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Big challenges remain for unified probation service
Probation inspectors find that some former CRC staff feel like second-class citizens in newly unified probation service.

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Practical and cultural changes

HM Inspectorate of Probation has today (2 March 2022) published its annual report: inspections of probation services 2021. The report includes a survey of 1,534 (one in ten) Probation Service staff, who were asked about their experiences since the unification of the National Probation Service (NPS) and Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) in June 2021.

Whilst HMIP’s thematic inspection of preparations for unification show that this programme was managed well, the survey findings show practical and cultural challenges for the newly-unified service, with some former CRC staff stating they felt like second-class citizens’ to their NPS colleagues following the transition: 

  • Over half (55 per cent) of probation staff were dissatisfied with the guidance received about how to manage work at the point of unification.
  • About half (51 per cent) found their workload ‘not so manageable’ and only just over half said that they had sufficient access to services for the cases they supervised.

Just over half (52 per cent) had not made a final judgement on whether unification had made probation services better or worse. Only 12 per cent of the probation staff who completed the survey were yet prepared to say that unification had improved delivery.

The report also looks at the continuing impact of the pandemic and contains an in-depth analysis of how services are addressing serious risk of harm.

Unification not a magic bullet

In his overview, Chief Inspector Justin Russell makes it clear that merely transferring thousands of staff and tens of thousands of cases from private sector providers into the Civil Service would not deal with some of the probation service’s underlying and fundamental issues. These include a critical lack of frontline staff and the excessive caseloads this has generated – as well as overloaded middle manager grades and poor-quality legacy accommodation from the old National Probation Service (NPS).

Mr Russell goes on to say that unification does not solve the issue of a lack of investment over the past decade in the broader ecosystem – of mental health, drug treatment and multi-agency partnerships – on which the service also relies and which recent inspections have shown to be threadbare and struggling. These problems have of course been made significantly worse by the impact of Covid-19.

Key findings from the staff survey

Just over half of the 1,534 survey respondents (51 per cent) had worked previously in CRCs and just under half (47 per cent) in the NPS. The headline findings were:

  • 61 per cent believed that senior leaders communicated their strategies for the new, unified, Probation Service sufficiently well. However, a similar proportion (58 per cent) believed that the changes had not been implemented well.
  • Over half (55 per cent) of probation staff were dissatisfied with the guidance received about how to manage work at the point of unification.
  • About six in 10 (58 per cent) were ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ receiving case-focused supervision from their manager, and just over half (52 per cent) were satisfied that managers paid sufficient attention to staff wellbeing.
  • About half (51 per cent) found their workload ‘not so manageable’.
  • Just over half said that they had sufficient access to services to meet the needs of people on probation, and two-thirds had sufficient access to services to manage risk of harm.
  • Just over half (52 per cent) had not made a final judgement on whether unification had made probation services better or worse.
  • Six in 10 (60 per cent) stated that they felt positive about working for the Probation Service (recently employed staff were more likely to be positive).

In their analysis, inspectors found notable differences by region, with those working in Wales, where unification had had longer to bed in, providing a more positive response. Five key themes emerged:

  1. there is a cultural divide between former CRC and NPS staff; CRC staff felt that they were perceived by former NPS staff as less skilled, as ‘second class’.
  2. induction training was a trial for former CRC staff, with too much information being delivered and not enough time allocated to absorb it.
  3. high caseloads and workloads remained a problem for many and had hampered unification.
  4. new information and communications technology management systems made unification more stressful.
  5. many staff were positive about unification and the future, noting that the change process had been conducted during the pandemic and society’s recovery.

Continuing impact of COVID

Senior probation leaders told inspectors that staff were exhausted following two years of challenges posed by Covid-19 and the additional demands associated with unification. Their feedback  highlighted some key themes in relation to sentence management delivery which are highlighted in the report:

  • Impact on learning & development Remote working with all staff rarely in the office together has resulted in less interaction between colleagues, and fewer opportunities to discuss their caseloads and any learning missed.
  • The limitations of remote contact with people on probation. Many telephone calls have been ‘welfare orientated’, and there needs to be a rebalancing to ensure contacts are meaningful and that the sentence plan is addressed.
  • Unpaid work. The percentage of completed unpaid work requirements pre-pandemic was 90.8% from October to December 2019, but had dropped to 41.8% by January to March 2021. Between 25-70% of all suspended sentence orders with an unpaid work requirement have been terminated without the hours being completed because, unlike a community order, it is not possible to extend the suspended sentence order past the operational end date.
  • Accredited programmes. Like unpaid work, accredited programme delivery has been significantly impacted by Covid-19. The number of people on probation who successfully completed their accredited programme plummeted to 31.9% in January to March 2021, compared to 85.6% from July to September 2019.

Risk of serious harm

The annual report highlights risk of serious harm as an area of concern. Initial inspections of the unified probation service found that the the quality of assessment, planning and delivery to be significantly worse for medium risk of serious harm cases  (transferred over from CRCs) than for the higher-risk ones, particularly for cases on community orders from the court.

Since last April, HMI Probation has also been reviewing a sample of all of the Serious Further Offence (SFO) reviews conducted by the Probation Service itself, concluding that just 6/10 were of a satisfactory level. Common weaknesses included a failure to analyse ‘why’ deficiencies in practice had occurred and a lack of scrutiny and challenge of the more senior management levels involved in a case – as well as the more junior frontline staff.

 

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