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Covid-19 and the Probation Service - “an incredibly different situation out there”

20 July 2020

The Justice Select Committee has released a report on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Her Majesty's Probation Service and at the same time launch an inquiry into ongoing reforms in the service.

The report, ‘Coronavirus (Covid-19): The impact on the probation system in England and Wales' sets out how the pandemic has profoundly affected the way probation services are delivered.

Many former prisoners and those serving community sentences are now supervised remotely by Probation Officers – through phone calls or Skype. Released prisoners who would often need help finding accommodation or accessing Universal Credit benefits may well find physical offices dealing with these matters closed, with staff working from home. 

Helen Berresford's comments

An official from the prisoner and ex-prisoner charity Nacro, Helen Berresford, painted a picture of the situation for the Committee:  

“It's an incredibly different situation out there. Almost all support is being provided remotely at the minute, so we need to make sure everybody leaving prison has access to a mobile phone. They will also need to have enough money to get them started. To be honest, they will need some of the essentials like soap, a toothbrush and some basic food and drink to get them through the first few days. They may be released to somewhere they do not know. They may be released having to take public transport – which may or may not be running.” 

Minister of State's comments

The Minister of State at the Justice Ministry, Lucy Frazer, told the Committee that the Ministry was working very closely with the charitable sector:

“We are working very closely with them to see how we can feed in offers of support outside the core services we have to set up. We have had a number of very interesting offers.” 

The Committee report welcomed the Ministry's commitment to work with the charitable sector but said it was unclear what specific additional support had been put in place for those released from custody during this time. 

The Committee recommended that the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty' Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) set out what additional measures they have put in place to support prison leavers. 

'Exceptional model of delivery'

The delivery of probation supervisory services in the wake of Covid-19 is officially known as an ‘exceptional model of delivery'. High risk offenders are supervised by the National Probation Service (NPS) through a combination of remote methods and doorstep visits. Medium and low-risk offenders are currently supervised by private sector organisations called Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).  

The National Association of Probation Officers told the Committee that there was some inconsistency in the way the model was delivered across the NPS and CRC systems. This led, the Association said, to anxiety among staff about their own safety. Another witness said the inconsistency led to concerns among individuals trying to adhere to their licence conditions to avoid potential recall to prison.   

The Justice Committee report said it was concerned about these inconsistencies and recommended that the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS set out what guidance had been issued to CRCs and how they are monitoring the models being delivered by different CRCs. 

Backlogs and staffing issues

The Committee's report also said it was concerned about the backlog which the lockdown measures have necessitated – for example the unpaid work which some people have been sentenced to has stopped. The Committee said it recognised why this had happened but recommended that the Ministry and HMPPS set out how the probation service intends to address the backlogs. 

Finally, the report also looked at staffing issues in the NPS. It found that even before the pandemic, there were over 600 vacancies across the service in England and Wales and that workloads were heavy. Since Covid-19 hit, around 20% of the NPS staff of 11,000 have been off work each day, putting considerably more stress on remaining employees. The Committee recommended that government and HMPPS set out what existing and additional measures are in place during this time to support staff well-being.

The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected the probation service at a time when it was already in the throes of its second major restructuring programme in the past five years. In addition to its report on the effect of the pandemic, the Committee is today launching an inquiry into the latest proposed reforms, which are due to be in place by 2021. 

A new model

In 2014-15 the Ministry of Justice implemented a programme of privatising parts of the Probation Service. This led to the CRCs contracting to deliver some strands of work, including supervisory services for medium and low-risk offenders. HM Inspector of Probation released a series of reports on this new model which variously described it as having ‘deep-rooted problems' to being ‘irredeemably flawed'. The previous Justice Committee Chair described the system as ‘a mess'. 

In June 2020, the Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, said the disruption caused by Covid-19 meant it was vital that the Ministry obtained the flexibility to deliver a national response to any future challenges. For this reason, he said, he was to streamline the reforms by unifying the management of offenders under a single operation.  

This new model means the effective renationalisation of the Probation Service by 2021. It would mean all key elements of offender case management and supervision of unpaid work would return to the overall control of the NPS – although some elements of delivery are still to be outsourced and overseen by the National Probation Service. 

New inquiry on proposed reforms

The Justice Committee inquiry being launched today will ask for written submissions and take oral evidence from stakeholders on the new model for the delivery of probation services. 

The deadline for written submissions, which should be sent via the Committee's website will be September 7. It is anticipated that a report will be published in February 2021.

Chair's comments 

The Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill, said: 

“We'll want to know if this new model will work and whether it will be capable of clearing the backlog of probation work caused by the pandemic. We'll be asking whether private sector providers were consulted about these proposals, whether there were counter-proposals, and how the new model will supply the necessary services. 

But above all we will want to see improvements in the rehabilitation of offenders, improvements in probation service staff morale and robust protections for the public.   

In short, we want to make sure these latest reforms do not repeat the errors of the past so that the Justice Committee will, in future years, be scrutinizing a Probation Service fit for the twenty-first century.”  

Further information

Image:  MoJ