Probation board shake-up looms

Plans to open up probation services to competition have raised fears about the future of local partnerships. Helen McCormack reports

The government’s controversial plans to shake up the prisons and probation service are expected to make it to parliament next
week, with rumours abounding that legislation on the issue will be in the Queen’s Speech.

Last week a coalition formed by the Local Government Association, charities and probation groups sounded a warning note over the impact that taking away the probation boards’ duty to commission services could have locally.

The coalition argues that plans to move commissioning powers from the 42 boards to 10 regional offender managers could create  a top-down system, with the managers awarding contracts to large providers to cover huge geographical areas.

While detail is scarce, what is known is that the 42 boards will be turned into the equivalent number of NHS-style probation trusts (see Boards to trusts), which will provide services and compete with the voluntary and private sectors to deliver services in their areas for up to £9bn of work – a quarter of the total funding for the National Offender Management Service.

How much power the Home Office intends to give the regional offender managers will be an area of contention.

For Hazel Harding, the LGA’s lead on crime and antisocial behaviour, the danger lies in the managers taking the easy route of awarding large contracts to large providers, weakening links between agencies working locally and potentially meaning  offenders will have to travel greater distances for services.

“If you have organisations working at a regional level there is a danger that you will have a one-size-fits-all approach,” she says.

Rory Love, the Probation Boards’ Association’s lead for the South East, says the Home Office’s proposals appear to have sidelined local authorities’ role.

There is a direct contradiction, he says, between the Department for Communities and Local Government’s emphasis on local
decision-making in its local government white paper and the Home Office’s removal of it in this case.

Further weakening of links at a local level could lead to the work of smaller groups being diminished, Harding adds. “We could see the successful projects currently working to reduce re-offending being lost.”

The coalition is arguing for a joint commissioning role for councils through local strategic partnerships and local area agreements, and insist the system can work only if there is flexibility in service delivery.

But one of its members, Rob Allen, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, wants a greater role for councils. He believes the Home Office should give authorities a statutory duty to reduce re-offending, and that its current failure to do so is a “huge missed opportunity”.

“On the one hand, we have devolution to localities” he says. “On the other, we have offenders dealt with separately. The Home
Office might want to answer the question as to why they should be any different?”

Boards to trusts
The trusts are likely to have NHS-style autonomy, but could be answerable to regional offender managers.

Best performing boards most likely to be awarded trust status first.

Current direct ties with local authorities cut – a statutory requirement to have two councillors and four magistrates has already been taken away.

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