Good but struggling with high caseloads
Inspectors found that senior leaders of the North West division of the National Probation Service (NPS) had a clear vision and strategy for high-quality services, but not enough staff to deliver them in an inspection report published today (22 February 2019).
Staff shortages have been seen in a number of NPS inspections by HM Inspectorate of Probation. During the inspection of the North West division in October 2018, there was a 20% shortfall in the number of probation officers, around 140 posts. These probation officers are the frontline staff responsible for managing individuals who pose a high or very high risk of harm to others.
Dame Glenys Stacey, HM Chief Inspector of Probation, said staff shortages were a long-standing problem, resulting in an “undue reliance” on more costly agency workers.
“Recruitment is centrally managed by the NPS. Local leaders are doing what they can to ameliorate the problem, but professional staff workloads are high. Despite these difficulties we found the quality of work was generally good.” The division was rated as ‘Good’, the second highest HMI Probation rating.
However, some aspects of practice needed attention. “Reviews of risk of harm were not always completed when circumstances change, and in some cases appropriate contingency plans needed to be set out,” Dame Glenys said, adding: “Domestic abuse and safeguarding checks were not always undertaken when required to inform court reports and allocation.”
The division’s approach to encouraging victims to take part in the NPS’s victim contact scheme was assessed as outstanding, the highest rating, with personal contact with victims followed up to ensure that victims could make an informed choice on whether to participate in the scheme. The scheme is for victims of a violent or sexual crime where the offender has been jailed for at least 12 months or detained under the Mental Health Act.
The North West division of the NPS covers the Manchester and Merseyside urban areas and stretches into sparsely-populated Cumbria. The provision of specialist services – interventions designed to reduce the risk of reoffending – varied according to geographical location.
Buildings in the division also varied in their quality, with long waits for repairs or maintenance in some areas. Dame Glenys said: “Staff should not have to work in vermin-infested premises, in my view. And oddly, probation staff who work in some courts in this division are not allowed to use the same facilities as other civil servants who work there, despite being an integral part of the service delivered to the court.”
Overall, Dame Glenys said:
“The division is delivering a good overall standard of service, despite being under strain, and I hope that our findings and recommendations help the division to improve further. We note that staff shortages and poor facilities have featured in each of our recent NPS inspections, and our recommendations also reflect these wider concerns.”
Inspectors organised their key findings under three main headings: organisational delivery; case supervision and NPS-specific (court reports/case allocation and statutory victim work).
Inspectors’ main findings on this domain were mixed:
- The divisional leadership team is focused on delivering a high-quality service. North West NPS leaders have clearly articulated their vision and strategy to deliver a high-quality service to protect the public and reduce reoffending. It has been communicated to staff via several different channels, and we found
that staff understood and identified with the message.
- Staff shortages and high workloads limit the division’s ability to deliver its strategy. The 20 per cent staff shortages at probation officer (PO) level have led to high workloads and affected the quality of the service delivered. This is compounded by the number of agency staff the division employs to fill PO
and other vacancies. Only just over half of staff feel that their workload is manageable.
- The profile of service users is well understood, but provision to meet need varies across the division. The analysis of the profile of individuals being supervised is comprehensive and up to date. The range and availability of services across the division are variable, depending on location. The division has good links with sentencers.
Inspectors found the that case supervision was generally good:
- Management of cases was generally good in the four areas of assessment, planning, implementation and delivery, and reviewing. Inspectors found that staff worked well with individuals under supervision to encourage compliance and had appropriate levels of contact to support this. Appropriate interventions
were generally identified and delivered.
- Probation staff deliver a good service to the courts serving the North West. Sentencers recognise this, and noted that the large number of oral reports delivered on the day helps to ‘speed up justice’. Inspectors found a lack of domestic abuse and safeguarding checks, which was a concern. Sentence proposals are generally appropriate, although inspectors noted fines being proposed where, due to their circumstances, it would be difficult for the individual to raise the money.
- The overall service offered to victims under the victim contact scheme is outstanding. Staff manage each of the stages in the process well. Personalised initial contact is made within an appropriate period and, if no response is received, the contact is followed up, to encourage victims to participate. Sufficient information is supplied to allow victims to make an informed choice about whether to join the scheme. They are updated at appropriate times and their views taken into consideration.
The Probation Inspectorate works on a four-band rating system: excellent, good, requires improvement and poor. This is the twelfth inspection under the new rating system, but only the third of a NPS area. While the CRCs which have been inspected have all been rated as under-performing (eight as “requiring improvement” and one as “inadequate”), all three NPS areas have been rated good. It is heartening to see that the NPS appears to have significantly improved its work with victims following criticisms relating to the Worboys case.
However, there are growing concerns about HMPPS difficulties in recruiting sufficient staff, the latest workforce figures, published yesterday (21 February 2019), revealed that there were 17 fewer band 4 probation officers in post nationally on 31 December last year compared to a year earlier.
As you can see below, the North West Division of NPS slots into second place in my unofficial probation league table.