Probation staff 'spend just 24% of time with offenders'

Ken Clarke: "We've already reduced the number of targets and we've streamlined all the standards we set"

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Probation staff are "bogged down" in paperwork and can spend just a quarter of their time dealing directly with offenders, MPs say.

The justice committee report said staff in England and Wales took an "overly administrative" approach to their work.

A 2008 survey suggested staff spent more time on "computer activity" and other administrative work.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke blamed a "tick box" culture and said he was already "getting rid of targets".

A survey of probation officers done in 2008 found they were in contact with offenders for only 24% of their working day and the rest of their time was spent on the computer, in meetings, or writing letters and reports.

The committee blamed much of the paperwork on the National Offender Management Service, known as Noms, which it described as having a "tick box, bean counting" culture and said needed to be radically restructured.

'Staggering'

They questioned whether Noms, which was established in 2004 and effectively merged the prison and probation services, was delivering good value for money and urged the Ministry of Justice to hold an external review.

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."

Committee chairman Sir Alan Beith said: "So much time is bogged down in paperwork. The value of a probation officer is what he can do to turn an offender's life around, to make the offender think differently.

"There is micro management, box ticking - all the things we've come to associate with a target culture which really needs to change.

"We want to see more professional initiatives used, we think there's been improvements in training which makes it more practical to do that now."

For Labour, Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan claimed the government was "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."

'In denial'

But Justice Secretary Ken Clarke blamed Labour for the "historic" problem with probation staff spending too much time on paperwork and suggested Mr Khan was "in denial" about the UK's "deficit problem".

He told the BBC he was "equally staggered" by the time being spent and he agreed with the report's conclusions.

"Crispin Blunt and I have already started the process of greatly reducing the number of targets," he said, adding he was also taking out "layers of management" in Noms to make it more efficient.

"We are getting rid of all those targets. What I want to concentrate on is what we achieve ... what we really need the probation service for is to cut the levels of reoffending."

Mr Clarke said he was about to pilot some "payment by results" contracts in the probation service - already in place in two prisons - and give staff the discretion to work in ways to best reduce the number of crimes committed by people released from prison.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of probation service union Napo, said the report confirmed that Noms had been "a major problem from the start".

He said the last 10 years had seen a "massive rise in the constant government monitoring of probation staff, to the detriment of face-to-face contact with offenders" which, he said, "does not enhance public protection but undermines it" and should be reversed.

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