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Chief Probation Inspector makes plea for localism
Outgoing Chief Probation Inspector calls for an independent review of the Probation Service and makes a plea for localism.

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Farewell message from Justin Russell

The outgoing Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell, is calling for an independent review of whether the Probation Service should return to local control, two years on from unification into a national service. The announcement comes as the Inspectorate publishes its annual report today (19 September). This will be Mr Russell’s final report before leaving the post on 29 September 2023.

Localism

Before sharing some of the key points from this year’s annual report (in the interests of transparency, I should reveal that I was one of the key authors of the document), I have shared part of Mr Russell’s key statement in the accompanying press release.

“The Probation Service is struggling. It’s more than two years since the unification of probation back into the public sector as a single national service. I said at the time that this was unlikely to be the silver bullet many were hoping for. Sadly, this has now proved to be the reality. Yes, there are staffing issues, yes there was a considerable impact from Covid-19, but as this annual report shows we have seen little improvement in our inspections over the past two years. The supervision of people on probation isn’t at the level it should be.

“Probation is, and always has been, a locally delivered service, working with local partners like the police, children’s services, and NHS trusts. To make the most of those partnerships, local probation leaders need freedom and flexibility to commit resources and staff to match circumstances and to be able to speak publicly to both defend and advocate for their services. Currently, they often feel heavily constrained and that they play second fiddle to the priorities of the prison service to which they are tied in the new One HMPPS structure.

“While I recognise that this would represent another reorganisation of the service and any shift in this direction would have to be with the explicit agreement of local managers and staff themselves. I think the time has come for an independent review of whether probation should move back to a more local form of governance and control. This should build on the highly successful lessons of local multi-agency youth justice services – 70 per cent of which we rated as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ last year.”

Staffing

The report highlights often chronic staffing shortages at every grade which have led to what staff report perceive to be unmanageable workloads caseloads and to the poor quality of management oversight of frontline practitioners which was of an acceptable standard in only 28 per cent of cases. Major gaps in the services provided to people on probation to meet the underlying needs which may have driven their offending are also identified, as well as ongoing delays in ensuring that court requirements to complete unpaid work or offending behaviour programmes are delivered. 

You can see from the graphic reproduced from the report today that the numbers of SPOs, PSOs and PQiPs (but not POs) have increased over the last 12 months but many of these staff are new and inexperienced with the result that staffing increases have not yet impacted on the quality of service delivery.

Public Protection

The Chief Inspector makes it clear that his main concern is public protection, which has been a consistently weak area for probation over recent years and, depressingly, has become worse since unification. Inspectors are still seeing safeguarding enquiries with local children’s services being made in only 55 per cent of the cases where they are necessary and domestic abuse enquiries with the police in less than half. The report concludes that Probation officers have too many cases and too little time to focus on this key area of their work, putting the public potentially at risk as evidenced in the tragic Serious Offence Reviews of Damien Bendall and Jordan McSweeney.

Mr Russell makes it clear that he does not blame either probation practitioners or their managers for this state of affairs, saying he has never doubted their commitment to the job.

Not meeting needs

While it is clearly a tough job (to say the least) being a probation officer at the moment, the real losers are the people on probation and potential future victims. In my opinion, the most worrying piece of data in the whole report is the comparison of inspection data from the core inspections of the re-unified Probation Service with the data from the same areas gathered in the last round of CRC and NPS inspections under the Transforming Rehabilitation framework. It is concerning to report that the re-unified Probation Service is currently less successful at meeting every kind of need than the much-criticised split Probation Service. The chart I have reproduced below compares the extent to which different areas of needs were met both before and after re-unification. Notwithstanding the disruption caused by the COVID pandemic and the reunification process itself, the start figures are still deeply disappointing:

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