Last week in England & Wales the Justice Secretary Liz Truss announced the abolition of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). It shall be replaced with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, which ministers say will have more clarity of purpose.
The reforms include a stronger focus on frontline prison staff: a pay rise for many, along with more investment in training and professional development. This is a significant recognition of the importance of staff in any organisation: here it seems that the lessons of some of the more progressive enterprises are slowly being learned. Well trained employees with decent pay and conditions and better morale surely mean that their work with prisoners can improve too. Proposed reforms also include a stronger focus on women in the justice system. Campaigners have welcomed this but what it will mean in reality is yet to be seen.
Probation, in the meantime, remains in a Transforming Rehabilitation limbo. Privatised Community Rehabilitation Companies continue to face all sorts of challenges. Meanwhile what was the NOMS administered National Probation Service shall remain attached to the prison arm of the administration, meaning that the kind of triangular structure which came into being with NOMS will continue.
Some historical background: NOMS was originally established in the early 2000s to provide “end to end offender management”, with the idea that it would employ staff who would follow a person’s progress from trial to custody, to release, through the prison gates and into society. The hope was that having an “offender manager” would ensure that in the event a person did go to prison, there would be a single point of contact who would ensure that all the necessary steps were taken in preparation for release. Once someone came out of prison, this link person would ensure that all the relevant agencies talked to each other and that the individual had accommodation, access to the right kind of support and so on. In reality this never actually happened and NOMS quickly became a bureaucracy which, sort of but not quite, absorbed the prison service and the central elements of probation.
Meanwhile, the Blair administration’s obsession with user choice meant that various aspects of services in prisons (interventions, education and even catering) were put out to tender and in many cases privatised. NOMS then took on the administration of those contracts, and eventually expanded to developing operational policy, monitoring, evaluation and research. Sometimes policy sat at odds with the more political direction set by changing ministers at the Ministry of Justice. What NOMS never managed to achieve was what it was initially created for: end to end offender management. In the meantime the prison population continued to rise, and with it all the symptoms of an unhealthy system addicted to hyperincarceration: violence, poor health, deaths and low levels of staff morale.
The new structure is apparently not going to do any of the things that NOMS eventually took on. It will manage prisons and the few central aspects of probation which are still in the public sector. Policy, monitoring and commissioning will move to the Ministry of Justice. But what will this mean in practice?
It’s hard to know, against the backdrop of the prison crisis, rampant hyperincarceration and the highest level of deaths in prison on record whether the new arrangement will be a genuine improvement, or whether it’s a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the prison ship version of the Titanic.
What we can say for certain is that if the Justice Secretary wants genuine change, she ought to address the current crisis which has much to do with overcrowding and the overuse of prison. This isn’t just about sentencing, it’s about there being genuinely effective non custodial measures, strong resettlement work and a recognition that a social safety net for those at risk of offending is a key aspect of improving public safety. Through our work at Justice Studio we also know that new initiatives can be successful if they involve from the outset those who deliver services and those who use them. The best approaches incorporate co creation, with the genuine buy in of those they affect, specifically prisoners and staff. We hope that all current reforms don’t take their eye off their most important component: the people.