North West National Probation Service still performing well

Inspectors find North West NPS division has done well to recruit staff but workloads remain too high.

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"Good but with room for improvement"

A probation service that manages more than 17,000 offenders in the North West is performing well but needs to improve specific aspects of its work, according to an inspectors’ report published today.

HM Inspectorate of Probation conducted a routine inspection of the North West division of the National Probation Service (NPS) in January and February. Inspectors looked at 10 aspects of the division’s work and gave an overall rating of ‘Good’.

Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: 

“We last inspected the North West division of the NPS in October 2018. On our return, the service has retained its ‘Good’ rating and is performing well in many respects.
Experienced and enthusiastic leaders are focused on providing a high-quality service for people who have been released from prison or who are serving community sentences. Supervision starts promptly, and staff involve individuals in the planning and delivery of their sentences.”

Inspectors commended the division for recruiting and training new staff.

Mr Russell said: 

“There is a national shortage of probation officers and the division had a 20 per cent vacancy rate at our last inspection. Since then, the division has taken on 153 people and is supporting them to undertake the Professional Qualification in Probation. This was a creditable way to tackle vacancies and means the division is now fully staffed at all grades for the first time since 2015.”

However, inspectors were concerned to find that many staff had workloads that were too demanding. Nearly one in three probation officers had workloads that were over 110 per cent of expected capacity.

Inspectors also found shortfalls in some areas of practice.

Mr Russell said: 

“Probation services should protect the public and support the rehabilitation of offenders.
Across this division, probation staff do not request information from the police and local authorities in a consistent way. We think domestic abuse and child safeguarding checks are vital to keep more people safe. In too many instances – four out of ten inspected cases – supervision did not focus sufficiently on helping individuals to address factors related to their offending, including tackling substance misuse.”

The Inspectorate is encouraging the division to invest in the professional development of its staff to drive improvement. HM Prison and Probation Service and the Ministry of Justice provide central functions to all NPS divisions. 

Mr Russell said: 

“When these functions do not work well, this has a negative impact on the division’s ability to deliver a quality service. For example, the NPS national training team has insufficient resources to deliver mandatory training in child and adult safeguarding. This could make a difference to the quality of work in the North West.
We reported previously on the poor condition of several buildings in the division. While there has been some progress, our inspectors found many ongoing problems including a vermin infestation in Rochdale and two out of five interview rooms in Blackburn being out of service for six months. During a site visit to a probation office, an inspector found potentially dangerous exposed electrical wires and a bucket on a desk collecting water.
Working in inadequate buildings has a negative impact on staff and could jeopardise the health and safety of individuals under probation supervision. The Ministry of Justice must address this issues as a priority.”

Key findings

Inspectors organised their key findings under three main headings: organisational delivery; case supervision and NPS-specific (court reports/case allocation and statutory victim work).

Organisational delivery

Inspectors’ main findings on this domain were mixed: 

Key strengths of the organisation are as follows:

  • The division is well led and there is a cohesive and motivated senior leadership team, focused on public protection.
  •  Senior leaders have increased their focus on staff engagement and building the resilience of staff.
  • The division no longer has probation officer vacancies.
  • Stakeholder engagement is good.
  • The division has increased the range of services to address offending-related needs. The division has implemented a robust and effective process for learning from Serious Further Offences.

The main areas for improvement are as follows:

  • Workloads for some POs are unreasonably high; almost a third have a workload of over 110 per cent, as measured by the NPS national workload measurement tool.
  • The span of control for SPOs is too broad, which has an impact on the line managers’ ability to supervise staff effectively. The national review of SPO responsibilities has not yet had an impact on reducing their workload.
  • The NPS learning and development team does not have sufficient resources to deliver the quantity of mandatory child and adult safeguarding training events required by the North West.
  • The physical condition of some premises is inadequate because of delays in carrying out maintenance and repairs.

Case supervision

Key strengths of case supervision are as follows:

  • Responsible officers establish and maintain professional working relationships with those they supervise.
  • Responsible officers sufficiently identify and analyse which individuals pose a risk of harm to others, and in what circumstances.
  • Planning sufficiently addresses the safeguarding of children.
  • There is sufficient contact with people before they are released from custody.

Areas of case supervision requiring improvement include:

  • Interventions are not consistently those most likely to address offending-related factors.
  • There is insufficient offence-focused work to manage the risk of harm posed to individuals.
  • There is insufficient planning to address domestic abuse.
  • Insufficient necessary adjustments are made to ongoing plans of work to take account of changes in the risk of harm.

Court reports and case allocation

Key strengths of court reports and case allocation are:

  • Service users are meaningfully involved in the completion of their reports.
  • Pre-sentence reports support the court’s decision-making, and proposals to the court are appropriate.
  • Reports authors sufficiently consider the impact that the offence has had on the victim
  • Allocation to the probation provider is prompt.

Areas for improvement of court reports and case allocation are:

  • Domestic abuse and safeguarding checks are not always undertaken where necessary.
  • Available sources of information are not always used to inform reports.
  • Responsible officers do not always ensure that a full and accurate risk of harm assessment is completed when necessary.

Victim work

Key strengths of statutory victim work are:

  • Responsible officers keep victim liaison officers updated about the management of the individual being supervised.
  • Victims can express concerns and contribute their views before the individual’s release.


Areas of improvement for statutory victim work are:

 

  • Too few victims are informed of what action to take in case of unwanted contact from a perpetrator.
  • Less than half of the victims are referred to sources of support from other agencies or services.
  • Only half of victim liaison officers are included in Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) where this is appropriate.

Conclusion

The Probation Inspectorate works on a four-band rating system: excellent, good, requires improvement and poor. While it is heartening to see that the North West Division of NPS has resolved the under-staffing issues which afflict most NPS divisions, its overall score has dropped by three points in my unofficial league table shown in the infographic below, dropping it from 4= to 8=.

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