The speed at which the Ministry of Justice renationalised outsourced probation services “caused unnecessary pressure" on staff, a think tank has said.
The reunification of probation services in England and Wales between 2019 and 2021 was “mostly successful in bringing together many different component parts” but with “bumps in the road the MoJ should have foreseen”, the Institute for Government said.
But the IfG’s latest report warns that “swift action” is needed to improve probation services or the latest transformation “risks being added to the long list of unsuccessful historical restructures”.
The merger was the fourth major restructuring of probation services in 20 years. It reversed then-justice secretary Chris Grayling’s failed 2014 Transforming Rehabilitation plan, which saw parts of the probation service privatised into community rehabilitation companies (CRCs).
The MoJ set out its finalised plans for the reunification in June 2020, with a target for all services to be fully returned to the MoJ within a year. It successfully met this deadline on 26 June 2021, transferring 7,000 CRC staff to HM Prison and Probation Service.
This was an “impressive” achievement – particularly given that, according to the report, an MoJ non-executive director privately gave the timetable a 3% chance of success – but the transition should have been extended by up to six months, the IfG said.
One of the key problems was that IT systems were not ready when CRC staff transferred to the MoJ, which meant they had to keep their existing cases until the new system was developed to accept them. They joined the HMPPS system by December 2021.
These IT delays “led to unnecessary pressure on some staff,” the IfG said.
More than half of probation staff said they had been dissatisfied with high caseloads at the time of the merger and the guidance they were offered on how to manage this, a September 2021 survey by HM Inspectorate of Probation found.
The “aggressive” timetable also meant CRC staff were not given enough time for a proper induction, the IfG report added.
Existing caseload pressures were exacerbated by staff shortages, with CRCs freezing recruitment for up to three months prior to unification to minimise the costs of hiring and then moving additional staff over to the MoJ, the IfG said.
“While understandable, this led to critical gaps in the workforce,” the report said.
Despite the workload issues, probation staff who answered the survey said the transition had mostly been well managed.
Staffing issues remain
The IfG report highlighted how short staffed the National Probation Service – which continued to manage high-risk cases after the management of medium and low-risk offenders was outsourced to CRCs – has been in the last few years and how there is still much to do to get the workforce up to the right capacity.
There were more than a thousand vacancies in the new Probation Service at the end of March. The MoJ, having already recruited 2,500 trainee probation officers in the last two years, is looking to hire 1,500 extra staff by March 2023.
While the IfG said this should mean the Probation Service is fully staffed by next spring, it added that officers leaving and increased demand for probation services will mean more investment is needed. The government’s planned 91,000 job cuts – although it is not clear if the next prime minister will stick with this figure – will also make recruitment more difficult, the IfG added.
As well as easing pressure on staff, the think tank said an extended delayed timetable could have enabled a broader range of services to be available from the start and may have allowed the MoJ to retain some of the benefits of CRCs, such as better case management systems.
On the other hand, the report accepted that delaying the transition would have kept the poor-performing CRCs in place for longer. Officials had advised ministers at the time the deadline was set that delaying the merger would “prolong the agony” of poor CRC performance.
The report also made clear how the success of the merger is the only start of improving the service's performance. While the probation reform programme that reunified the service will be formally wound up at the end of 2022, work to improve the performance of probation services will be a lengthy journey, the IfG said.
Probation services in Birmingham and Solihull have been rated inadequate and services in Warwickshire require improvement, in the probation inspector’s latest reviews.
The NAO has warned previously that there are "no magic bullets" to improve the service's performance.
It said in June last year: "Structural change needs to be backed by sustained investment for there to be true improvement. Real transformation is a long-term commitment, and unification is just the beginning of that journey."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “As this report recognises, we successfully unified the Probation Service to deliver better and more consistent supervision against a challenging backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The extra £155m we are now investing in the service every year has allowed us to recruit thousands more staff and encourage further innovation to robustly manage offenders in the community and cut crime.”