National Probation Service faces workload crisis

Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell urges action on National Probation Service staffing, workloads and facilities

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The National Probation Service is hampered by staff shortages, stretched middle managers and poor facilities, according to today’s report by HM Inspectorate of Probation.

HMIP inspected all seven divisions of the NPS between July 2018 and June 2019, and found recurring problems with staffing and facilities. The Chief Inspector of Probation decided to conduct an extra inspection into HM Prison and Probation Service’s provision of central functions to NPS divisions. 

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.  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. HM Prison and Probation Service has overall responsibility for NPS recruitment across England and Wales. Since probation reforms were introduced in 2014, not one of the NPS divisions has been fully staffed. A steady state has never been achieved.”

The NPS is responsible for supervising nearly 106,000 high-risk offenders, and violent and sexual offenders subject to Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA).

Inspectors found staff who are in post are often overloaded. Sixty per cent of NPS staff have workloads that exceed their expected capacity. Nearly three in ten have been allocated workloads of more than 120 per cent of expected capacity.

Victim liaison officers, who work with victims of serious and sexual crimes, have an average of 215 cases on their books.

Mr 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. 

Good leadership

Leadership is good at every level of the NPS, but middle managers are too stretched. More than two-thirds (68 per cent) of Senior Probation Officer managers said they ‘seldom’ or ‘never’ complete their management tasks each week. Nearly half (47 per cent) put in more than five extra hours per week.

Mr Russell said:

“Senior probation officers should be supervising up to 10 staff. In practice, we found half of middle managers are supervising 11 to 20 members of staff, and often have extra corporate responsibilities. They told us they are frequently overwhelmed and do not have enough time to supervise their staff effectively.”

In May 2019, the government announced that the NPS will take over the supervision of all offenders from 2021, taking on nearly 150,000 low and medium-risk cases from Community Rehabilitation Companies.

Mr 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.”

HMPPS

The Inspectorate found HMPPS headquarters missed several opportunities to improve the quality of the NPS’s work. HMPPS has a role in ensuring probation staff learn from serious further offence reviews and complaints. The organisation also collects data about offenders and offences to inform the commissioning of offending behaviour programmes.

Mr Russell said:

“These centralised functions are not performing as they should, and this is preventing NPS divisions from doing their best work.
HMPPS does not have a written strategy that sets out how lessons from serious further offence reviews and complaints will be shared.
HMPPS should be stepping up to fulfil this role. There should be a comprehensive plan to ensure lessons from serious further offence reviews are captured and shared as quickly as possible. This will help probation professionals to improve their practice and avoid repeating past mistakes.
Local NPS divisions are not making use of the services that have been commissioned from CRCs. HMPPS should do more to help NPS divisions understand the types of offenders and offences in their region, so they can commission the most appropriate services to meet local needs.”

Over the past year, inspectors have 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 that they cannot be used. 

The Inspectorate rated the quality of NPS facilities as ‘Requires improvement’ in six out of the seven NPS divisions.

Mr Russell said:

“NPS staff have told us repeatedly that facilities are not managed properly. Repairs are not fixed quickly and there are difficulties with escalating jobs.
We looked more closely at the issue in this inspection. The management of NPS facilities is contracted out to four private sector firms, with a fifth company acting as the managing agent.
The target is for jobs to be fixed within 10 working days. For the first six months of 2019, less than half (43 per cent) of jobs were completed in this timescale. Although this is an improvement on the previous year, it is still not good enough.
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.
The Ministry of Justice needs to hold these companies to account to ensure they deliver the contract as intended. Probation staff deserve to work in safe and secure environments.”

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

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