Prison numbers impede aim of ‘seamless’ offender supervision

The reforms to prison and probation services that are set to
come in with the creation of the National Offender Management
Service have attracted plenty of criticism.

Variously referred to as “a fabulous juxtaposition of the absurd
and the insane” (Napo), and a “ghastly Orwellian concept” (Bob
Andrews MP), Noms could be facing a shake-up following the
resignation of chief executive Martin Narey. Certainly, many of
those with an interest in the sector hope so.

Chris Stanley, head of youth crime at charity Nacro, says: “It
would not be an exaggeration to call Noms a confusing mess. The
government could use Narey’s October departure to rethink Noms, but
it wouldn’t scrap it because that would be too embarrassing.
Whoever replaces Narey must have a vision.”

While there has been a broad welcome for Noms’s aim of reducing
reoffending by providing “seamless” supervision of offenders, the
proposed top-down restructuring of the system has raised many

Noms was established with the aim of creating a single body with
accountability for reducing reoffending and commissioning national

Under Noms, the probation service’s commissioning powers are to be
transferred to 10 regional offender management boards, which are
due to take control of spending by April next year.

Since its inception, Noms has come under fire over its plans to
encourage “contestability”, making the probation service compete
with private and voluntary sector organisations to run services, a
move campaigners fear could lead to increased privatisation.

There is also anger over a perceived lack of consultation and
parliamentary scrutiny.

Neil Gerrard MP, chair of the parliamentary justice unions group,
says: “Narey’s resignation has left a huge hole, but the best thing
the Home Office could do is bring everything to a halt and take

The Home Office is considering concentrating its efforts to reduce
reoffending among 18 to 20-year-old prisoners under Noms.

In advance of the, as yet unscheduled, national roll-out, it has
also published its first pathfinder study to explore how the model
might work.

The pathfinder in north west England looked at how probation
officers would adapt to their new roles under Noms as “offender
managers”, providing “end-to-end” supervision in both prison and
the community.

While Narey, in his preface to the study, says it is “too soon” to
assess the effectiveness of the model, the findings echo many
critics’ concerns.

The study, which focused on 18- to 20-year-old prisoners at
Lancaster Farms and Thorn Cross young offender institutions, finds
that “significant pressure” on YOIs to free up spaces for remand
beds is hindering continuity of supervision for young

Cheryl Gillan, Conservative shadow minister for home and
constitutional affairs, warns that the evidence shows the
government can’t “magic up” an end-to-end system for people who are
being “constantly moved around the prison estate because of

Julian Corner, chief executive of charity Revolving Doors, says the
pathfinder shows that reducing the prison population is “utterly
critical” to the delivery of Noms.

Prison numbers have reached a record 76,506, according to the most
recent Home Office figures, published last month.

But Home Office projections show this could top 91,000 within five
years, compared with the government target of hitting a ceiling of
80,000 by the end of the decade.

Corner also points to the potential difficulties of implementing
the Noms model caused by the frequent moves of prisoners to prisons
away from their home areas. “The pathfinder focused on the North
West, where there is less importing and exporting of prisoners out
of the region,” he says. “But in places like London, where more
than half of prisoners are sent outside of the area, it will be a
challenge for offender managers to sustain relationships.”

Offender managers will be required to visit prisons to attend case
meetings, but the pathfinder raises concerns that staff – drawn
from the probation service – lack the skills to work in a prison

The study also points to the “potentially significant cost
implications” of travel to prisons by offender managers if
prisoners are placed far away from their home areas.

In Cumbria, estimated staff time and travel costs for covering
sentence and planning review meetings in prisons amounted to
£208,000 – almost 4 per cent of Cumbria’s annual resource

The study warns that the national cost implications could prove a
barrier to the implementation of the model. Harry Fletcher,
assistant general secretary of probation union Napo, says the
findings show the government has “underestimated” how
resource-intensive the Noms model will be. “They would struggle to
roll it out nationally,” he predicts. “Unless it has the resources
it will fail.”

Neil Gerrard MP claims that the Home Office “keeps refusing” to
answer questions about the cost implications of Noms.

He says: “There is no idea of costs. After more than a year since
Noms was introduced, it’s starting to get a bit suspicious.”

A Home Office spokeswoman says the government is undertaking
further evaluations and keeping estimated costs of rolling out the
pathfinder under review.

The pathfinder also finds probation staff are concerned whether
they will be able to carry out the numbers of required visits to
prison because of high caseloads.

Julian Corner predicts that the size of caseloads could affect
whether offender managers will be able to meet the Noms ideal of a
quality relationship between manager and offender. “As the
pathfinder evidence shows, the relationship between the offender
manager and the offender is going to be key to the success of
reducing reoffending,” he says.

“The organisational reforms will need to be at the service of
empowering relationships – 90 per cent of the success will depend
on the human factor.”

The pathfinder also identifies gaps in provision to address
offending behaviour, particularly anger management, alcohol and
victim awareness programmes.

Fletcher says greater provision is needed for 18 to 20-year-olds.
He adds: “If Noms is really going to make an impact, there needs to
be massive investment in literacy, numeracy and social skills

Corner also warns that the new model could focus too readily on the
easy-to-reach, leaving those with complex needs in the system at
risk of reoffending because of lack of specialist provision.

“You can’t have a one-size-fits-all system for offenders,
especially the most chaotic. Many have drugs or mental health
problems and are intensely resistant to mainstream approaches. They
are not going to slot in easily.”

There are concerns about staffing too. The pathfinder predicts that
high sickness and vacancy rates mean services would “struggle to
achieve the degree of continuity provided by the model”, and
Fletcher believes the model will not work without “hundreds and
hundreds” more staff. He adds: “There is simply not enough staff,
and the south-east in particular is struggling with

But the key challenge will be winning over existing staff,
according to the pathfinder study. It warns that “resistance of
staff to making the necessary change and risk of staff attrition”
could be barriers to taking the model forward.

Corner says: “There is a lot of anxiety among staff as there are no
hard and fast answers at the moment, and, understandably, they want
to see what their jobs are going to look like. It could be that
Noms is the answer to all their prayers, but they will have to wait
and see.”

Cheryl Gillan blames staff resistance on “absolutely abysmal”
communication from the government, while Neil Gerrard says: “How
can Noms work when so much of its potential workforce is opposed to

It is a question that Martin Narey’s successor must not ignore.

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