22nd February 2023

By Dr Jamie Buchan, Edinburgh Napier University

If you follow Scottish politics, you might have seen news recently about the Scottish Government’s proposal for a new ‘National Care Service’ (NCS) – a response to the recommendations of the Feeley Review into social care. The name recalls the radically humane promise of the NHS, though the proposed Scottish NCS is essentially an administrative structure which seeks to improve consistency and efficiency rather than provide social care free at point of use. There are concerns about the costs and disruption of the proposal; the National Care Service Bill is light on detail, with the Government seemingly planning to work out the policy detail in secondary legislation rather than in Parliament. It seems likely that debates over the NCS will become another source of conflict between local and central government.

A less discussed aspect of the proposals has been the possibility that the new service could also include Justice Social Work (JSW). JSW (sometimes ‘Criminal Justice Social Work’) is Scotland’s equivalent of probation services, with responsibility for supervising people on community sentences. Recognising that offending often has causes in wider social problems, Scotland uses local authority social work, not a criminal justice agency, to perform this work. JSW works in partnership with other public services and charities, to support people desisting from crime and address often complex needs. So, what would integration with the National Care Service actually mean?

If it happens, this integration will only be the latest in a series of organisational reforms to JSW since the 1980s – each of them a compromise between central and local government interests. The most recent, the focus of my PhD, was as recently as 2017, when the previous system of regional Community Justice Authorities was replaced with the present two-tier arrangement of local partnerships accompanied by the national body, Community Justice Scotland. There has still not really been enough time to evaluate these reforms, particularly given the impacts of Covid-19 on our justice system. (My colleague Katrina Morrison has a very useful chapter summarising the earlier reforms.)

The Scottish Government has provided no detail on how JSW could fit into the NCS. It may – as in previous restructurings – be an administrative restructuring, with ‘on the ground’ JSW practice staying local. Alternatively, it may seek to make JSW itself part of a national service. Either of these would be controversial among local government and social workers.

In the Government’s consultation, 62% of respondents agreed with integrating JSW (though they would likely disagree about how). The evidence supports keeping JSW with other social work roles; if these are to be merged, it makes sense to bring JSW with them. There is also a welcome emphasis on local delivery.

The Feeley Review did not actually consider JSW directly, but at one point refers back to the integration of health and social care, and how its creation of local Integration Joint Boards combined with the 2016 justice reforms. Local authorities chose whether or not to integrate these boards with the new local community justice partners:

“We heard evidence that those Integration Joint Boards, which have gone beyond the statutory delegation minimum of all adult social care, and that have all children’s services and criminal justice social work also delegated, have performed well in relation to these services.” (p43)

This seems like very thin evidence on which to base a major reorganisation. The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee agrees, but the main issue is that with so little detail in the proposal, it is impossible to scrutinise.

Justice Social Work matters. We have only to look south to see the impacts of dramatic, hasty and under-evidenced reorganisation on services which supervise offenders in the community. Any further JSW reorganisation must be carefully planned and properly evidenced.

Aside from organisational questions, there is a bigger issue. In all the discussion of ‘effectiveness’ and ‘what works’ in policy, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of why we do policy. There may be good reasons to reorganise the system (again!), though any gains in efficiency will need to be a great deal better-evidenced and weighed against the inevitable costs and disruption associated with structural reorganisation of a public service. However, I note with concern that the NCS consultation, even at this early stage, elides those ‘organisational’ goals with a different aim:

“Scotland has one of the highest per capita prison populations in Western Europe and ensuring consistency of JSW services across Scotland is a challenge. Better coordination, a set of minimum standards, and the appropriate resources would make community justice services more consistent across the country and would improvement [sic] outcomes for individuals, families, and communities.”

The assumption here is that reorganising JSW will improve it, so Sheriffs have more confidence in it, so they will impose community sentences instead of prison sentences. If this were the case, one might hope that any of the previous reorganisations might have done more to bring it about – particularly since the first of them, in the early 1990s, gave us a detailed “set of minimum standards” still in use, in modified form, in JSW today. As Fergus McNeill and I have argued in a recent paper (open access), the Scottish Government has used organisational changes to JSW as ‘performatively progressive’ penal policy – which allows them to be seen to do something about imprisonment, while avoiding the harder policy conversations that might address the drivers of imprisonment head-on.

The National Care Service is sure to be controversial, with extensive debate about how it should work. In highlighting the potential impacts of integrating JSW into the proposed service, I hope to draw attention to the importance of larger questions about punishment and justice. The lack of detail in the proposal is problematic, but it may also produce yet another missed opportunity to tackle the problem of imprisonment.


Jamie Buchan is a Lecturer in Criminology at Edinburgh Napier University. He researches Scottish criminal justice policy particularly as it relates to community penalties, restorative justice and partnership working.

Photo Credit: All c/o UnSplash

Punishment, Citizenship and Communities