Fears Northamptonshire's probation service is 'failing' offenders after death rate triples

A total of 48 people died under the supervision of the probation service that looks after Northamptonshire last year alone.
A total of 48 people died under the supervision of the probation service that looks after Northamptonshire last year alone.

The number of offenders to die while under the supervision of the probation service in charge of Northamptonshire has more than tripled over the past three years.

Research by the BBC Shared Data Unit has found that 48 people in contact with the privatised Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire CRC (BeNCH) died in 2017/18 alone.

That figure is up from just 12 in 2015/16, prompting fears the Government's part-privatisation of probation services in 2014 is failing the convicted criminals it is charged with rehabilitating.

Out of all 21 privately-run probation services in the UK - BeNCH was found to have the highest proportional rise in such deaths. BeNch works with some 3,000 convicted criminals in Northamptonshire with the aim of turning their lives away from crime.

It comes as the partial privatisation of probation has been beset with criticism in recent months. In March, the National Audit Office said the number of people returning to prison for breaching their licence conditions had "skyrocketed".

And the chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, said later in the same month the system was "irredeemably flawed".

Chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Cook, said the rise in deaths highlighted "the continued failure of private probation companies to keep people safe".

She said: "Whereas before we had a successful publicly-run probation service with qualified and trained staff who saw their mission as befriending and turning lives around, we now have a fragmented service with a tick-box culture where some people have not even met face-to-face.”

The arrangements for managing offenders in the UK were overhauled in 2014, when the probation service was split in two.

A new state body, the National Probation Service (NPS), which has eight divisions, was set up to supervise high-risk offenders, with 21 privately run Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) supervising low and medium-risk offenders.

Among those to be set up was BeNCH, which is run by the private firm Sodexo.

Though the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has warned that firm conclusions cannot be drawn from the rise in deaths, BeNCH has come under criticism since being established.

In 2017, the probation watchdog found that the work of the CRC in Northamptonshire alone 'was not good enough'.

"The CRC was not sufficiently focused on public protection," the report said. "Too many cases were assigned to staff without the skills and support."

The figures obtained by the BBC show 12 people under the supervision of BeNCH took their own life in 2017/18 compared to just five in 2015/16.

Tania Bassett, press officer at Napo trade union for the probation staff and probation officers said she was not 'overly surprised' to see such an increase in deaths.

“CRCs are routinely slammed by inspection reports," she said. "Safeguarding is one of the big issues and we’re also seeing a 28 per cent increase in recalls to prison since 2014, including those serving short-term sentences, which indicates something is not working as it should do.

“The probation service is also significantly short-staffed and being part of the civil service means it’s paralysed with bureaucracy and there’s a lack of flexibility in service delivery to meet local needs."

But Emma Osborne, the regional chief executive for the south CRCs at Sodexo, claimed the rise in deaths could be partly explained by the improved capturing of data.

she said: “We work with about 3,000 people in Northamptonshire every year to ensure they follow the sentence they receive in court, help them to turn away from crime and protect the public.

“Many of those we work with lead complex and chaotic lives and probation services cannot solve these problems alone. Our teams work closely with other statutory agencies to secure specialist support and services to help tackle housing, health or substance misuse needs. In many cases our collective efforts are successful.

“The collection of data now is much more accurate than it was historically and agencies including community rehabilitation companies have become much better at capturing data and tracking people through public services, which helps to explain the increase in these figures.

“We will continue to improve our understanding of what lies behind these statistics so we can help those we work with to overcome their individual challenges and turn their lives around.”