The probation service relies on partnerships between agencies, which have to tackle multiple problems. Without local leadership and coordination there is a real risk that these partnerships will not materialise.
There are some cases of good practice to learn from. The Isle of Wight’s council has set up a partnership with its prisons and provides social care for offenders in the same way as it does in the community. This scheme was initially set up to assess the care needs of older prisoners in 2008. Since 2010 it has been used to develop a Common Assessment Framework to share information and align priorities across local services and across the prison walls.
The routes into and out of prison are particularly important for the wellbeing of offenders. The single assessment is applied across different agencies so that work is not duplicated and information is shared. The CAF can also be used in other offender management tools so that offenders move between prison and the community smoothly and with adequate provisions already in place.
This is important because offenders often have very serious, multiple needs. People who have been in prison are far more likely than the wider population to have mental health problems, learning difficulties, poor access to housing, drug dependency, histories of abuse, and low educational attainment, for instance. A mix of problems requires tailored and coordinated solutions, as Fergus McNeil outlines here.
This is difficult enough in smaller locations, but, as the LGiU has argued previously, a centralised body with sole oversight of a fragmented system and various providers will have a far harder time.
A recent report from the Institute for Government argued that there are inherent difficulties in commissioning for probation. Different agencies work to different timetables, cover different geographical regions, and have different commissioning systems. The mid-term reports from the Local Justice Reinvestment pilots also show, tentatively, that good local leadership and management is necessary to overcome the silos and align the incentives.
What happens in practice once the new Community Rehabilitation Companies are up and running is far from certain. There is no statutory requirement that the new providers will actually have to work with the existing partnerships. They will only have to show that they have been considered in the tendering process. Furthermore, with the possible incentives towards cost-cutting rather than investment, which the SMF details here, the payment mechanism does not seem to lend itself particularly well to building strong partnerships and developing leadership roles.
Without localised oversight the economies of scale at the national level risk eroding partnerships at the community level.