Staff shortages a serious concern in public probation
The CRC… has made an excellent start in Kent. It had adopted the relatively straightforward operating model outlined in its owner’s bid for the contract, with little reliance on third sector or other providers, and had implemented it confidently and quickly. We were particularly impressed with this CRC’s commitment to involving individuals fully in planning their own route away from crime. Staff morale was good, with leaders enjoying the confidence of their staff.
That is the overall verdict of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation on the work delivered by the Community Rehabilitation Company in Kent in a report published earlier this month (6 October 2016).
By contrast, inspectors were very concerned at the work being delivered by the National Probation Service in the county:
On National Probation Service (NPS) performance measures, and when compared to other local delivery units, Kent NPS performance is noticeably poor. It is struggling to establish itself, mainly because of chronic staff shortages.
As I keep saying, it’s not my intention to blog on every Probation Inspectorate local Q&I inspection but this is only the fourth area inspection post the probation changes brought in by Transforming Rehabilitation and many people are eager to have an objective view on the quality of work being undertaken.
Interestingly, the findings of this inspection report are the opposite of the first inspection of Durham and the third inspection of Derbyshire which found strongly performing NPS units but serious concerns about the quality of work delivered by their respective CRCs.
The probation inspectorate inspects on a Police/PCC area basis, the CRC inspected in this report covers Kent, Surrey and Sussex and is operated by Seetec.
Findings – National Probation Service
Overall, inspectors were particularly concerned about the state of the NPS in Kent:
NPS performance in Kent was noticeably poor when compared with other NPS areas inspectors have seen. It was struggling to establish itself, mainly because of chronic and unacceptable staff shortages. As a result, not enough was being done to protect the public from the risk of harm. Not all staff were sufficiently alert to or focused on managing those risks.
Although staff at all levels worked hard, there was a vicious circle of low staff numbers, difficulties in attracting experienced probation officers, and an over-reliance on agency and new staff. This meant unrelentingly high workloads, leading to high levels of staff absence and undesirable, unplanned changes in the probation worker allocated to cases. The quality of the work was mixed.
Specific findings included:
- The quality of assessments within the NPS was generally good, although subsequent work was too often insufficiently focused on addressing factors linked to risk of harm issues, and so risks to the public were not sufficiently well managed.
- Nearly half of the responsible officers we interviewed felt that they had not had sufficient training to manage the cases for which they were responsible. Shortages in first-line managers compounded the problem, as responsible officers were not always receiving sufficient guidance or support.
- Feedback from sentencers and court staff indicated that those NPS staff working in courts were held in high regard. There was a problem, however, with the allocation of cases. We found several examples where staff had either not understood the complexities of the allocation procedure, or for some other reason had made errors of judgement.
- Plans to tackle offending were usually sufficient. The delivery of interventions was more problematic; too many cases were being transferred between insufficiently trained temporary or inexperienced staff.
- Assessments and plans drawn up by responsible officers were usually done in consultation with offenders and took account of their diverse needs. In most cases, there were good levels of contact offered and, where problems with compliance arose, these were usually dealt with effectively.
The chart below shows the results of the inspectors’ case assessment; covering both NPS and CRC cases (due to the small numbers involved):
Findings – Community Rehabilitation Company
Inspectors were mainly pleased with the performance of the CRC:
The CRC had adopted a straightforward way of working and had implemented it confidently and quickly. It was committed to involving people fully in planning their own route away from crime, which was impressive. Staff morale was good, with leaders enjoying the confidence of their staff.
They did, though, identify a number of areas for improvement. Specific findings included:
- The assessment of the risk of serious harm individuals posed to others was generally undertaken to an acceptable standard. Some
staff managing cases that had the potential to cause significant harm did not have sufficient experience, training or managerial oversight.
- There had been severe and unacceptable delays in the delivery of some interventions, including the Building Better Relationships programme, designed to tackle domestic abuse.
- Assessments of service users’ needs in relation to their offending behaviour were delivered to an acceptable standard in a high proportion of cases. Planning to address these needs was also sufficient in most cases. The CRC’s performance in reviewing cases, however, was poor.
- The CRC had impressive arrangements to make sure that they listened to the needs of service users, captured their views and took seriously the feedback they received. There was also evidence that in most cases responsible officers had taken the time to engage offenders carefully, to establish what they wanted to achieve from probation, and to deliver interventions in ways that met their diverse individual needs.
- There was still work to be done, however, to better understand and deliver rehabilitation activity requirement days as intended by legislation, a common issue nationally.
- Most significantly, we found very poor performance with regard to the delivery of unpaid work.
Findings – Co-ordination & Co-operation between NPS & CRC
Inspectors found that working relationships between CRC and NPS staff were generally positive. There was good communication between staff, and swift action taken to resolve any difficulties. Practitioners from both organisations worked together to solve problems, for example, in relation to the quality of breach reports.
However, the problems the CRC had delivering unpaid work caused some tensions, as did the ‘fee for service’ arrangements where the CRC delivered interventions for NPS cases.
A mixed picture of probation practice post-Transforming Rehabilitation is emerging. In three out of four areas inspected, there have been serious concerns about performance; in two areas NPS provision was of good quality with CRC service delivery poor although the opposite assessment applies in Kent.
As usual, I like to leave the last word to Glenys Stacey, the Chief Inspector of Probation:
The CRC has made a really good start. Although there are still some areas for improvement, CRC leaders and staff had got on with the job in hand without being unduly deflected by organisational change.
The NPS is in a quite different position, struggling due to chronic and significant staff shortages. This puts unrelenting and unacceptable pressure on local leaders and staff working to protect the public and deliver probation services consistently and to the right standard. With so much at stake, the national NPS and the Ministry of Justice should do everything possible to redress the clear shortfall in staffing in Kent urgently.
For further details and summaries of all the main official reports and inspections relating to Transforming Rehabilitation, please check out my free TR resource pack.