Howard League blog · 28 Jun 2021
I welcome probation reform, but have some concerns about the new structure
The probation service has been taken back from the divided and privatised shambles set up by Chris Grayling seven years ago and is once again a public service. This is a very welcome reform.
Over the last seven years the failures in the part privisation have resulted in more victims, more crime and a shameful shovelling of public money to profiteering companies. I welcome the change. But I have some concerns about the new structure and hope that over time they will be addressed.
Managing people who have transgressed so that they can make amends for the harm they have caused is a central duty of government. It must be done with skill and compassion, so that everyone feels better at the outcomes. Victims and local communities must be included. The people who have offended should know that they have been treated fairly and asked to atone appropriately. As the criminologist John Braithwaite argued, once people have recognised the shame of their actions and paid the penalty, they must be reintegrated and forgiven. Probation is the fulcrum in this process.
In order for communities and victims to understand the process and feel confident, there must be local accountability and high profile local presence. This is where my apprehension at the new structure is at its most serious. The probation service has been nationalised, not localised. Just before Grayling inflicted privatisation, every local probation service was assessed as functioning well or extremely well. The local structure complemented the police and local authority structures and that was a key reason that it worked so well.
The new service is nationally directed and divided into twelve arbitrary regions that do not mirror other services; this will make it challenging to work with housing, health and social services.
Pre-Grayling the local services had an identifiable chief officer, who was part of the local community and liaised with other agencies. This will not be the case in a national probation structure that is part of the civil service. Indeed, because it will be part of the civil service and have no autonomy or independence, there will be no local voice. Unlike police and local authorities, the probation service will be a faceless national administration. Local civil servants are not able to speak to the media, promote their work or represent the service with other agencies. Quite rightly, the civil service is an administration driven from on high, not part of the local community. Rightly for things like tax but not when it comes to delivering local probation.
This may sound a bit technical, but it matters. My local police force has a chief officer, who is seen and accountable. Even the emasculated NHS structure (after the Lansley reforms) has some local accountability and visibility.
Public confidence in public services, particularly criminal justice, is difficult to assess. It is clear, however, that public confidence increases when people know and understand how they work, who runs them and what the outcomes are. The lessons from the track and trace fiasco was clearly that, when local government ran the service, it had greater public confidence.
Crime generates great emotion and can tear at the fabric of society. It is therefore all the more important that efforts to reduce crime are clearly explained and garner public confidence. I remain unconvinced that having a monolithic national probation service restricted from having a local voice or presence will have that confidence.