Probation officers overstretched and under-resourced, says Inspectorate

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The National Probation Service, the organisation that supervises 106,000 high-risk offenders in the community, is hampered by staff shortages, overstretched middle managers and poor facilities.

HM Inspectorate of Probation examined each division of the National Probation Service (NPS) in the year to June 2019, and found chronic problems with staffing and facilities.

HM Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: “Staff across the NPS are committed and hard-working and leadership is good at every level, but high workloads and a poor facilities management service means the NPS is not performing to its full capability.”

In 2014, 35 self-governing probation trusts were replaced by the seven National Probation Service divisions and 21 community rehabilitation trusts. HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) is responsible for NPS recruitment, but since reforms were introduced six years ago, Russell said, “not one of the NPS divisions has been fully staffed. A steady state has never been achieved.”

He added: “At the time of this inspection, there were 615 probation officer vacancies across the NPS. The service is especially short of this crucial grade of staff, who play a vital role in rehabilitating offenders and protecting the public. The problem is especially acute in London and the South East.”

Immediate steps must be taken to improve workloads. Senior probation officers should be freed up to provide oversight and guidance to junior colleagues; probation officers need enough time to manage their caseloads properly and to develop their professional skills” – HM Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell

Inspectors found staff were often overloaded, with 60% having workloads exceeding capacity. Nearly three in ten were given workloads of more than 120% of expected capacity.

Russell said: “Many probation officers have unacceptably high workloads. Staff are under pressure and this could compromise their ability to build effective working relationships with people under supervision and to manage all cases to a consistently high standard.

“NPS probation officers are working with people who have committed serious offences and who require intensive supervision and rehabilitation. We found staff shortages mean some newly-qualified probation officers are allocated complex cases that they do not have the skills and experience to handle competently.”

Inspectors did find “significant areas of positive performance”, including improved services for victims and women under supervision.

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Leadership is good at every level of the NPS, but middle managers are too stretched, said the report. More than two-thirds (68%) of senior probation officer managers said they “seldom” or “never” completed their management tasks each week.

Senior probation officers should be supervising up to 10 staff, but inspectors found more than half managing 11 to 20 members of staff. “They told us they are frequently overwhelmed and do not have enough time to supervise their staff effectively,” added Russell.

Next year, the NPS will assume responsibility for the supervision of all offenders, taking on nearly 150,000 low and medium-risk cases from community rehabilitation companies.

Russell added: “HMPPS has made some progress on staffing issues, but they must pursue this work with a greater sense of urgency.

“Immediate steps must be taken to improve workloads. Senior probation officers should be freed up to provide oversight and guidance to junior colleagues; probation officers need enough time to manage their caseloads properly and to develop their professional skills. Greater investment is needed in ongoing training and development.

“I urge HMPPS to fill vacancies quickly and work to ensure that the probation workforce better reflects the population as a whole. This will help them to get the right workforce in place to ensure a smooth transfer of cases next year.”

The report found lengthy delays in vetting of new starters, resulting in the loss of some successful applicants who have found work elsewhere while waiting for a start date.

Inspectors found a multitude of problems with NPS offices. These include broken locks, faulty CCTV, vermin infestations, and poor plumbing and heating. Some facilities are in such a state of disrepair they cannot be used.

“Probation staff need appropriate facilities to do their job. In particular, it is unacceptable that outstanding repairs at approved premises mean staff have to find alternative accommodation for high-risk offenders because beds cannot be used,” Russell said.

He added that the Ministry of Justice needs to hold to account the outsourced companies responsible for facilities to ensure they deliver the contract as intended. “Probation staff deserve to work in safe and secure environments,” he said.

The Inspectorate has made 24 recommendations to HM Prison and Probation Service and the Ministry of Justice to improve central functions to the NPS.

Lucy Frazer, justice minister, said: “We know that probation is not getting enough of the basics right – that’s why we are bringing all offender management back under the National Probation Service, which the independent inspectorate says is good at protecting the public.

“It is also clear that the workload is simply too high for many probation officers and the 800 new officers currently training to join the NPS will make a real difference. I am reassured that the chief inspector shares my confidence in the vision and leadership of the National Probation Service – which will be essential to delivering these reforms.”

Ian Lawrence, general secretary of probation officer union Napo, said: “This report vindicates what Napo has been saying since the NPS was formed five years ago. It is not sustainable in its current form and as such we have seen an increase in serious further offences, staff burn-out and members reporting a lack of time to complete meaningful work with clients. The report also states that there is no strategic plan for following up on serious further offences, for lessons learnt to be shared with staff. This is wholly unacceptable.”

The union wants a review of the NPS and for it to be taken out of the civil service. Lawrence added: “Probation is a vital service for protecting the public and rehabilitating clients back into society. Since its part privatisation introduced by Chris Grayling, it has been brought to its knees. The government must now listen to the unions and the workforce and restore the service to the award winning status it was before.”

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