MPs voice fears over probation service paperwork

It is "staggering" that probation officers can spend as little as a quarter of their time dealing directly with offenders, MPs said today.

The Commons Justice Committee criticised the "tick-box, bean-counting culture" which has left staff tied up filling in paperwork rather than supervising and helping to rehabilitate criminals.

The MPs recommended that probation trusts should be given greater independence and said there was an "urgent need" for scarce resources to be focused on the front line.

Publishing a report into the role of the probation service in England and Wales, the committee called on the Ministry of Justice to commission an external review of the National Offender Management Service (Noms).

The MPs questioned whether Noms, which was established in 2004 and effectively merged the prison and probation services, was delivering good value for money, giving probation trusts the support and freedom they need, or co-ordinating the supervision of offenders in jail and the community.

They raised particular concerns about "micro-management" by Noms and the volume of form-filling probation staff must do to comply with the agency's targets.

The report said: "We accept that probation officers have to do a certain amount of work which does not involve dealing directly with offenders.

"However, it seems to us staggering that up to three quarters of officers' time might be spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders.

"No-one would suggest that it would be acceptable for teachers (who also have to do preparatory work and maintain paperwork) to spend three quarters of their time not teaching.

"The value which really effective probation officers can add comes primarily from direct contact with offenders.

"While we do not want to impose a top-down, one-size-fits-all standard, it is imperative that Noms and individual trusts take steps to increase the proportion of their time that probation staff spend with offenders."

Justice Committee chairman Sir Alan Beith, a Liberal Democrat MP, said: "Probation is an essential part of the criminal justice system and at its best the probation service delivers community sentences which are tough, challenging offenders to change their offending lifestyles.

"The ability of probation professionals to undertake effective work directly with offenders has been hindered by a tick-box culture imposed by the National Offender Management Service which has focused predominantly on prisons and has micro-managed probation."

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of probation service union Napo, added: "The report confirms that the National Offender Management Service has been a major problem from the start.

"Napo warned in 2004 that Noms would be a bureaucratic nightmare. It is scandalous that probation staff now spend 75% of their time on form-filling and responding to centrally driven emails."

Mr Fletcher went on: "The last 10 years has witnessed a massive rise in the constant Government monitoring of probation staff to the detriment of face-to-face contact with offenders.

"This does not enhance public protection but undermines it. This flawed historical trend must be reversed."

Probation and Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt said: "I heartily agree that the probation service needs to be freed up from unnecessary red tape in order to focus on reducing the appalling rates of reoffending.

"Half of the people we release from our jails are re-convicted within a year of getting out.

"That's why we're making changes to enable probation officers to use their judgment and discretion more widely. The culture of target-setting and box-ticking is over."

But shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan MP claimed the Government was "taking a big gamble with public safety" by "cutting too far and too fast" in the prison and probation services.

He said: "It is irresponsible to shed thousands of front line staff from the probation service at the time they are expected to take on a greater role in working with offenders in communities.

"Tough community sentences can be used as effective punishment and to reform offenders, but if they are to work, they must be properly resourced and the public must have confidence in their ability to act as a punishment and a deterrent."

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Justice Committee chairman Sir Alan Beith, a Liberal Democrat MP, said the value of a probation officer was "what he can do to turn an offender's life around, to make the offender think differently".

He said: "We had offenders in front of us who talked about how that relationship can work and how it needs to be a strong and assertive one - not just someone being friendly, but someone who's challenging them to think differently."

He added: "It was brought to us in evidence by frustrated probation officers who said that it was still a problem for them. I think it was micro-management, it was box-ticking, it was all the things we've come to associate with a target culture which really do need to be changed."

Sir Alan said Noms needed "completely restructuring" and there needed to be a move in the direction of "local commissioning of both prison and probation".

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said he was "staggered" by the quarter figure.

He said: "We knew it was a problem and we've been addressing it. It goes back to a failed system of management where you pile targets and micro management and stipulate to people what they should do, which we've been getting rid of.

"I've already started addressing this. We've reduced the number of targets, we've streamlined the national standards, we've said that we're going to give probation officers back their professional discretion."

PA

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution