Race issues sidelined since probation service shake-up, says watchdog

Racist offenders get unexpectedly assigned to BAME staff and racial slurs dismissed as ‘banter’, hear inspectors

Perpetrators of racist crimes are being allocated to black, Asian and minority ethnic probation officers without warning, inspectors have said, as they warned that issues of race had been sidelined in the sector.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP) found that the service’s focus on racial equality had declined since disastrous privatisation changes were introduced in 2014 by the then justice secretary, Chris Grayling.

This lack of interest in race issues applies to both BAME offenders being managed by the probation service, and staff who are from BAME backgrounds, the report said.

Inspectors heard distressing stories of inappropriate behaviour by white staff towards minority ethnic staff including instances of stereotyping, racist and sexualised language, and false allegations. In one shocking case a probation officer was propositioned by a white male colleague because “he had not had sex with a black woman before”.

The chief inspector, Justin Russell, said the inquiry discovered that minority ethnic staff were not always consulted or supported when assigned work with individuals who had committed race-related offences.

“Proper care and attention hadn’t been taken in the allocation of cases that had a hate crime or a racial motivation aspect,” he said.

“They would be allocated these cases … it wouldn’t be until they started the supervision that [they discovered that] the person had been convicted for a crime where harm had been done to an ethnic-minority individual.”

He added: “There was a significant percentage of ethnic minority staff who reported those instances. There were deficits in the organisation in the impact of these types of offences.”

HMIP heard that complaints of racist language were instead found to be swearing; racial slurs were characterised as just banter. Several BAME staff members said they did not feel it was safe to raise issues of racial discrimination and serious complaints had been “repeatedly downplayed, ignored or dismissed”.

The report said there were “systemic” issues within the service, but Russell fell short of branding it “institutionally” racist.

With offenders, the inspectors found that little interest was taken in how race, ethnicity or experiences of discrimination had affected their lives.

“Probation officers need to find out as much as possible about individuals to support their rehabilitation. How can you help someone if you don’t know what their life is like?” Russell said.

Inspectors found that the decline in focus on race issues within probation can be traced back to the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms spearheaded by Grayling, which are set to be reversed this year.

Under Grayling’s widely derided shake-up, the probation sector was separated between a public sector organisation – the National Probation Service (NPS), managing high-risk criminals – and 21 private companies responsible for the supervision of 150,000 low- to medium-risk offenders.

Long-serving staff told inspectors that before the reforms, issues of equality and diversity – race equality in particular – had been given a higher profile, and since then specific resources have been lost.

Effective commissioning of rehabilitative services for black, Asian and minority ethnic service users proved problematic under the reforms, and some valued services that existed previously were lost, the report added.

In an unusual move, Russell announced his intention to reinspect this work again in two years.

More than 222,000 people are supervised by probation services across England and Wales; approximately a fifth are from BAME backgrounds. About 14% of National Probation Service staff are from a BAME background.

The director general for probation, Amy Rees, said: “This is a difficult report to read as our staff take pride in helping offenders turn their lives around. Clearly, that support needs to be better tailored for the Black, Asian and ethnic minority offenders we work with.

“We are working hard to diversify our workforce so that we have greater collective understanding for the particular challenges faced by ethnic minority offenders, and I want to reassure probation staff that we are listening and acting on their concerns.”

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