London’s probation system is in trouble. Last week's damning report by the probation inspectorate found an alarming deterioration in provision in the capital, posing a serious risk to public safety. So what can mayor Sadiq Khan do to get probation back on track?
The core challenge for the mayor is that the current structure of the probation service leaves him with few direct powers to improve the quality of provision. Oversight, budgets, and commissioning powers for the most part lie with central government.
This is all the more problematic because it is clear that the issue with probation largely stems from the current nationally established structures. Dame Glenys Stacey, the Chief Inspector of Probation, was last week particularly damning of the work carried out by the London Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC), one of the new privately owned probation providers recently introduced by the government to rehabilitate low and medium risk offenders.
As many argued when the government was considering its reorganisation of probation, the new structures are proving wildly ineffective at reducing reoffending. The changes have added further complexity to an already fragmented system, by splitting probation into a National Probation Service for high-risk offenders and CRCs for low and medium risk offenders.
The current system is also too centralised: CRCs are nationally commissioned, so have little incentive to work together with other local services, many of whom hold key policy levers to reduce reoffending. Add to that problems with staffing, uncontrollable caseloads, and poor oversight, and it’s no wonder that the system is under strain.
As IPPR argue in our new report, the priority for Sadiq is therefore clear: he needs a deal with the Ministry of Justice to be granted new probation and prison powers from central government.
The obvious ideal solution would be for the mayor to be granted full commissioning powers over probation services, as he has suggested himself. But in the short term this is unlikely: the CRC contracts have only recently begun and last for a total of seven years. Short of an early termination of the London CRC contract by the government (which after this week’s inspection is not as far-fetched as it might sound), there is little hope of securing significant new probation powers before the end of this parliament.
But there is still plenty that can be done now. For inspiration, Sadiq should look to Greater Manchester, where there is considerable momentum towards a more devolved, innovative system. In particular, there are three things he can focus on in the short term.
First, as in Manchester, Sadiq can bid for the control of custody budgets for certain cohorts of offenders in London – particularly young and short-sentence offenders, given they have such high reoffending rates. While the mayor does not currently have control over probation, he does have a number of other policy levers to help reduce demand on the prison system – particularly as he sets London’s policing and crime priorities. Controlling these new budgets would allow any savings made from reduced demand to be reinvested in other ways to bring down offending rates, such as preventative service and alternatives to custody. He would also need to secure some upfront "transformation funding" to make sure there is some extra initial money to play with for these services, rather than just relying on savings to be made down the line.
Second, the mayor can argue for more powers over the youth justice system. The mayor should make the case to central government to break up Feltham Young Offender Institution into a range of smaller "secure schools" – a new type of secure accommodation for young offenders that puts education at the centre of provision. He should then bid for powers to commission places at secure schools for young offenders within London. This would allow for a far more joined-up approach at the local level between youth custody and probation (which is already devolved to local authorities).
Third, Sadiq should prioritise reform for women offenders. Women are significantly more likely to self-harm and develop mental health issues in prison, and many have dependent children. In many cases, custodial sentences cause more harm than good.
The closure of Holloway women’s prison in North London therefore provides an opportunity to rethink women offender provision, reduce the use of custody, and invest in more effective alternatives. Sadiq should make the case for some of the substantial savings from the closure of Holloway to be passed to City Hall, for them to be reinvested in a new women’s centre and a new approach to women offenders in London.
He can take a leaf out of Greater Manchester’s book: their "whole system approach" to female offenders has created an alliance between nine women’s centres for female referrals and has helped to share best practice, streamline reporting processes and facilitate closer partnership working.
But the mayor should not be limited to these three ideas: he should explore with the Ministry of Justice a range of options for London to be granted greater control over budgets and commissioning. This week’s report highlights the need for immediate action. There should be plenty of scope for London to secure a more locally driven, innovative, and joined-up approach to prisons and probation in the coming year.
Marley Morris is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).