risks. Back then, the PAC called for the MoJ to ensure accountability and transparency:
“The Ministry must ensure that the new contracts contain open-book accounting arrangements and allow the National Audit Office full access to contractual information, so that we can follow the taxpayers’ pound and be assured that value for money is being served and contractors are not gaming the system as has happened in the past.”
It appears that the committee’s recommendations have not been followed, as the lack of data leaves the public without the ability to properly hold probation providers to account. The NAO report found that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), part of MoJ, has no data for three of 24 of the CRCs, and insufficiently robust data in another two. Similarly, the MoJ has no data for five of the 25 NPS service levels and insufficiently robust data in another two.
‘Payment by results’: Private profit over public safety
The report also found that the CRC providers are incentivised to complete specified activities rather than to reduce reoffending per se, under the mistitled and much criticised ‘payment by results’ (PbR) model. This is a clear risk to public safety, as CRCs are encouraged to prioritise financial returns from particular activities over wider efforts to reduce reoffending. The government has pursued a similar model of outsourcing and privatisation in other areas of public services, for example in the much-criticised Work Programme of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In a 2014 report on the Work Programme, the Public Accounts Committee illustrated the flaw in the PbR approach as follows:
“Evidence shows that differential payments have not stopped contractors from focusing on easier-to-help individuals and parking harder-to-help claimants, often those with a range of disabilities including mental health challenges.”
Service split chaos, high workloads, ICT failures and staff cuts
As well as insufficient quantity and quality of data on performance, the NAO report revealed a series of other shortcomings in probation services, shortcomings which have been previously highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee as well as trade union Napo, whose members have been at the frontline of the reforms. The report found that the reforms have established new organisations with different incentives, creating “unsurprising frictions” between CRC and NPS staff. Further findings include staff reporting that high workloads have affected service quality, while ICT systems continue to create “severe inefficiencies.”
Related to this point, the NAO report revealed that the CRCs have much lower than expected business volumes, which, if translated into income, “would affect the ability of the CRCs to transform their businesses.” These income shortfalls, the NAO makes clear, would affect the CRC’s capacity to “bring in new ways of rehabilitating offenders, introduce new ICT systems, implement estates strategies and reform corporate support services.” In Napo’s press release, they illustrate the scale of the problem, by noting that lower levels of business has resulted in “significant job losses across a large number of CRCs”, with approximately 1,500 jobs lost or ‘at risk’ in CRCs owned by five of the providers. These are Sodexo, Working Links, RRP, Durham Tees Valley and Purple Futures.
In his November 2015 report, the independent HMI Inspector of Probation, Paul Wilson OBE, found that the communication issues between the NPS and CRCs had resulted in “too many cases without a sufficient Risk of Serious Harm screening”, while within the CRCs themselves, the ‘likelihood of reoffending assessments’ carried out under the Offender Assessment System were sufficient in “just over half of cases.” The NAO report concludes that ultimately, the success of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms will “depend on the extent to which they create the conditions and incentives to reduce reoffending.” Further, that to achieve value for money, the MoJ will need to resolve the “fundamental issues” the NAO have found in their report.
Napo research on Transforming Rehabilitation
The NAO report points to the fact that CRCs are reducing their workforce in advance of transformation, and that they met staff handling “significantly higher caseloads” than average, a workload which the staff considered prevented them from providing an adequate service. It is welcome that the NAO has acknowledged the significant burden the government’s reforms have placed on probation staff, but the report could have gone further. The voices of staff at the frontline of the government’s reforms are hugely important, yet the government has so far neglected to involve or consult with them.
Napo has recently commissioned independent research carried out by Professor Gill Kirton and Dr Cécile Guillaume from Queen Mary University, London, which focuses on and explores the experiences and concerns of probation staff. The research focuses on employment relations and working conditions in probation services after the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, with a special focus on gender and trade union effects. The primary research took place between January and July 2015, including both quantitative (a Napo membership survey), as well as qualitative (Napo interviews, focus groups and observation of union events) methods.
One of the key findings of Napo’s research is compelling evidence that working conditions and employee experiences have deteriorated following Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) and the splitting of the service. The report cites a number of immediate, medium term and longer term staff concerns:
- Immediate concerns: Heavy workloads, long hours working and stress
- medium term concerns: Blurring of role boundaries, redundancies, workplace closures and relocation, changes to flexible work arrangements, changes to job descriptions and health and safety.
- Longer term concerns: Career paths and development opportunities, pay erosion, deskilling, deprofessionalisation and “lack of job satisfaction.
The report summarises the experience of TR from the perspective of probation staff:
“The split was often described using highly emotive metaphors – ‘a train crash’, ‘a messy divorce’ – that conveyed the strength of feeling in opposition to TR. Similarly, referring to the aftermath of TR people frequently talked about ‘grieving’, ‘mourning’ and feeling ‘loss’.”
Fundamentally, the report finds that TR has “disrupted a well-functioning public service.” One of the most prominent themes in the research was that the reforms have been “done to” probation staff, without proper consultation with those most affected and without practitioners’ collaboration. The report finds that, “as with other restructuring / outsourcing programmes, the unions were marginalised throughout the process leading up the implementation of TR.”
Gender effects: Erosion of progress on gender equality
Building on existing evidence which shows how privatisation and outsourcing contributes to a deterioration in employment conditions, especially for feminised professions (such as probation, where 70 per cent of staff are women), the research forecasts that the gender pay gap will likely increase in outsourced probation work, based on a finding that “TR has already caused an erosion of the overall progress on gender equality.”
The public sector is a significant employer of women and has longstanding gender equality policies including, for example, additional maternity leave and greater availability of employee (rather than employer) oriented flexible work arrangements (than the private sector). Taking this into account, the authors argue that “privatisation and outsourcing are likely to have a particularly harmful effect on women’s jobs and opportunities and on overall gender equality in the labour market.”
While some CRCs are honouring local agreements on working conditions, others are withdrawing them. The steady or in some cases rapid erosion of such policies was illustrated quite succinctly by one probation staff member of a CRC:
“You have flexible time. So maybe you work earlier in the day rather than later and you move your hours around to accommodate your … Or you take unpaid leave. So if you’ve got young children you say, half term, I can’t find cover, I want unpaid leave for … All of this is now being refused. (Branch officer talking about a CRC).”
Workplace effects: Staff shortages, work overload, stress and anxiety
The survey of staff revealed worsening conditions across a number of measures. Staff shortages were reported as particularly acute in the NPS, while many CRCs lack probation officers (POs) to oversee probation support officers (PSOs) work. Work-related stress and long hours in the context of unrealistic targets were also a major feature of the survey responses:
- Thirty per cent of men and 33 per cent of women surveyed noted they have bigger caseloads.
- Fifty-one per cent of men and 50 per cent of women reported working towards unrealistic targets.
- Thirty-eight per cent of men and 35 per cent of women regularly suffer from work-related stress.
- Fifty-five per cent of men and 52 per cent of women reported having insufficient staff at their workplace.
One probation staff member in the NPS illustrated the intensity of casework overload as follows:
“I mean literally my workload has virtually doubled as a result of TR. But not only doubled, it’s jumped in intensity because you don’t have those minor offences, you don’t have the six month orders, the twelve month orders. The large majority of my cases at the moment won’t terminate until 2018, 2019. I’ve got offenders that I will be supervising until 2027.
Now they’re telling me your caseloads are going to get better and only literally over the last two weeks have I seen any kind of respite. But no one seems to be able to tell me what’s going to happen to all the cases that are going to need to be allocated between now and 2027 because my caseload isn’t going anywhere. There isn’t the natural tail-off anymore because we’re getting such beefy sentences because we’re dealing with the higher risk.”
As mentioned, many staff have huge concerns about their future careers in probation, with the survey revealing the following:
- Seventy-seven per cent of women and 74 per cent of men feel less secure.
- Fifty-four per cent of women and 56 per cent of men feel they have fewer career prospects.
- Sixty-eight per cent of women and 74 per cent of men are worried their pay will worsen.
- Forty-nine per cent of women and 45 per cent of men are afraid of losing their job.
- Fifty-three per cent of women and 50 per cent of men are worried about workplace closures and relocation.
When the report moves on to consider the future intentions of probation staff, the tragedy of the government’s reforms appears all to starkly. The survey reports that 40 per cent of CRC workers and 24 per cent of NPS workers would take voluntary redundancy if it were offered, and nearly 30 per cent of CRC workers and 24 per cent of NPS workers are already looking for a job outside of probation. Thirty-three per cent of NPS workers and 20 per cent of CRC workers intend to stay in probation. Here, the different experiences of CRC and NPS staff show that while the reforms have had hugely negative effects in both parts of the probation service, including that stemming from the decision to split the service into two, CRC staff are much more pessimistic about their future and report more negative experiences.
Many staff described de-skilling and ‘deprofessionalism’ since the service split and the TR reforms:
“The big thing for the people left behind [in the CRCs] is the deskilling. One of my colleagues had been a probation officer forever, she’s not allowed to go to a normal hearing anymore without having someone from the NPS accompanying her and when they rang up they said it could be anybody, it didn’t really matter, it just had to be somebody from the NPS to tag along. (Branch officer).”
Workplace culture: Low morale and lack of inclusion
Workplace culture was also something referred to by participants in the research, with ‘recurrent themes’ including “lack of inclusion, staff feeling unvalued, uncertainty, lack of consultation and low morale”. All of these were sources of stress and anxiety in both the NPS and CRCs.
A key area of staff experience and concerns regarding workplace culture was the chaos caused by the division of work between the two new areas of probation. These concerns included not being able to access offender records, having no lines of communication between the CRC and NPS about particular cases, clients kept waiting for unreasonable amounts of time, and more, as the following probation worker made clear:
“People felt sort of processed and undervalued and there’s this split so colleagues that you worked with very closely are suddenly in this other organisation and there are tales that if you go up on the fourth floor where the NPS are, they’re supposed to turn their screens off if you go up to talk to them. You know, we’ve always shared information.”
The NAO report points to an extremely worrying situation in which the government and the public are unable to understand how well probation services are performing, and hence less able to hold them to account. Napo’s research however reveals the experience of staff at the frontline of the government’s TR reforms, showing the extremely negative impact of outsourcing and privatisation on progress on gender equality, working conditions, workplace culture and a whole range of workplace and service quality issues. Both the NAO report and the independent research commissioned by Napo also reveal the very significant problems stemming from the split in the probation services.
While the government’s reforms are destroying a public service and a profession, with mounting evidence of serious and negative impacts on services provided, it is important to restate that there was no evidence for the reforms in the first place. Despite this, as well as clear evidence at the time of implementation of serious safety concerns, the government pressed ahead. We also find that the CRC’s have less work than anticipated, which has fueled attempts by some CRCs to cut staff as well as terms and conditions. The tragedy continues, as CRCs are incentivised to focus on seeking payment for particular activities rather than to actually reduce reoffending.
The research by Gill Kirton and Cécile Guillaume found that the reforms have proved “particularly demoralising” for staff precisely because they are “professional workers trained to and committed to working in the interests of clients and the general public.” Though the unions have been marginalised in the reform process, the research points to organised resistance by Napo’s members and a dedicated network of activists in the context of widespread discontent among probation workers. As Kirton and Guillaume conclude:
“The study provides evidence that an independent collective voice for probation practitioners is needed more now than perhaps ever before.”
The Speak Up for Justice Campaign calls for an integrated, publicly owned, accessible and accountable justice system. The campaign is led by the TUC together with trade unions in the justice sector, including FDA, GMB, Napo, PCS, POA, UCU, UNISON and Unite.