Public probation out-performing private sector

A new summary report by HMI Probation finds a significant performance gap between the public National Probation Service and private Community Rehabilitation Companies.

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The publication of the probation inspection report of the Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire Community Rehabilitation Company at the end of last month held no surprises – BGSWCRC was one of 19 (out of 21) Community Rehabilitation Companies rated as “requiring improvement”.

However, the document was probably more significant for another reason since it marked the final report in the Inspectorate’s first round of inspections under its new methodology – with the same ranking system applied to both public sector National Probation Service divisions and private sector Community Rehabilitation Companies.

The ranking system is straightforward and rates probation organisations in four categories: outstanding; good; requires improvement or poor.

Today, HMI Probation have published a report summarising the findings of this first round of inspections. Inspectors found a significant performance gap between the public-sector National Probation Service (NPS) and private-sector Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).

Overall, the Inspectorate rated:

  • zero probation services as ‘Outstanding’
  • six probation services as ‘Good’ (five NPS divisions and one CRC)
  • 21 probation services as ‘Requires improvement’ (19 CRCs and two NPS divisions)
  • one probation service as ‘Inadequate’ (one CRC).

Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: 

“This is the first time we have inspected every probation service in England and Wales in a single year and given overall performance ratings.
The flaws in the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation model for funding and organising probation services have been well documented. There has been significant under-investment in services for supervising low and medium-risk offenders, and this report lays bare the legacy of that shortfall. As a result of these failures, CRCs receive less than they need to adequately supervise what is often a highly chaotic and difficult to manage group of offenders.
We found a clear difference in performance between the NPS and CRCs, with five of the seven NPS divisions rated ‘Good’ but only one of the 21 CRCs falling into this category.”

Average caseloads for probation officers in CRCs were far higher than for the NPS, with over two-thirds of probation staff managing more than 50 cases, compared to just one in 20 staff in NPS divisions.

Mr Russell said: 

“Across all inspections, less than half of responsible officers felt they had reasonable workloads. The sheer volume of work can make it difficult for probation staff to maintain high standards and can impair judgement.
High workloads can also contribute to stress and sickness levels. In some organisations, this has led to additional pressures on the remaining workforce as they cover for absent colleagues.”

Inspectors found a particularly large gap between the NPS and CRCs in the quality of work to protect the public from serious harm. Overall scores on this aspect of performance were up to 25 percentage points lower for CRCs than for the NPS.

Community Rehabilitation Companies

Mr Russell said: 

“High workloads may be impacting on the way that risk to the public is being managed. Probation services are not doing enough to identify and manage the potential risks that some individuals pose to others. Poor practice is particularly stark in the private sector. Probation staff in CRCs did not assess risks sufficiently in nearly half (45 per cent) of inspected cases. Public safety was not considered properly when delivering probation activity in six out of 10 cases (59 per cent).
Where CRCs should have conducted a home visit, just a third (32 per cent) were recorded.
We also found frequent lapses in information-sharing with other agencies such as the police and children’s social services. Probation staff are missing out on opportunities to spot and mitigate risks, including to keep children and potential victims safe.”

Mr Russell said: “The government is currently considering the best way to reform probation services. I hope they will re-establish the twin aims of probation on an equal footing – services must protect the public as well as reduce reoffending.”

The National Probation Service

In relation to the NPS, which supervises the highest risk cases, the Inspectorate rated five divisions as ‘Good’ and two divisions ‘Require improvement’. Overall, inspectors found NPS divisions were particularly strong at assessing and planning cases, commissioning services to meet individuals’ needs, and working with agencies to manage the risks of serious harm and to support service users to stop offending. 

But NPS divisions typically scored lower marks in two areas: staffing and facilities. There is a national shortage of qualified probation officers and many divisions have found it difficult to recruit and retain staff. Consequently, every division was rated ‘Requires improvement’ on staffing. The quality of premises also fell below expectations, and did not always provide a safe and secure environment for staff and service users. The Ministry of Justice holds a national contract to maintain facilities, but inspectors found some divisions’ sites required hundreds of repairs. 


Although inspectors found the National Probation Service to be providing a better service than CRCs, the performance of the public sector still left a lot to be desired. As you can see from the chart below, NPS divisions were rated as under-performing in more than 30% (22/70) of the the individual standards against which they were rated. In addition to concerns about staffing, many inspection reports commented on the insufficient attention being paid to promoting desistance. 

We must hope that the re-design of probation helps improve performance across all parts of the probation service.

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