Hope for the future of probation

Probation Chief Inspector Justin Russell warns that the move back to a unified service will not be a magic bullet and that reforms must be backed by extra resources

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2019/20 Annual Report

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation today (03 December) published its annual report of probation service inspection key findings; highlighting familiar concerns around public protection and the effective management of risk of harm, accommodation provision and high caseloads for probation officers.

Approximately 224,000 people were under probation supervision in England and Wales by June this year. Currently, Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) supervise offenders considered to be low and medium risk, and the National Probation Service (NPS) supervises high-risk offenders. In June 2021, all offender management as well as delivery of unpaid work and accredited interventions will move to the public sector and be delivered by the National Probation Service.

HM Inspectorate of Probation was able to undertake 10 inspections of CRCs and one NPS division, from September 2019, before the inspection programme was suspended in March 2020 due to Covid-19.

For the 10 services the Inspectorate was able to complete and give an overall score, it rated:

  • zero probation services as ‘Outstanding’
  • four probation services as ‘Good’ (three CRCs and one NPS)
  • six probation services as ‘Requires improvement’ (all CRCs)
  • zero probation services as ‘Inadequate’.

This annual report will be the Inspectorate’s last before the changes introduced through Transforming Rehabilitation make way for a shift back to public sector control.

Chief Inspector Justin Russell summarised:

“It has been a bumpy road for Transforming Rehabilitation – and the move back to a unified service will not be a magic bullet. Further reforms must be backed by real extra resources. Vacancies for probation officers must be filled, and staff properly trained for their new responsibilities. The positive innovations that CRCs have brought must be preserved.
Our role will be to continue to help probation services to improve, in whatever form they take going forward. There is hope for the future as long as funding and good practice are not forgotten.”

Some Progress

The Chief Inspector commented on the standard of probation service delivery:

“While it has been encouraging to see some signs of improvement this year, with three probation services improving their overall rating to ‘good’, others remain a concern. In some areas we continued to find budgets being squeezed, staff under pressure and unacceptably high caseloads. This has inevitably resulted in poorer-quality supervision, with five CRC services rated as ‘Inadequate’ against all our offender supervision standards”.
Risk of harm remains the weakest area of performance for both CRCs and NPS, and in some cases performance was comparatively poorer than last year. CRCs have invested in retraining staff on understanding the basics risk of harm, but we have not seen this translated into better supervision of their cases. Fewer than half of the CRC cases we inspected were satisfactory in their management of risk of harm – which poses a significant risk to the public.”

On a more positive note, the Inspectorate found that an additional £22m funding for enhanced Through the Gate services, to improve resettlement after release from prison, made a significant difference; eight out of ten CRCs inspected now rated as ‘outstanding’ on this area of activity.

Earlier this year, following the onset of Covid-19, a thematic inspection of the probation services’ response to the pandemic was undertaken. It found services had adapted quickly and effectively, but that more work is needed to tackle the long-term challenges Covid-19 will pose.

The past year has seen the Inspectorate publish a raft of additional thematic inspection reports, aimed at identifying improvements for the benefit of service users and staff.

The thematic inspection of accommodation – an issue also prevalent in this year’s individual inspections – highlighted that despite improvements, finding long-term, stable and appropriate housing remains a challenge.

Mr Russell added: 

“Homelessness or inappropriate accommodation was a factor for one in four of the cases we inspected. We know that detailed resettlement plans, which are well implemented, make a real difference to a person’s prospects on release. We have numerous examples of where good quality accommodation, and a supportive family network, is highly predictive of a person remaining crime free. Services must do all they can to ensure they strive to improve in this vital area of their work.”

Looking ahead

Anyone reading the inspectorate’s annual report will, of course, not be looking back to past performance but wondering how successful the reunification of the probation service – with all offender management and interventions undertaken by the National Probation Service – taking place in June 2021. Given the likely squeeze on public finances in the wake of the pandemic, it will be interesting to see whether the probation service is sufficiently resourced to deliver a better service.

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