Probation given some vital medicine – but it’s not cured yet

The government’s admission that privatisation of the probation service has failed is welcome, but it doesn’t go far enough

UNISON has given a limited welcome to the government’s announcement that all offender management work currently carried out by private companies will return to the public sector when  contracts come to an end in the spring of 2021.

The community rehabilitation company (CRC) contracts were due to come to an end in December 2020, but have now been extended to allow for the government’s plans for probation to be put in place.

But unpaid work, accredited programmes and other rehabilitative interventions and resettlement services, currently provided by the CRCs, will not transfer back to the NPS. They will be offered to the private and voluntary sector in a new bidding process.

This is the same model of delivery which has already been proposed for Wales and which is already being put into place in that country.

UNISON’s national officer for probation Ben Priestly commented: “The government’s announcement is an admission at last that Chris Grayling’s botched TR reforms have failed.

“No one in the world of probation believed that the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms would ever work, and so it proved right from the start.

“It is shameful that it took four and half years of pain, aggravation and heartbreak before Ministers acted. Probation has been broken and it will take a long time, and a lot of money, to fix.”

UNISON’s believes that last week’s announcement that medium and low risk offender management will return to public control is a step in the right direction but there are still serious problems in the service.

Firstly, unpaid work, programmes and interventions are to stay out in the private and voluntary sector. Many CRCs have struggled to provide these services and there is little evidence that a market exists to deliver them.

UNISON wants all this work to come into the National Probation Service (NPS). Probation needs to be re-unified; it cannot work if the split in delivery carries on into the future. We will campaign for full re-unification.

But UNISON also believes that the NPS needs to improve considerably if it is to succeed in taking on all offender management work from the CRCs.

Problems at the NPS

Working for the NPS has not always been a happy experience for many staff and Probation has been the poor relation to the Prison Service inside HMPPS. In particular the NPS has:

  • forced a one-size fits all probation model across England and Wales
  • downgraded key occupations such as victim liaison officers, residential workers, business managers, enforcement officers etc
  • suffered from on-going big staff shortages in key operational areas
  • 1,000 agency staff to deliver work it cannot recruit into
  • privatised night waking cover in approved premises with disastrous consequences
  • put prison governors in charge of probation officers in prison
  • not been able to pay staff properly since it was created as a result of its privatised payroll provider getting things wrong on an on-going basis

UNISON’s Let’s Fix Probation campaign argues that all probation work should be brought back under public ownership, not as part of the NPS, but via the re-creation of Local Probation Services under local democratic control and local management.

UNISON’s national officer for probation Ben Priestly added: “We will continue to make this case. Probation can only function properly as a unified and local service, delivered and managed in the public sector, free from the interference of the MOJ, or HMPPS.

“For our members, dedicated and hard working staff, last week’s announcement means even more change on top of what have been the most difficult years in Probation history.

“More than anything UNISON hopes that the government has learnt that there is a real human cost to their experimenting.  Listening to practitioners and service users will be more important than ever as we move to the next set of reforms.”