Written evidence from Howard League for Penal Reform


Executive summary












  1. About the Howard League for Penal Reform


1.1. Founded in 1866, the Howard League is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. We have some 13,000 members, including lawyers, politicians, business leaders, practitioners, prisoners and their families and academics. The Howard League has consultative status with both the United Nations and the Council of Europe. It is an independent charity and receives no grant funding from the UK government.


1.2. The Howard League works for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison. We aim to achieve these objectives through conducting and commissioning research and investigations aimed at revealing underlying problems and discovering new solutions to issues of public concern. The Howard League’s objectives and principles underlie and inform the charity’s work.


1.3. This submission, drawing on the charity’s policy work, argues that the government’s recent decisions on probation reform, whilst welcome, do not go far enough to achieve an effective probation service and produce community sentences that can command confidence from both sentencers and the general public.


  1. The existing legacy of probation reform and learning from the past


2.1. Prior to 2013 the probation service was one which performed consistently and strongly, with all probation trusts judged ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ in the Ministry of Justice’s annual performance ratings[1]. Understanding what happened between 2013 and 2020 to leave probation in its current parlous state should be key to deciding the future direction of the service. Assessing the existing legacy of probation reform identifies two key lessons which the government should heed going forward.


2.2. Firstly, the dissolution of the probation trusts created by the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms saw probation lose its local identity and the last vestiges of the service’s independence. Probation services have suffered from being subsumed into the management of prisons in Whitehall, firstly within the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and more recently within Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS). An independent service built around local communities became a centralised arm of prisons-dominated bureaucracy.


2.3. Secondlyand hand in hand with this merger with prisonswe have seen over a decade of misguided attempts to create a market in probation services.


2.4. Market reforms have not succeeded because working to achieve desistance with people who commit crime is not a commodity that can be marketised. These attempts reached their nadir with the disastrous Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, which created an artificial split in the probation service and saw government spend a great deal of time and money in attempting to quantify and create mechanisms to enable ‘payment by results’.


2.5. The Howard League has consistently argued against these reforms and welcomed the inevitable decision to abandon payment by results. Yet in response to the government’s Strengthening probation, rebuilding confidence consultation in 2018, the charity warned that persisting with a split in service delivery and a market in probation services would do further damage to confidence in community sentencing and to local accountability[2].


2.6. Since that consultation the government has made a number of concessions which reflect the Howard League’s concerns. The charity therefore welcomes the government’s most recent decision to end the competition for Probation Delivery Partners as a decisive move away from the recent history of botched market reforms.


2.7. Nevertheless, the government will not see the probation service return to the level of performance seen before 2013 without taking further decisive steps which heed the lessons of recent years.


  1. The government risks missing a historic opportunity to transform probation services for the better


3.1. While the new model of probation marks a step in the right direction, the government is missing a historic opportunity to restore probation’s independence from prisons and by cementing a proper framework for local service delivery.


3.2. The Ministry of Justice has crossed a series of Rubicons in the unwinding of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, from the abandoning of payment by results to the reunification of probation within the public sector, culminating in the latest decision to end the market competition for Probation Delivery Partners. One key lesson from the failed reforms enumerated above has been fully accepted and acted upon. It would be unfortunate if the government did not now go further to deal with the remaining key lesson from recent history.


3.3. As it stands, the future of probation services remains within HMPPS, an organisation largely dominated by the priorities and concerns of the prison service. Probation will not regain its much-needed independence. Indeed, probation officers and senior leaders will all be civil servants and bound by Civil Service Rules that dramatically limit what they can say or do publicly. This is not how to create confidence in the effectiveness of the probation service and in the delivery of community sentences.


3.4. An effective probation service is both independent and structured locally to best serve communities. The central flaw of the new model being proposed is delivering probation through a National Probation Service (NPS), based within HMPPS. Both the NPS and its regional areas are too large to deliver effective probation services. Contrast the 12 NPS regional divisions proposed to run from 2022 with the localised network of 35 independent probation trusts operating prior to 2013-14.


3.5. The Dynamic Framework is accordingly an unnecessarily centralised and bureaucratic method of purchasing services from local voluntary sector providers, who would be better served with mechanisms for local grants and commissioning that reflect the needs of communities and the specialisms small charities can provide within those local contexts.


3.6.  While integration between probation and prisons is important, this need not require the two services to be merged within HMPPS. An independent probation service, locally structured but with clear national leadership, is key to ensuring confidence in the delivery of community sentences.


  1. A vision for the future of probation: ‘Community Justice’


4.1. The Howard League continues to advocate for an alternative vision for the future of probation, which heeds the lessons of the recent past, and which is termed ‘Community Justice’. At the heart of the Community Justice model is a recognition that the probation service should be independent, with a small body based at the centre to provide a national strategic focus, alongside an ambitious and properly local network of service delivery across England and Wales.


4.2. Probation would be separated from HMPPS and a new Community Justice Agency would be created to provide strategic and ethical leadership, to promote best practice and ensure a level of consistency in local service delivery. Separating probation and prisons provides a clearer distinction between the two services, reinforcing their separate identities and professional expertise.


4.3. The Community Justice Agency would be led by a figurehead with responsibility for providing a national voice on the issues – an important role which would be key to achieving the confidence in community sentencing that is a government priority. The Agency would lead on workforce development and set some clear national targets around service expectations that could be developed to fit local circumstances. It would also be responsible for certain services that can only be provided nationally, such as contact with the victims of prisoners.


4.4. Alongside the relatively small Community Justice Agency would be a network of Community Justice Partnerships to deliver probation services at a local level. Members of the Community Justice Partnership boards would include representatives from the police (including Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners), local authorities, local voluntary groups and members of the community, sentencers, health boards and regional prison management. This level of local involvement and ownership is again key to building confidence in the delivery of community sentences.


4.5. The Howard League would be happy to explore this vision for the future of probation in more detail through oral evidence to the select committee. In the meantime, there is one final important point which members of the committee should bear in mind during the operation of this welcome inquiry.


4.6. Just as prisons are overcrowded, so too probation services are overburdened – with almost a quarter of a million people on probation in any given year. Confidence in community sentencing and the effectiveness of probation has not simply been damaged by the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms but also by this overburdening of probation services to begin with. Probation is under-resourced to deal with the volume of cases staff are expected to supervise.


4.7. As the Howard League has made clear in this submission, structures are of course important when considering the future for probation services. Structural questions are not the only important issues for the select committee to consider, however. The government must also be clear on what the purpose and scope of probation should properly be.


4.8. A first step would be to remove the final legacy of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms by abandoning the 12-month supervision of those serving short prison sentences. This post-custody supervision has not worked and has primarily contributed to pressures on prisons through recalls. Clearing out some of the unnecessary work of the new unified service would allow for a focus on those actually sentenced to a community order or those leaving custody having served longer and more serious sentences.


4.9. The Howard League would also urge the committee to consider the case for a national review of the extent of community orders and of post-custody supervision. Not only must probation services be independent and structured locally, but the use of probation itself should be appropriately targeted and designed so as to best support desistance and reintegration. Just as the Crown Prosecution Service has a statutory duty to prosecute only in the public interest, probation services should be required to supervise only in the public interest. A tighter focus on the use of interventions would mean community orders would be reinforced and properly resourced to improve confidence in the effectiveness of probation services.



7 September 2020

[1] NOMS (2014) Probation Trust Annual Performance Ratings 2013/14 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/338962/probation- trust-perf-ratings-2013-14.pdf


[2] https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Howard-League-Strengthening-probation-20Sept18.pdf