A private malfunction?

When it emerged that the robbers who killed financier John Monckton and the gang who tortured and murdered 16-year-old Mary-Ann Leneghan were under community supervision while carrying out the attacks, the probation service came under fire.

Home secretary Charles Clarke called the cases a “dagger at the heart of public confidence” in the service and vowed to improve how the agency works. Words of comfort for the public, but for probation professionals a major blow in a series of attacks since the government published its controversial plans to overhaul the probation service last year. Their mood will hardly have been lifted by last week’s news that child rapist Kevin Hazelwood of Brighton was on probation at the time of his crimes.

In December, Roger Hill, director of the National Probation Service, told professionals they were “meeting or exceeding” most of their targets, although he highlighted a need for “quick” improvements in the quality of risk assessments.

His words came back to haunt the service in February when the chief inspector of probation, Andrew Bridges, found a “collective failure” in the management of the cases of Damien Hanson and Elliot White, who killed Monckton in 2004. But although it was found that Hanson had not been effectively identified as a high-risk offender, it was also deemed wrong to suggest that the cases reflected a “widespread” poor standard among probation staff.

Yet Bridge’s report was followed in March by the news that four of the men convicted of murdering Mary-Ann in a  Reading park last May were on probation at the time, prompting the home secretary to promise improved public protection.

Last week Charles Clarke published plans for more intensive supervision of dangerous offenders in the community ahead of another report on probation that is expected to identify failures in the supervision of sex attacker Anthony Rice, who murdered a stranger, Naomi Bryant, last year.

Given this background, it came as little surprise when four weeks ago Clarke published confirmation of the government’s plans to overhaul probation service. Now, as it approaches its 100th anniversary, the  service is fighting for its future.

Central to the debate are the government’s plans to drive up performance by putting failing services out to competition from private and voluntary sector providers. Most professionals reject these plans, arguing that the public service values of probation – with their social work roots – will be lost in the government’s increasing focus on public protection at the expense of the rehabilitation of offenders.

According to the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), only four out of 748 responses to the government’s consultation on the plans were supportive. Many have questioned Clarke’s assumption  that restructuring the service and opening the way for private providers will lead to a reduction in reoffending.

Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Greater London branch of Napo, claims the home secretary has “cynically used” high-profile cases to undermine probation and further the case for reform. “The government is playing on the recent blaze of adverse publicity on probation to lever up its reform agenda,” he says. Some professionals point to Clarke’s “knee-jerk” response to the cases and claim that probation has become a political football.

One senior probation officer says: “The cases were appalling and shocking, but the service is changing and moving on. The government is simply failing to acknowledge our contribution.”

Martin Wargent, chief executive of the Probation Boards Association, the national employer’s body for the service, links the government’s desire to overhaul probation to its wider public service reform agenda.

“The government’s plans to introduce contestability by opening up the opportunity for private providers to run services has already happened in areas including prisons. But probation is seen as an easy guinea pig as the public knows little about  what we do – it’s a silent service.”

The government plans to replace the 42 probation boards which have a statutory duty to commission services in England and Wales. Instead, the Home Office will be given the power to commission services from a range of  providers “in a contestable market environment” through new regional bodies. Clarke is expected to introduce legislation to underpin the plans in June. There is concern that this will, in effect, abolish the probation service and dismantle its public sector ethos, pushing the agenda further away from the care of offenders in favour of public protection.

Wargent says: “The worst-case scen ario will result in the loss of a locally governed service, which has a history of strong partnerships with agencies including social care, health and employment. It will become centralised and controlled by civil servants. This is a recipe for disaster.”

He adds that the proposals could threaten the professional skills and values of probation officers. “We have a well-trained probation service with qualifications rooted in social work. This is doomed if private providers come in as they will not want to pay for proper training. They are more likely to take on more unqualified staff as this will be cheaper and the service could ultimately lose its professional identity.”

By the same token, Mike Nellis, professor of criminal and community justice at Strathclyde University and a former probation trainer, argues that the government’s plans will be counterproductive.

“Reduction of reoffending depends on effective reintegration of offenders into society or they will be forced back into criminal lifestyles. If all the emphasis is going on protecting the public and risk assessment, the offender will be shortchanged and have no incentive to reform.”

Nellis points to fears that the Home Office wants to “do away” with probation  because it still has “connotations of welfare help and rehabilitation” that do not sit easily with the government’s “get tough” message.

He also predicts that the probation service of the future, split between providers and commissioned from Whitehall, will attract a workforce interested mainly in the “efficient administration of punishment”.

Bobby Cummines, chief executive of ex-offenders charity Unlock, adds: “The government is taking humanity out of probation by not allowing highly skilled staff to do the job they went into the service to do – to work with people. They didn’t go into the job to be clerks ticking boxes and their talents are being undermined.”

As well as the political wrangling, there are other hurdles for the service to contend with. The government plans to roll out end-to-end offender management – giving each offender one worker to see them through the system – but this raises issues about manpower. Also, probation officers are likely to struggle with increased caseloads as thousands more community sentences are given out with the introduction of Custody Plus in  November. And each probation service area will be subject to a rigorous performance assessment and inspection over the next 12 to 18 months.

As the campaign against the government’s proposals continues – with support from more than 70 rebel Labour MPs – professionals predict a rocky ride in parliament. With so much at stake for their service, probation staff are faced with the dual pressure of standing up for their profession while working under intense government scrutiny.

Nellis asks: “How can staff think about their higher professional ideals when they are dealing with the day-to-day challenge of getting things right? The future of the service will depend on whether they can meet this challenge.”

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