Two years ago this month (March), the Directors of Probation and Public Sector Prisons wrote to all Probation Trusts (as they were then) about the role of probation staff in public sector prisons. The intention was to improve offender management in custody. One element of this plan was to move all PSOs working in custodial settings back into the community. They were told that these new arrangements would be implemented within two years. Indeed the whole new model was to be rolled out within two years. Subsequently we were informed that PSOs would be moved out as prison governors were ready to make changes to their staffing arrangements. This was to be done on an establishment by establishment basis and indeed this has been happening but is by no means completed. More recently, in some NPS Divisions at least, the suggestion has been floated that this process will now be accelerated on a divisional basis – but we have had no clarification of this apparent change.
Last summer, Michael Spurr wrote to the unions indicating that changes were to be implemented to offender management in custody, with cases being ‘managed’ by prison based offender managers rather than community based staff – this largely on the basis that perhaps four fifths of OM caseloads were in custody at any one time. Both before and since this letter was written (in September) the unions have been faced with a rather large wall of silence as regards any planning and consultation over these changes. We have repeatedly asked what is happening but nobody seems to know or be prepared to tell us. This continuing uncertainty has an impact on workforce planning since it might well involve many more probation officers being located in prisons. This in turn bears upon the numbers of new probation officers that will need to be recruited in future. It also has a knock-on impact on planning under the E3 project – the two are inextricably linked.
Recent pronouncements over the future direction of prisons (the Prime Minister and Michael Gove) may be at the heart of this continuing uncertainty. Some might say that a more enlightened approach to incarceration is being floated and that may be true. If it is, then many would welcome it. This ‘bigger picture’ step change may well have pushed changes to offender management in custody into the long grass as a consequential detail which cannot be allowed to drive the concept change for prisons. If so, then this would be understandable, but the continued silence is both frustrating and unacceptable. If this is the rationale underlying the unexplained delay in effecting changes to offender management in custody, then why not just say so? At least this would be understandable. In the meantime probation staff, and workforce planners, are left in limbo not knowing what is happening.