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What effect will payment by results have on the probation service? DDN hears reactions to the government’s controversial Transforming rehabilitation plans.

‘Radical reforms to the way criminals are rehabilitated’ will mean every offender leaving prison having to serve a minimum of 12 months under supervision in the community, justice secretary Chris Grayling announced last month. 

Also promised is a ‘new, joined-up’ approach to tackling problem drug use – from prison to the community – in partnership with the Department of Health, as well as a network of ‘resettlement prisons’ to allow offenders to be released into the areas where they will live and be supervised. There will also be a focus on ‘life management’, with reformed offenders mentoring people in ‘the difficult days and months’ after release. 

The government is calling it ‘the most significant change to short custodial sentences in a decade’ with 65,000 prolific offenders serving sentences of up to two years receiving ‘extended, targeted rehabilitation’, including access to treatment services, housing, training and employment. The reforms are a ‘golden opportunity’ to halt the revolving door of the prison system, claims Grayling. They will also, however, see ‘a far greater role’ for private and voluntary sector organisations, on a payment by results (PbR) basis, with contracts awarded ‘based on best value and innovation in tackling reoffending’. 

While RAPt said it was ‘pleased to see’ plans for greater involvement of the private and voluntary sectors, other agencies have been less enthusiastic. ‘Evidence shows that payment by results is not effective, but perversely the government is going ahead with plans,’ said chair of Westminster Drug Project (WDP), Yasmin Batliwala, with PbR likely to increase ‘pressure to release clients without the support they need’.

Probation union NAPO has called the plans ‘a disaster waiting to happen’, meanwhile, and the Probation Association and the Probation Chiefs Association (PCA) have issued a joint statement that the government was ‘dismantling [probation] trusts at the very moment that it needs them most’.

The proposals would also ‘destroy the effective network of local partnership approaches’, a PCA spokesperson tells DDN. ‘The government has announced that there will be a smaller national probation service and 21 contract package areas to deliver rehabilitative services – these areas do not align to the current boundaries of local authorities or the areas overseen by the newly formed police and crime commissioners. It appears that while the government is committed to localism – with police and health all becoming more local – the Ministry of Justice and probation work has gone in the opposite direction.’

Effective strategies to reduce re-offending are only achievable through strong cooperation and shared strategic planning by local agencies, the association believes, with the proposals putting this at risk. The timetable is also unrealistic, the PCA states, as it means attempting to outsource more than 80 per cent of probation work at the same time as restructuring the remainder of the service into high-risk offender management – something that’s unlikely to be achieved within the justice secretary’s 18-month time frame ‘without causing serious damage’ to service delivery. 

The government is effectively redesigning public sector probation at the same time as ‘introducing a complex and untested payment method’, says the organisation, with public sector bodies – even those that can demonstrate excellent results – unable to bid for the community supervision work. 

‘Payment by results excludes probation trusts because they are prevented by treasury rules from taking on financial risk,’ explains the spokesperson. ‘In order to bid, individual members of probation staff would have to form mutuals, management buy-outs, joint ventures or the like, with someone who can carry financial risk. The competition shouldn’t be about which sector delivers it but about the skills and experience in that sector, with all sectors having a chance to contribute. Probation trusts are already delivering the year-on-year reductions in re-offending, which Grayling says is all he expects Transforming rehabilitation to deliver, so we would ask why is he dismantling it? Especially given there is no impact assessment as to how these proposals will reduce re-offending and costs.’

But plans for reformed offenders to mentor people as they leave prison must be a good idea – as long as there are enough suitable candidates to go around? ‘We have long recognised that there is a gap in follow-up for short sentence prisoners. Probation had not been asked in past to supervise them, on the grounds that it would be too costly. We welcome the renewed focus on all short custodial offenders, but it is important to have a credible answer to how this additional supervision will be resourced, particularly against the pressures for savings.’ 

The government would no doubt maintain, however, that probation organisations are only voicing objections because of vested interests? ‘The Probation Chiefs Association wants to ensure that any changes the government makes to probation services achieves the aims of reducing costs and re-offending, while keeping the public safe,’ the spokesperson states. ‘Professional expertise and experience is not a vested interest. We do not object to competition and already provide and commission across all sectors. 

‘With no clear aspiration for the levels of payment by results in the new contracts, the rationale for excluding probation trusts from bidding also remains unclear.’

Transforming rehabilitation – a revolution in the way we manage offenders at www.justice.gov.uk/transforming-rehabilitation