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Probation staff blame complex IT as majority of time lost to administration

Front line staff have little time left to meet offenders, MPs find

Front line probation staff are spending three quarters of their time attempting to hit computer-based and other administrative targets, instead of seeing offenders, according to the catastrophic verdict of a report by the parliamentary Justice Committee.

The report stated that staff are "bogged down" recording information on the OASys system, which some described as complex, as well as drafting reports and holding meetings. The problem existed to the real detriment of staff being able to provide the service they want to offenders and the community.

One probation officer told the Ministry of Justice that a 15 minute meeting with an offender would typically take up to 30 minutes to record on the system.

The committee blamed much of the "box ticking" on the Ministry's National Offender Management Service (Noms), an agency that it said needed a major restructure. Noms was the result of the merger of the prison and probation services in 2008.

The Ministry of Justice recognised that "there is clear evidence that it is the degree of offender engagement and the quality of the relationship that makes a difference with offenders and reduces reoffending", the report noted.

But leaked MoD data from a 2004 survey showed how most of probation officers' time was being spent. Several respondents advocated reducing the use of the OASys system, and to increase professional discretion in order to reduce the burden on probation officers.

OASys is a national system for assessing the risks and needs of an offender, aimed at helping offender management and informing the probation service's sentencing advice to courts.

But in a consultation this year, one probation employee described OASys as "oversold" and "the equivalent of e-servitude, confining staff to endless hours of computer dominated practice".

"I agree that the extensive use of OASys is very time-consuming with little real value as an effective tool," said another. The tool had "added to the length of the reports" and "increased significantly the time it takes to prepare such a report", another said.

The Justice Committee report concluded that it was normal for there to be some administration work, but branded the amount of time it took as "staggering".

The report also criticised the Ministry of Justice for being unable to realise the C-NOMIS project for creating a national offender management system. The system was supposed to provide full tracking of offenders from the courts, through prison, release and probation

The project was abandoned in 2008, and was branded a "shambles" by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee, after costs trebled to £700 million.

In today's report by the Justice Committee, MPs said NOMS should now "identify those systems that work well for individual trusts with a view to adapting a successful system for national use".

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