25 November 2022 - Are we making the most of probation and voluntary sector partnerships?

It was good to be able to offer some reflections on the relationship between probation and the voluntary sector in a speech to the Clinks 2022 Annual Conference (PDF, 115 kB) this month. Given that the origins of the service, over a century ago, lie in the charitable sector and the early efforts of ‘court missionaries’ – from the Salvation Army and Church of England Temperance Society – it’s not surprising that the relationship has always been a close one (more on this in a lecture I gave last year on the history of probation (PDF, 127 kB)).

Over the past year, much of that relationship has been channelled through £195 million of Commissioned Rehabilitative Services (CRS) contracts, which were let by HMPPS at the beginning of 2021, with two-thirds of this money going to registered charities. Given the constraints of this contractual process, it was perhaps inevitable that small and medium sized voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations felt squeezed out. The Oldfield Review (PDF, 507 kB) (2021) found that half of the CRS competitions had only one or even zero bidders and six large VCSE organisations accounted for £122m of the funding that was awarded.

Our local probation inspections have been gathering feedback on the early performance of these ‘Day one’ CRS contracts and have found a mixed picture across the five regions, where we have published reports to date. Common issues have included a mismatch between referral volumes to these services and what was initially projected, with some services (for example, accommodation and women’s services) oversubscribed by 150 to 200 per cent and other services (for example, wellbeing) not getting sufficient referrals.  Providers we have spoken to during our inspections also flagged inappropriate or poor-quality referrals missing key bits of information, and difficulties in accessing the risk information on cases that is needed to formulate safe interventions. On the other side of the relationship, probation staff lacked knowledge about, and confidence in, the services available from providers and weren’t convinced that these added value to what they could do themselves, for example in relation to housing referrals. And they told us they lacked feedback on the outcomes from the referrals that were made and felt this could have been a stronger focus of the contracts.

With HMPPS starting to think about the next round of commissioning, and a switch in emphasis from contracts to grants, there is a chance to bring a wider range of more local providers into the tent to better match the individual needs of people on probation. As I said in my speech to the Clinks 2022 Annual Conference, greater clarity about the respective roles of probation staff and statutory and voluntary sector agencies would also be helpful, to avoid duplication and enable each to focus on where they can most add value. What interventions should probation practitioners deliver themselves? What should they refer on for others to do? A future in which the only role of probation practitioners is to signpost people to other organisations for them to do the ‘real’ work – doesn’t feel like a job I’d much want to do and surely isn’t what people join the service to do.

This month has also seen the publication of our first thematic inspection of the Offender Management in Custody arrangements put into place by HMPPS to better support prisoners as they are released into the community. Conducted jointly with colleagues from HMI Prisons, the results were disappointing. Once again, we’ve found major staffing shortages on both the prisons and probation side hampering delivery, with levels of pre-release contact with prisoners sufficient to reduce re-offending in only a third of the cases we inspected. And the model itself is overly complex, with neither prison nor probation officers or prisoners themselves fully understanding how to implement it or what it means in practice.  A major review and overhaul at the earliest opportunity is needed.