Merger mystery

The mission of the new National Offender Management Service
(Noms) – should it choose to accept it – is to reduce reoffending
by 10 per cent. Noms involves a merger of the prison and probation
services into a single, integrated service responsible for managing
and supervising offenders in custody and the community.

The service didn’t get off to a great start. Just weeks before it
came into existence last month, about 1,000 probation staff lobbied
parliament, urging MPs to sign an early day motion expressing
concern about the lack of detail surrounding the new service. Days
later, Noms chief executive Martin Narey issued a statement setting
out his vision for the service, in which he acknowledged that
prison and probation staff were “understandably nervous about the

Detail about Noms is still thin on the ground. What we do know is
that the service will be developed over five-years, replacing the
previous system under which the prison service was responsible for
prisons, and the probation service for community punishments and
interventions. As a Home Office spokesperson says: “It’s not a big
bang launch but an evolutionary process. People on the ground won’t
see real differences for a couple of years.” A good illustration of
this is Narey’s desire for a 10 per cent reduction in reoffending
to be achieved by the end of this decade.

Meanwhile, former chief probation officer Christine Knott has
recently been appointed to the imposing post of national offender
manager. She will be responsible for reducing reoffending,
controlling the budget for offender services, and managing 10
regional offender managers, based in nine English regions and in

Hand in hand with its remit to reduce reoffending, Noms is also
tasked with expanding the use of community penalties so that
sentencers are encouraged to use custody less frequently.

Noms applies to services for over-18 year olds, so will not affect
juvenile offenders. The Youth Justice Board, which deals with this
age group, will remain as a separate correctional agency (also
under Narey) for the juvenile estate.

In future, Noms is intended to operate primarily at regional level.
This is still some way off – Narey doesn’t expect regional budgets
to be set until 2006-7 and until then, regional offender managers
cannot contract on a regional basis. But there are already concerns
about the system.

First, some opponents have argued that the proposal to reorganise
what are currently 42 different probation boards and a plethora of
other criminal justice agencies into 10 regional commissioning
boards could weaken the effective local links that are already
established. Paul Cavadino, chief executive of crime reduction
charity Nacro, acknowledges that this is a concern: “The
consultation paper on Noms recognised this and said that beneath
the regions there would need to be arrangements for local links and
partnerships. But there is no detail of that yet, so it’s important
to press for effective local links.”

Second, Nom’s regional emphasis means it could be ideally placed to
ensure prisoners are placed closer to home. This should help the
resettlement process, which may mean more offenders are supported
on release and might be less likely to reoffend. But limited
numbers of young offender institutions mean a place nearer home
might be unlikely for young offenders. Adam Sampson, director of
homelessness charity Shelter, says: “There are structural
difficulties with a prison system already stretched to breaking
point. If there isn’t an adequate regional coverage of YOIs it
creates difficulties.

“There are two responses,” Sampson continues. “One is to build new
prisons. The government has traditionally done this but – like the
road system – we have learned that the more capacity we create, the
more demand there is. The other is to limit the use of

It is widely agreed that the latter is the more intelligent
approach. According to Cavadino: “One of the biggest issues for
Noms is simply the pressure of numbers. If there were fewer people
in custody we could move to a system where it would be possible to
put more young offenders in smaller establishments nearer their

Third, there are doubts about the contracting process. For the
first time, public, private and voluntary sectors will compete for
contracts to provide custodial and community services. This process
will introduce a purchaser and provider split, separating the
management of offenders from the provision of services. The theory
is that this open market will drive up standards because services
won’t automatically be provided by the prison and probation

Rob Allen, director of voluntary group Rethinking Crime and
Punishment, says: “This notion of ‘contestability’ means that a
greater role for the private and voluntary sector is envisaged.
Regional offender managers will be looking at a broader range of
providers, but I doubt that enough providers will be able to
provide the right services.”

In addition, these contests will also be replayed at regular
intervals, as contracts will no doubt be renewed every few years.
According to Allen, sentencers want consistent relationships with
the service providers offering alternatives to prison. “They don’t
want them chopping and changing every three years,” he adds.

Allen foresees another, unintended, consequence of the new
contracting arrangements. “We may move to a situation where local
authorities and health might provide services like housing,
education and treatment for offenders only if they are contracted
to do so. What we should be doing is encouraging mainstream service
providers to see work with offenders as part of their normal
duties. It’s pushing it into a pseudo-commercial world. We might
lose our ability to lever in services and resources from mainstream

Regional offender managers will be responsible for commissioning
services to reduce reoffending. But there is a danger that
innovative ideas will be stifled because they plump for
tried-and-tested services to ensure they meet targets. It will be
crucial that regional offender managers commission services that
work with offenders’ other problems, such as housing, addiction,
mental health, and employment, as this is the most effective way to
successfully resettle offenders and prevent reoffending.

Ultimately, if Noms is to stand a chance of working, it has to be
accompanied by a concerted effort to reduce the prison population,
says Cavadino. “This means that instead of indulging in tough
rhetoric, government ministers have to strongly sell the case for
reducing custody. And guidance from the new sentencing guidelines
council must have an explicit emphasis on a reduction in the use of

It’s a tall order. We’ll have to wait to see if it is mission

Good practice in Portland

 The first in a regular series of columns accompanying features
supporting our Back on Track campaign and describing best

Advice on what to eat with a baked potato and a request to
accompany a newly released young offender to a sexual health clinic
are just two of the text messages that John Bayley has received
recently. “This is where the real personal side to mentoring comes
in,” says the Nacro development worker at the charity’s On-side
Project at Portland Young Offender Institution, Dorset.

The project was set up five years ago to work with juveniles at the
YOI, offering pre- and post-release support. Juveniles have now
been moved out of the YOI, and the project has switched its
attention to the most vulnerable young offenders aged between 18
and 21. Risk factors include family breakdown, drug and alcohol
problems and mental health problems, says Bayley. Invariably the
most crucial need is housing.

The project takes referrals from the prison’s multidisciplinary
resettlement team – a project worker sits on this – from the
chaplaincy and from wing officers. As so much of the support is
post-release, the project works only with those young offenders who
will live within a two-hour journey from Portland. Those living
further afield receive support from the prison team.

The project refers the young men to different agencies for
post-release support, as well as providing practical support. This
support starts on the day they leave the YOI. Project staff take
them to the local Safeway for a fried breakfast and then home and
to their probation meeting, rather than leaving them to bump into
local drug dealers.

“Post-release work is probably the most vital thing they can have,”
says Bayley. “Once they are out it gives them someone to turn to.
We spend a lot of time taking them out, and supporting them in
reaching goals.”

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