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No return to normal yet for probation
Probation inspectors finds Covid-19 restrictions and backlogs mean no return to normal yet for probation.

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No business as usual

Today (25 February 2020) HM Inspectorate of Probation has published a review of probation’s recovery since the first lockdown, formally titled: A thematic review of the quality and effectiveness of probation services recovering from the impact of exceptional delivery models introduced owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Inspectors found probation services made significant progress in restoring delivery of key functions by the end of November last year, but backlogs have built up and Covid-19 restrictions continue to prevent business as usual delivery. These challenges are likely to have increased further with the latest national lockdown.

The Inspectorate carried out a review of the quality and effectiveness of probation services in 2020 both before and following the initial national lockdown in March. Inspectors reviewed six Local Delivery Units (Bristol and South Gloucestershire; Buckinghamshire and Oxford; Derbyshire; Essex; Tameside and Stockport; and West Mercia) made up of six National Probation Service divisions and six Community Rehabilitation Centres. For comparison, inspectors looked at work starting before the pandemic (January and February 2020) and after the switch to exceptional delivery arrangements (July to September) – amounting to 240 individual cases.

Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: 

“We found probation services deployed Exceptional Delivery Models successfully last year. We saw good progress towards recovery being made between July and November 2020, but this has been hampered by further restrictions as the pandemic continues. Services are now blending and adapting their approach between face-to-face and telephone contact to remain as flexible as possible.”

The review found specific areas of probation work – such as assessments of risk of harm – actually improved following the first national lockdown. This is because probation practitioners were able to focus on those who posed the higher risks of harm to the public, adapting their requirements quickly and effectively.

Mr Russell explains further: 

“We knew that services would do their upmost to maintain provision following the onset of Covid-19, and we know they have shown resilience. We were impressed with what we saw in terms of good communication, partnership working and monitoring of those posing a higher risk of harm to others.
For some aspects of the management of risk of harm, there was a 20 per cent improvement between CRC cases starting supervision before the pandemic and those starting from July onwards. Increased frequency of contact with service users and re-introduction of face-to-face meetings have helped here.”

However, inspectors saw expected levels of attendance at accredited programmes and unpaid work drop dramatically during the first national lockdown. Only around 10 per cent of accredited programmes and 5 per cent of unpaid work was delivered during April and May compared to pre-Covid-19 levels – due to these services being temporarily shut down or the impact of social distancing rules on  attendance numbers for group activities. The result has been a significant increase in backlogs of uncompleted work which will take time to clear.  Once recovery began in July, we saw levels of accredited programme delivery improve to 62 per cent of pre-Covid-19 delivery and unpaid work to 50 per cent by the end of November.

Inspectors found that some services had sought alternative ways for unpaid work to be completed. For example, in Essex, the CRC created ‘Project in a box’ (in conjunction with their partner CRCs) in which selected service users could work from home, making face coverings and greetings cards to strict industry standards with the proceeds going to charity. The CRC in Cheshire and Greater Manchester focused on finding smaller, local projects for their service users – 75 per cent of their current projects were new since March 2020.

Impact on staff

Inspectors found that while many staff have embraced working from home for at least part of each week, this presents its own challenges, and many staff feel under more pressure as restrictions have lifted than they did during the early stages of the pandemic. A blended model of supervision, combining both home working and office-based contact, may be a way forward in the future, but the case for it has yet to be made comprehensively, and a robust, large-scale evaluation of the effectiveness of telephone supervision is urgently needed, given the reliance that is being placed on it now and potentially in the future. 

From fieldwork conducted toward the end of the review period, in November, inspectors found probation staff had made determined efforts to keep services running, but many were now suffering from the psychological impact of the  pandemic. Given that almost everyone has now been under complete lockdown for a further three months, we must assume that staff’s resilience has been even more undermined than inspectors found

Mr Russell concluded: 

“A survey of probation practitioners showed 72 per cent felt their wellbeing was being addressed. However, we also know that there are reasonable concerns around the resumption of face-to-face working and the inevitable stresses this has brought – our report details this as ‘Covid-19 fatigue’.
There is a long road ahead, and services are meeting the challenge of maintaining a balance between pushing forward with recovery and staff welfare. However, it appears increasingly likely that there will be no full recovery before services are asked to change again and adapt to the unification of the probation service in just a few months’ time.”

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