Howard League blog · 16 Apr 2019
Notes from a visit to the National Probation Service in Wales
Thank you to everyone in the National Probation Service (NPS) in Wales for meeting me and showing me round last week. I got some really interesting insights into the changes taking place and the immense challenges staff face.
The message to ministers is that reintegration of the service is going well and is popular with staff. This is particularly important as ministers have cited ‘restructuring fatigue’ as one of the reasons they were reluctant to bring the service together into a national public service in England. Once the failure of the community rehabilitation companies comes to an end, it is logical and would be popular to reunite probation into a national service, as we have argued repeatedly.
Apparently in Wales there will still be parts of the service that are going to be outsourced under a commissioning arrangement, which I think will be a big mistake. Unpaid work has never been a success when it was done for commercial reasons. Private companies do not have the practical links or the ethos to promote volunteering with small community groups. Serco ran unpaid work in London and it was a disaster; men were counting their time travelling up and down the Northern Line because the company did not have the relationships with small voluntary organisations to find things for them to do.
Unpaid work can be a great way for someone who has offended to pay back into the community and make amends, but it has to be immediate, constructive, well organised and appropriate. Commercialising it will not work.
There are lessons here for England
In Wales, I met some frontline national probation officers who were very impressive. They told me that before Chris Grayling deconstructed probation they had a mixed caseload which meant some very dangerous and risky people and some who represented less of a risk. Now they have a caseload of just very risky people, which means a relentless worry, and they go home every night worrying if they made the right decision. They also said that newly qualified staff have to take on a high-risk caseload.
I was told that the NPS in Wales is going to be doing more focused work with 18- to 25-year-olds. Also interesting to hear that they are monitoring magistrates’ courts as they are worried about unduly punitive sentencing of women.
I visited an approved premises that houses men coming out of prison, often who have served extremely long sentences, and helps them settle back into the community with housing and something to do all day. The staff were, quite frankly, amazing, but the fabric of the building was pretty shoddy (although I was told it was better now than before).
There are lessons here for England. I call on ministers not to replicate the mistakes of the past but to learn and put things right.