Probation officers dealing with some of the country's most high-risk criminals are working with major "staff shortages, stretched middle managers and poor facilities", ministers have been warned.
HM Inspectorate of Probation said staff at the National Probation Service – the Ministry of Justice-linked service that oversees 106,000 high-risk offenders, including those convicted of violent and sexual crimes – were facing "unreasonably high" workloads as the Government struggles to recruit enough people for the job.
The NPS was set up in 2015 under a split in the probation system which saw it work to rehabilitate high-risk offenders while new, privately-run Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) were set up to manage the rest.
However, the MoJ announced that the reform would be reversed after poor performance of the CRCs led the-then chief inspector of probation Dame Glenys Stacey to conclude that the changes were “irredeemably flawed”.
In the latest report, Stacey’s successor Justin Russell said the publicly-run NPS had provided a better service than their CRC equivalents", and praised its leadership and the "range and quality of services" offered.
But the watchdog said there was now a "critical shortage of probation officers" as it warned that those taking on the job faced "a lack of investment" in their training - with London particularly hard-hit.
"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,” he said.
"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."
The report found that 60% of NPS staff had workloads "that exceed their expected capacity", while nearly three in ten had work piling up that was "more than 120% of expected capacity".
The inspectorate has urged ministers to do more to recruit "sufficiently skilled" staff and ensure they have a "manageable" workload once on the job.
"Many probation officers have unacceptably high workloads,” Russell said. “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."
Responding to the report, justice minister Lucy Frazer 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."