The renewed media attention afforded to the Post Office scandal sends a very strong signal to all organisations that not listening to frontline staff can result in human misery, organisational dysfunction, and reputational damage. The history of probation in UK over the last decade reflects many of the mistakes made by Post Office management in discounting the realities of frontline service. Despite being told frequently by unions and serving and experienced staff and managers that partially privatising the service – and, more recently, merging probation and prisons – would not work, ministers in the Ministry of Justice made and are continuing to make disastrous decisions because of a ‘we know best’ culture.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons has described Britain’s overcrowded prisons as a ‘ticking time bomb’. In response, new legislation and other measures have been announced, including early release of certain prisoners and a reduction in short prison sentences.
What these measures have in common is establishing the probation system as a key component of the proposed solution. However, probation faces its own ticking time bomb. The fuse was lit in 2014 with the catastrophic “Transforming Rehabilitation” (TR) part-privatisation plan.
Today, the UK’s probation system suffers from a poorly defined purpose, identity and culture. Its now retired strapline “advise, assist, befriend” served for a century to anchor the service to its social work roots and made it a crucial counterweight to the punitive roles and cultures of other criminal justice agencies. Embedded in its local communities; healing, restorative, nurturing; based around a strong social justice ethos; the probation system had championed an approach which empirical research continues to demonstrate is the most effective for rehabilitation and public protection. Under the Blair government, attempts to reshape probation driven by political expediency (with home office minister Paul Boateng reframing the probation service as “an enforcement agency”) could not shake the sector’s steadfast adherence to its original principles and values, not least as probation then operated as a number of quasi-independent local services.
Chris Grayling’s 2014 reforms, however, were a different story. Transforming Rehabilitation which was the bang that finally blew this historic mission apart.
Five years later, the privatised model established by Grayling was described as ‘irredeemably flawed’ by the outgoing Chief Inspector of Probation Dame Glenys Stacey. The reintegration of the probation service into the public sector followed soon after; but, critically, probation was simultaneously engulfed by a new department, HM Prison and Probation Service. As probation frontline staff are wont to remark ruefully, probation is the ‘silent p’ in HMPPS. Centrally controlled, bureaucratic and in a forced unequal marriage with the prison service, probation as a distinct agency of the criminal justice system continued to face just as existential a threat as it did during the Transforming Rehabilitation fiasco.
In HMPPS, the probation service has been subject to further damning inspection reports. Like Stacey, her successor as Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell, used his final report in September 2023 to call for a major overhaul. “I think the time has come for an independent review of whether probation should move back to a more local form of governance and control,” he said, observing that “probation leaders (…) often feel heavily constrained” and “play second fiddle to the priorities of the prison service to which they are tied in the new One HMPPS structure”.
As probation frontline staff are wont to remark ruefully, probation is the ‘silent p’ in HMPPS
Meanwhile, as the service underwent botched reforms of the botched reforms, the Thomas Commission on Justice in Wales was gathering evidence and published its report in 2019. This recommended the wholesale devolution of justice to Wales. Probation union Napo was already campaigning for probation in England and Wales to be separated from the prison service and removed from civil service control; following the Thomas Report, Napo backed devolution. In December 2022, Gordon Brown’s report, A New Britain, specifically recommended the devolution of probation and youth justice to Wales, and in March 2023, Welsh Labour conference voted unanimously to endorse this plan. The Welsh Government has been making practical, researched evidence-based preparations, supported by justice sector unions in Wales.
If our once proud “gold standard” probation service is to be recovered, time is short. The relentless machinery of the civil service motors inexorably towards the increasing merger of probation into the prison service, where it will not survive in anything but name. That relentless machinery is less tangible than the personality of Grayling and a single piece of notorious legislation, but it is just as destructive. A once effective and world-leading service will be extinguished, and in the maelstrom of shrill political justice rhetoric and a public spending crisis, it will disappear with a whimper, not a bang.
The debate about the devolution of justice to Wales is underway, but it will be a long process. The probation service is in imminent peril. In 2019 probation in Wales was reunified in the public sector ahead of the same exercise in England in 2021. Wales can again lead the way in establishing a locally based, devolved service, rooted in social justice principles: the groundwork is already under way.
Whether the probation and youth justice proposal is the thin end of the justice devolution wedge or a single reform remains to be seen. What is already clear is that this is a heaven-sent opportunity for a new Labour government to start to right the wrongs of Grayling’s catastrophic Transforming Rehabilitation debacle.
Image credit: Chris Bennett via Flickr