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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

South-East and Eastern public probation under-performing

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Staff shortages lead to probation Inspectors rating South-East and Eastern NPS division as requiring improvement.

Staff shortages and high caseloads

The South-East & Eastern division of the National Probation Service has been officially ranked as requiring improvement in today’s HMI Probation report.

HM Inspectorate of Probation conducted a routine inspection of the National Probation Service (NPS) South East and Eastern Division, which supervises more than 16,000 individuals. Inspectors looked at 10 aspects of the division’s work, rating half of them as ‘Good’ and half as ‘Requires improvement’. It has given this Division an overall rating of ‘Requires improvement’.

Chief Inspector’s verdict

Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said:

The South East and Eastern Division has some clear strengths especially around leadership, but also shows shortfalls in key areas, in particular high workloads and significant staff shortages.
Recruiting and retaining probation officers is a long-standing problem, and is exacerbated by the division’s proximity to London. There were 102 vacancies for probation officers at the time of our inspection, which represents a 16 per cent gap in expected staffing levels.
On average, probation officers were managing more than 42 cases – the highest of any NPS division we have inspected. More than half of the staff we interviewed said they felt their workload was unmanageable. Unsurprisingly, these pressures are having an adverse impact on the division’s ability to deliver a high-quality service.
The Ministry of Justice must make the recruitment of more probation officers a priority for this division.

Inspectors found the leadership team had fostered a supportive culture and had taken steps to improve staff wellbeing and resilience. Despite high workloads, staff morale is high.

Inspectors concluded more could be done to identify and manage risks. In one case they looked at, for example, a person under probation supervision breached a restraining order. Despite a history of domestic abuse, staff did not conduct checks with the police and children’s social services. The individual went on to breach a further restraining order against the same victim.

Changes to circumstances – such as reports of illegal drug use or a change in living arrangements – should trigger a review but this did not happen in more than a third (37 per cent) of inspected cases. In the reviews that did take place, only half (54 per cent) focussed sufficiently on keeping people safe.

The division’s work to inform sentencing decisions was found to be insufficient in key areas. Staff relied too much on the individual’s explanation of their offence, rather than corroborating facts with other sources. Nearly half (49 per cent) of inspected reports did not include full information about the potential risk of harm posed by the individual. Factors that were not assessed included mental health, alcohol use and the safeguarding of children.

Commitment to offender health

Inspectors found the division performed well in other areas. They commended the division’s commitment to offenders’ health and cited an innovative approach to working with individuals who have complex mental health issues. The assessment and planning of cases, and statutory work with victims, were all rated ‘Good’.

 However, as with other NPS divisions, the quality of some premises fell below expectations.

Mr Russell said:

The Ministry of Justice is responsible for managing NPS facilities and we have found ongoing national problems with this contract. In this division, delays in fixing repairs have resulted in fewer beds for individuals who have been released from prison. Staff have been left with personal alarms that do not work properly and in offices without heating systems for long periods of time.
Managers are trying hard to log and escalate repairs, but the Ministry of Justice must take more responsibility for ensuring safe and secure premises for staff and service users.

The Inspectorate has made ten recommendations to improve the quality of the Division’s work. I summarise the findings of the inspection in more detail below.

Key findings

Inspectors organised their key findings under three main headings: organisational delivery; case supervision and NPS-specific (court reports/case allocation and statutory victim work).

Organisational delivery

Inspectors’ main findings on this domain were: 

  • the delivery of quality services is a strategic focus and this is communicated effectively to staff, with three-quarters of those we interviewed recognising this focus.
  • the division has effective staff wellbeing policies that encourage staff engagement and help to maintain staff resilience.
  • information on performance and quality is communicated effectively; the comprehensive profile of service users informs service provision.
  • workloads, particularly for senior probation officers and responsible officers, are too high and are the highest of any of the seven NPS divisions; 16 per cent of probation officer posts are vacant – a shortfall of 102 probation
    officers.
  • there are unacceptable delays in repairs to offices and premises, which adversely affects staff, service users and the division’s capacity to manage individuals assessed as presenting a high-risk of serious harm.

Case supervision

Here, inspectors findings were mixed:
  • assessments demonstrated positive professional relationships and good analysis of strengths and protective factors. In 73 per cent of cases, factors related to risk of serious harm were analysed sufficiently.
  • service users engaged with supervision, but personal strengths and protective factors were not considered in over a third of sentence plans. In 69 per cent of cases where it was deemed necessary by inspectors, staff used information from key agencies, such as children’s social care, to inform planning to manage the risk of serious harm. In the remaining cases, information from other agencies was not sufficiently included in sentence planning.
  • the management of cases did not routinely identify the risks to victims or potential victims. Necessary actions to manage the risk of serious harm were taken inconsistently.
  • reviews did not consistently include information from partner agencies and, where necessary, result in changes to the sentence plan. In over a third of cases, a review was not initiated following a significant change in risk factors.

Court reports and case allocation

  • The quality of court reports was sufficient to support the court’s decision-making in just over half of the cases inspected. Staff did not sufficiently analyse the risk of serious harm or consider victims and potential victims. For
    example, domestic abuse enquiries were not made for 68 per cent of reports where inspectors considered it necessary. Child protection enquiries were undertaken in only half of the reports where inspectors deemed it was
    required.
  • allocation following the sentence was prompt, but insufficient information was made available to the organisations managing the cases.

Statutory victim work

  • Victims receive a personalised service and are encouraged to engage with the victim contact service. Appropriate and timely information is communicated. Victims’ concerns and views are considered at key points in the sentence.

Conclusion

The Probation Inspectorate works on a four-band rating system: excellent, good, requires improvement and poor. This is the 26th  inspection under the new rating system, and the seventh of a NPS division. The South-East and Eastern NPS division is the second NPS area to be rated as “requiring improvement” (the other five were all rated “good”).

As has been the case in some other NPS divisions, the quality of assessment and planning case supervision was rated  good, but actual implementation and reviewing work was judged to need improvement.

Importantly, inspectors rate local leadership as “good” but express concerns about the ability of the MoJ to recruit sufficient staff and manage premises to a high enough standard. Given the Department’s recent decision to return all offender management responsibilities to the NPS, the MoJ will urgently need to step up the recruitment of qualified staff.

As you can see, SEENPS slots in at joint 7th place in my unofficial probation league table below.

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