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

News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
News
i100
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits