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Staff Blog: NOMS - Changing names is not enough

For the last 13 years or so, the acronym ‘NOMS’ has meant very little to most prisoners and their representatives. They would probably recognise it as the faceless agency whose logo appears on letterheads or within email addresses. Many might struggle to identify what the initials stand for (answer - National Offender Management Service) or what it actually does.

Yesterday the Secretary of State for Justice announced that NOMS would be abolished in April and would be replaced by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).

According to the ‘What We Do’ section on their soon-to-be-disbanded website, NOMS:

  • make sure people serve the sentences and orders handed out by courts, both in prisons and in the community.

  • are accountable for how prisons are run in England and Wales and manage public sector prisons in England and Wales (through HM Prisons Service).

  • oversee probation delivery in England and Wales through the National Probation Service and community rehabilitation companies.

  • are responsible for the running of prison and probation services and rehabilitation services for prisoners leaving prison,

  • make sure support is available to stop people offending again

  • contract manage private sector prisons and services such as the Prisoner Escort Service and electronic tagging

It is instructive to look at what exactly NOMS has presided over.

Lord Carter, whose 2003 review prompted its creation, emphasised the need for end to end management. It was his view that there was no consistency of supervision throughout a person’s sentence. His recommendation of a joined-up management service made complete sense but many would view the reality as having been a complete failure.

The prison end of this management revolution has seen massive population growth, record suicide levels and widespread disturbances and riots.

The Probation end has seen a chaotic part-privatisation, prisoners having no meaningful relationship with a succession of different Offender Managers and Offender Supervisors and recalls to prison increase by an eye watering 4300%.

A substantial amount of the work of prison lawyers revolves around trying to undo or mitigate the harm done by this.

The Carter Review spoke of credible and rigorous sentences, both bywords for a tough on crime approach.

The astronomical recall rates do not bear any meaningful link to this aim. The commission of crime is often not the reason for recall. The reasons are very often trivial but recall take far too long to unravel and create significant resource problems. So what has NOMS ever done for us?

Should the Pythons wish to revive their sketch choosing NOMS, rather than the Romans as their subject material, it would be a lot shorter, and desperately unfunny.

Behind the scenes, those at Petty France would no doubt argue that NOMS made decisions which have had a profound effect on the way offenders are managed.

One thing prisoners will have noticed since the arrival of NOMS is that they have become labelled as offenders and their ‘Probation Officers’ have become labelled as Offender Managers.

The Offender Supervisor has been a new innovation under the NOMS regime; it can refer to a qualified Probation Officer located within prisons but can also be a prison officer with some in-house training.

Most Parole Board Members would confirm that the evidence given by offender supervisors is often of dubious quality. They will also have noticed that Offender Managers have often not met the prisoners about whom they are writing crucial reports.

The holy grail of seamless management between prison and the community is no nearer than it was 13 years ago. Responsibility for this must at least in part fall at the feet of NOMS.

However the succession of Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries who have made decisions (or have failed to make decisions) which have created the world in which NOMS has had to operate cannot absolve themselves of blame by directing it at NOMS.

Policy and funding decisions have been made which have had a disastrous impact on the Prison and Probation Service. The main fall-guy for this should have been the current Secretary of State for Transport.

For the purposes of litigation, it is the person or organisation at the top who is liable for unlawful decisions. It is the Secretary of State for Justice (or occasionally the Governor of a prison or the National Probation Service) who is legally accountable for wrongdoing. Judicial review claims or civil actions are not brought against NOMS nor will be they be brought against HMPPS is the future.

Accountability for policy-making and decisions is crucial. Management is important but so is the direction from above, including the language which is used.

The announcement of the new HMPPS was dominated by the language of security, extremism and gangs. There is no mention of compassion, dignity or the goal of safe population reduction.

Lord Carter’s better known fellow prison reformer, Lord Woolf, wrote the foreword to a paper in 2014 written by six of the country’s leading experts on prisons. The paper’s title is self explanatory: A Presumption against Imprisonment.

Measures introduced by successive Justice Secretaries reveal an ideological unwillingness to embrace that presumption and the prison system will continue to pay the price for that, no matter what the management service is called.

The announcement reveals problems beyond language.

Our own Lisa Burton, herself a former prison officer, recalls NOMS’ predecessor announcing a new leadership programme, an idea which has been recycled for the formation of HMPPS. The uptake was, to paraphrase her, very poor. The officers who did apply would simply copy each others’ portfolios to pass. Assessors were from a remote head office with no idea what it was like to work on a wing.

The new leadership programme which is trailed in the announcement could easily be plagued by the same troubles as its similar predecessor.

The old ‘new’ leadership programme enabled graduates to join and become governors within months. It was unpopular with experienced officers who had spent 10-20 years in the prison and resented being bossed around by graduates who had only done a short period as an officer before moving up the ranks. There have been several governors that came through on this scheme and were not able to command respect from staff of prisoners.

‘Enhanced qualifications’ for probation officers are promised with the advent of the new HMPPS. What does this mean?

Does it mean that Offender Supervisors in prisons (probably be renamed as something similar to ‘Seconded Probation Officers’) will receive far more extensive training? Probation officers in the community already complete a degree. Is that to be replaced by a new, improved degree?

The announcement promises higher pay and recognition for specialist skilled officers dealing with complex issues such as counter-terrorism, suicide and self-harm support. A version of this is already in place, negotiators get higher rates when on call as do staff dealing with constant watches for suicide risks.

Most specialisms actually already get more money. If this is really to be enhanced so that more highly skilled staff doing very difficult jobs are properly remunerated then that is to be welcomed.

The one genuinely new and long overdue announcement is for a Board Director with specific responsibility for women across the whole system. This is likely to go down badly with the likes of Phillip Davies MP but most will welcome the appointment of someone who is able to understand the different needs of women within the criminal justice and penal systems and to plan accordingly.

Ten years have been squandered since the Corston Report made many sensible recommendations about the reconfiguration of the female prison estate. Reform has been conducted at a snail’s pace and the new Board Director will need to rectify this quickly.

There is no announcement of a Board Director with specific responsibility for people with mental health problems and learning disabilities across the whole system. This is a serious omission and a missed opportunity.

The one thing people will look for from HMPPS is real change from the failed years of NOMS. The first signs are ominous.

The announcement trumpeting the arrival of HMPPS included a quote from the HMPPS Chief Executive, Michael Spurr. This is the same Michael Spurr who is currently the NOMS Chief Executive. He appears to be a decent-enough chap but what kind of sign does it send out that a brand new organisation has exactly the same leader as the one it is replacing?

In the words of The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again - “ the new boss – same as the old boss…”

Names matter a little bit. What organisations do matters far more. Putting lipstick on a pig does not disguise the fact that it is still a pig.

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