The probation watchdog has called for an independent review of the “struggling” Probation Service to determine whether it should be brought back under local control – two years after major reforms to renationalise private services.
In his last annual report, the outgoing chief inspector of probation said “chronic staffing shortages” and reforms had left probation services stretched, constrained, and playing “second fiddle” to prison.
The report will be Justin Russell’s last as chief inspector before he steps down later this year. He has used it to hammer home the message that change is needed – describing 2022-23 as a “disappointing year on which to finish my term of office”.
He said his prediction that a major overhaul of probation two years ago would not be a “silver bullet” had been proven right. The reforms reversed much of the Transforming Rehabilitation programme – which began in 2012 – bringing services that had been delivered by private Community Rehabilitation Companies back under public control.
His report painted a picture of stretched services delivered by burnt-out staff with “unmanageable” workloads, which has led to gaps in services and difficulty retaining experienced probation officers.
He said the “flawed payment-by-results” system had led many CRCs to cut qualified probation officers and scale back investment elsewhere, pushing individual caseloads up to unsustainable levels in some areas.
He said the absorption of CRCs in 2021 had revealed the extent of staffing shortfalls, which had not been known as the private companies had not previously published their staff numbers.
“Ambitious recruitment targets” and an extra £155m a year added to the service’s budget has pushed up staffing levels. However, the inspector noted that “an influx of inexperienced new staff all needing to be trained and mentored has created its own problems”.
The number of probation officers with up to two years of service climbed by 46% in the 12 months to 31 March, but the number with five or more years’ service fell. In that same year, 2,098 staff left the Probation Service – up 10% on the year before. Of the 359 probation officers who left, two-thirds had five years’ experience or more.
The onset of the Covid pandemic exacerbated existing problems, with remote work and training making it “difficult to access the practical support and advice that comes with sharing an office with more experienced colleagues”.
But Russell stressed that not all of the problems could be attributed to historic reforms or the pandemic. Despite being a welcome change, and handled quickly, the reunification of public and private services “wasn’t without its downsides”, he said.
Some “positive innovations and progress that the better CRC providers had been starting to make” were disrupted or abandoned in the transition. These included Through the Gate resettlement services, introduced under Transforming Rehabilitation, which provided support to people leaving prison in areas such as finding accommodation; finance, benefits and debt; and entering education, training or employment.
While all 12 CRCs the inspectorate visited in its final round of pre-unification inspections found Through the Gate services to be good or outstanding, the latest round of reforms “brought an abrupt end to these partnerships in favour of a new set of centrally commissioned service contracts”, Russell said.
The replacement framework – known as Offender Management in Custody – has “performed poorly, and we found that it is not understood well by staff and prisoners”, he said.
Russell also suggested last year’s reorganisation of HM Prison and Probation Service had had a negative impact on services. The “‘One HMPPS’” approach abolished the director general of probation role – which Russell had welcomed as “giving the service strong and visible leadership” when it was created in 2019 – and added new area executive-director posts between regional probation directors and national HMPPS leadership.
The inspector said he was concerned by the removal of the dedicated probation DG because he had observed that “the day-to-day operational and political demands of the prison service can all too easily distract from the probation service and its particular (and very different) needs”.
He added that the shakeup may have felt to regional leaders like “a downgrading of their status and influence”.
“I know that strong concerns have been raised about these changes and it’s important that the voice and interests of the Probation Service continue to get the leadership attention they so desperately need,” Russell wrote.
“Many in the service hark back to the days (not that long ago), when probation was a genuinely local service – locally accountable rather than run from Whitehall, focused on local partnerships and able to act autonomously within them,” he added.
“Given our results from the past year, and after speaking to probation leaders and managers around England and Wales, I have to say I have increasing sympathy with this view.”
This line of reasoning underpins the inspector’s call for an independent review of whether the Probation Service should return to local control.
“Probation is, and always has been, a locally delivered service, working with local partners like the police, children’s services, and NHS trusts,” he said in comments accompanying the report.
“To make the most of those partnerships, local probation leaders need freedom and flexibility to commit resources and staff to match circumstances and to be able to speak publicly to both defend and advocate for their services. Currently, they often feel heavily constrained and that they play second fiddle to the priorities of the prison service to which they are tied in the new One HMPPS structure.”
Russell underlined his argument by pointing to the “highly successful” examples of local, multi-agency youth justice services – 70% of which the inspectorate rated as good or outstanding last year.
He acknowledged such changes would entail another reorganisation of probation services, and noted that “any shift in this direction would have to be with the explicit agreement of local managers and staff themselves”.
However, he said “the time has come for an independent review of whether probation should move back to a more local form of governance and control”.
A government spokesperson said: “We have made major progress in addressing the concerns raised in this report with the most recent data showing improved performance in key areas such as the proportions of ex-offenders in settled accommodation and attending specialist programmes to change their behaviour.
“This is thanks to our investment of £155m per year, allowing the Probation Service to recruit more than 1,000 additional frontline staff in the last year to deliver tougher supervision and keep the public safe.
“The unified Probation Service is delivering greater consistency in supervision and we are already giving local leaders greater decision-making powers to better address the unique issues in their area.”