With the number of serious further offences perpetrated by those on probation rising by more than a third since the service was reformed in 2014, the probation workers’ union asks: where is the political accountability for the failings?
Probation officers supervising offenders who commit serious further crimes such as rape and murder are being “scapegoated” by politicians for failings created by Chris Grayling’s widely-condemned reforms of the system, the union representing probation workers has claimed.
Ian Lawrence, general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), said probation officers are “being scapegoated for mistakes caused by this failed privatisation experiment” – the ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ reforms of probation, introduced by then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling in 2014.
The reforms saw the part-privatisation of the probation service – charged with supervising offenders released from prison and those serving community sentences – with ‘low-to-medium risk’ offenders being supervised by privately-run ‘community rehabilitation companies’ (CRCs) and ‘high-risk’ offenders continuing to be supervised by the public sector National Probation Service (NPS).
Grayling’s splitting of the service has been beset with problems and received widespread criticism, with campaigners and probation officers themselves at the time warning him not to take a wrecking ball to the then award-winning service.
“I will never get over the trauma of what happened as a result of the SFO. I will live with that for the rest of my life.”Probation Officer
Since the reforms were introduced, the number of serious further offences (SFOs), crimes such as rape and murder, committed by those being supervised by probation have been on the rise.
In 2017-18, 242 offenders were charged with a SFO – a 39% increase since 2013-14 and the highest figure in the past nine years, according to the latest official figures.
But, instead of examining systemic failings, NAPO, which represents those working in the NPS and the CRCs, claims that probation officers – particularly in the NPS – are increasingly being targeted for blame following SFOs, which the union sees as ministers diverting accountability away from themselves.
NAPO told me that interventions by the Justice Minister in high profile, highly publicised SFO cases has resulted in “biased investigations”, a much more punitive stance being taken by the NPS towards staff, and senior probation officers being pressurised to find someone to blame.
Burnt-out staff dealing solely with high-risk cases in the NPS are living in fear as “the Ministry of Justice and NPS insistence that someone be held to account for a SFO and the tragedy that follows is now so driven”, it said.
‘Ministers looking for scapegoats on the front line’
Mr Lawrence said the union’s caseload of probation officers involved in disciplinary actions or required to provide evidence at inquests following SFOs has increased markedly over the past two to three years.
“We know that there are more members under the cosh than before,” he said. “We are committed to our members not being scapegoated for mistakes caused by this failed privatisation experiment. We want the work returned to public control.”
Tania Bassett, NAPO national official who has provided support in the disciplinary cases, said: “The NPS has unfortunately decided to take a far more draconian approach to SFO investigations than previously. The blame culture appears to be coming from intervention of the Minister in cases that have got a high profile.
“There is no acknowledgement on the part of the NPS that these SFOs are happening due to unmanageable workloads and a total lack of management oversight. The Minister needs to take some responsibility for this chaos and not just look for scapegoats on the front line.”
“Serious further offences are very rare, but each one is taken extremely seriously and investigated fully so that we can ensure any mistakes aren’t repeated.”Probation Service Spokesman
One probation officer involved in a SFO said: “I will never get over the trauma of what happened as a result of the SFO. I will live with that for the rest of my life. But, now the NPS is doubly traumatising me by threatening me with my job, profession and livelihood. No one asked to work in this failed system. The NPS is not fit for purpose but we are the ones carrying the can for it.”
Another probation officer said: “I have sat in on the continued persecution and witch-hunt of an experienced probation officer who feels he is almost being held culpable for the actual SFO. It is disgraceful and shocking.”
A third added: “The NPS is an organisation run by people who have no understanding of the pressures and demands of case supervision. The use of fear and blaming forces middle managers to pass on their insecurities.”
One probation officer said staff involved in SFOs are not given any guidance about what work to prioritise or not to do: “Most of the front line probation officers to whom this traumatic event occurs are massively overworked and have been for long periods – for example, holding the equivalent of one-and-a-half caseloads for over two years without respite and promises that things will improve, but haven’t.”
“It was an aberrant decision, to leave Leroy Campbell at large”
In 2016, Lisa Skidmore, a 37-year-old nurse from Bilston, Wolverhampton, was raped and strangled to death by Leroy Campbell after he climbed through her bedroom window, just four months after he was released from prison.
A prolific violent and sexual offender, in 1983 he had been sent to prison for seven years for entering a nurse’s home and attempting to strangle and rape her.
At the time he killed Ms Skidmore, Campbell was being supervised by the NPS.
Weeks before the murder, Campbell had told his probation officer he was thinking of raping again and had been looking at, and noticed, open windows.
A 2018 review by HM Chief Inspector of Probation of Campbell’s supervision, commissioned by the Justice Minister Rory Stewart, found that, weeks before the murder, Campbell had told his probation officer he was thinking of raping again and had been looking at, and noticed, open windows.
“This should have resulted in immediate, positive and firm action to protect the public… instead, Leroy Campbell was left free to commit these terrible crimes. It was an aberrant decision, to leave Leroy Campbell at large,” said Dame Glenys Stacey.
The Chief Inspector said an investigation, including the staff involved being temporarily suspended, should have been launched immediately by NPS managers. “Disciplinary actions,” she said, “should be timely, to be as fair as possible to all concerned, and to maintain public trust”. She said it was “odd” that this hadn’t been the case.
Although “systemic failures” were at the core of many SFOs, in this instance, “practitioners and managers simply did not do what they should have done”, she found.
However, she added that Grayling’s ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ reforms had been introduced just before the decision was taken to release Campbell and “while this is no excuse, it is a relevant consideration”.
“The nature of the challenge facing the NPS has changed since ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’. There are fewer opportunities for new staff to develop their skills by working with lower-risk offenders.”Dame Glenys Stacey, HM Chief Inspector of Probation
Campbell’s case had been transferred to a probation officer who had just been given a “full caseload of offenders who presented a high risk of harm to others” – 36 cases. The senior probation officer involved was also new to the transferred cases.
“The changes brought in by the restructuring of probation services meant that the NPS became entirely focused on… those presenting a high risk of harm to others,” the report said. “This is a significant change for those staff and managers who had previously held a more varied caseload. Prioritisation now meant identifying the highest risk cases within a caseload where few present a low risk. One could speculate that the benchmark for cases that receive the most attention moved upwards.”
It added: “The nature of the challenge facing the NPS has changed since ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’. There are fewer opportunities for new staff to develop their skills by working with lower-risk offenders. The span of control of front-line managers has not reduced, but they must now be skilled in identifying and prioritising risky situations and cases from within a caseload where few present no risk.”
One of the probation workers involved in Campbell’s supervision was sacked for gross misconduct and another was demoted to an administrative role at the end of last year.
‘Failings by those supervising the offender’
When asked to respond to NAPO’s concerns and the rise in SFOs since Grayling’s reforms, a Probation Service spokesman from the Ministry of Justice said: “Serious further offences are very rare, but each one is taken extremely seriously and investigated fully so that we can ensure any mistakes aren’t repeated.
“When a SFO review identifies failings in practice by those supervising the offender, the NPS or CRC can take action under formal performance or disciplinary procedures if necessary.”
More than a quarter of a million people are living in our communities under probation supervision right now – 262,758, according to the latest official figures, more than three times as many inmates currently locked away in our prisons.
The job of probation is indisputably one of essential public safety. The question then must be – how much do we care about our safety?