Napo General Secretary Ian Lawrence and National Chair Katie Lomas were invited to give Oral evidence to the Justice Select Committee (JSC) in a historic first ever session conducted entirely by video link.
The JSC was specially convened to allow a range of witnesses to update them on how the current C19 Pandemic is impacting on their specific role. Other witnesses appearing before the Committee were Justin Russell HMIP Probation, Dr Jo Farrar CEO for HMPPS and Director General Probation, Amy Rees. The Committee also heard from Mark Johnson CEO and Helen Beresford Director of External Engagement for NACRO, and finally, the Justice Minister Lucy Frazer.
The full Transcripts will be published on the Napo Website in due course but here is a summary of the responses to the questions that were asked of Ian and Katie.
• An overview from you of how probation is responding to COVID-19 and what the exceptional delivery model means for staff;
Here we were able to say that whilst the publication of the Exceptional Delivery Model was welcome, its introduction across the NPS and CRC providers had been inconsistent. While the EDM brings some protections, we pointed out that we are three weeks into the lockdown and in some areas it is still being put into place. We added that there are many examples of frontline staff in the NPS and CRC’s being unable to work to the EDM or struggling to adapt. Working at home is possible for some staff but not all providers have the technological capacity to do this.
• What impact is COVID-10 having on staff (absences, workload, morale)?
We stated that Workload has increased as the EDM is put into place. The increased monitoring of clients and the requirement to review all assessments is a huge pressure. In addition the “lockdown” may increase the risk for some and this needs to be taken into consideration. Joint working arrangements are more difficult to put into practice and contact with other agencies has been tricky to establish in some areas. Covering for staff who are absent or not able to work to their full capacity because of the crisis places an additional burden and those able to get to the workplace are being placed at increased risk as they cover for colleagues not able to be present due to isolating or shielding.
We also took the opportunity to point out that Staff morale was not helped by the employer reneging on an agreement to award the agreed pay progression in April this year.
• How are staff supported to do their jobs safely (access to PPE, wellbeing, mental health etc.)?
The JSC heard that PPE is a huge challenge for Probation staff. Initial guidance was that it was not needed and it has taken weeks of work to get to a position where basic PPE will be in place where needed. Probation staff in Approved Premises are working in a residential setting and social distancing is not sufficiently protective for them as they are working in the home of the residents rather than a workplace that clients visit. AP staff will not be able to maintain social distancing and are only being given access to basic “starter kits” of PPE. They are told that they can only have further supplies if a resident is symptomatic, and then only by a member of staff driving to a regional hub in a prison which may be hundreds of miles away. We know that people can spread the virus before symptoms are evidence and that some have no symptoms but can transmit the virus. We said that all staff working in a residential setting should have access to PPE and that we also believe that staff working in those contact centres where social distancing cannot be complied with (often due to building layout) or where they believe that a client may not comply with social distancing must have access to PPE.
We also mentioned that In some workplaces soap and hand sanitiser were only available last week with staff having to go from shop to shop to buy supplies for their workplace before that. In many workplaces there are multiple locked doors and gates to get through between public or clients areas and staff areas and often there isn’t the availability of hand hygiene (washing or sanitising) when moving from the public or client spaces to work spaces so staff are deeply concerned about inadvertently transmitting the virus to colleagues.
The JSC also heard that working at home is a unique challenge for many probation staff. Probation staff deal with difficult and challenging behaviour and with information about crimes and behaviour that can be distressing to read and to think and speak about in their home environment. Normally their workplace provides them with the logistical support and protective relationships with colleagues that they need to maintain that distance, but working from home brings all of this into the same realm.
We also summarised some of the examples we have received from members who report that they don’t have the opportunity to work in a separate room from their living space and many don’t have a desk and chair to use. They are forced to allow all of the most challenging aspects of their work into their home and their life away from home which removes important protection for their emotional wellbeing. All this is on top of the anxiety they have about the face to face work that continues with clients and the risk this poses to them and their households.
• Impact on staff of the early release of offenders and how equipped probation is to cope with this;
We said that Napo had long campaigned for the early release of Prisoners so we welcomed the announcement by the Minister. But these are early days and so far it is a mixed picture with low numbers of initial releases, but that we expected this to change over the coming weeks. We said that this will inevitably bring additional workload to Probation staff who, although they won’t officially be supervising these clients who will be on ROTL, will be called on for support and to try to maintain them in the community. Probation staff will be required to make assessments to assist in Prison decisions on ROTL and to make checks on accommodation suitability to support the prison decision making process. This will increase workloads but also lead to tensions between establishing suitable accommodation and the pressure to get people out of prisons as soon as possible.
Finally the Committee asked,
• What you consider to be the biggest challenge for the probation service.
We said that the COVID-19 crisis comes at a time when Probation is trying to rebuild and restabilise following the disasters of Transforming Rehabilitation. Even without the current C-19 emergency, staff have been subject to unmanageable workloads and the failures of a number of CRC Providers had been well documented by the HMIP Probation and other independent commentators.
We added that the reintegration of offender management, due to complete next year, is welcome but the attempt to re-marketise interventions and unpaid work, which Napo consider to be vitally important services in terms of maintaining community safety and assisting service users in their attempts to make a fresh start, was sheer folly.
The current crisis has strengthened our argument that the reform programme should be called in and that in order for all our members to once again provide consistent and high quality supervision for all service users, we needed all Probation work back under public control and ownership.