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Shoots of recovery for prison and probation staffing?
The latest (Spring 2023) HMPPS workforce figures show some positive signs for prison and probation staffing.

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Workforce figures

Yesterday’s (18 May 2023) HMPPS quarterly workforce figures for March 2023 made for less dismal reading than usual with small increases in the number of frontline prison and probation staff. There are actually more trainee probation officers (PQiPs) than (the considerable number) of probation officer vacancies which may give some hope for those long suffering probation staff who have been hoping for reinforcements.

Prison staffing

The key operational grades in public sector prisons are the band 3 to 5 prison officers. They consist of band 3 prison officers, band 4 officer specialists, band 4 supervising officers, and band 5 custodial managers. There were 22,288 FTE (full time equivalent) band 3-5 prison officers in post in post on 31 March this year.

While this is only a slight increase of 287 FTE (1.3%) since 31 March 2022, the figures for the last quarter look more promising with an increase of 655 FTE (3.0%) prison officers compared to 31 December 2022. This is the first (badly needed) increase in prison officer numbers since June 2021.

There were also 5,310 FTE band 2 operational support staff in post, an increase of 227 FTE (4.5%) since 31 March 2022 and an increase of 141 FTE (2.7%) operational support staff in the first quarter of this year.

More than one in seven (14.6%) prison officers left the service in the year to 31 March, an identical rate to the previous year. It is interesting to note that almost one in six (15.6%) of the prison officers who leave were dismissed; this figure is a big increase on the previous year – up from 10.6%.

Probation staffing

As at 31 March 2023 there were 6,950 full time equivalent (FTE) band 3 probation services officers in post. This represents a welcome increase of 846 FTE (13.9%) over the previous year aided by a significant boost in recruitment in the first quarter of 2023 with an additional 741 PSOs in post this year.

On the same date there were 4,413 FTE band 4 probation officers in post. Conversely, this figure represents a slight decrease of 76 FTE (1.7%) over the past year, with no improvement this year – the number of FTE probation officers in post fell by 50 FTE (1.1%) in the first quarter of 2023.

However, one reason for the big increase in PSOs is the increase in people training to be a probation officer who, as many regular readers will know, work as a PSO during their training period. Given the latest target headcount of 6,158  there is an overall national shortfall of 1,745  probation officers against the required staffing level, a vacancy rate of 29%.

A national  HMPPS recruitment campaign resulted in there being 2,626 FTE staff in the process of doing the PQiP probation officer training as of 31 March 2023 (a jump of 659 on the previous quarter). In every region, there are now more FTE staff training to be a probation officer than there are probation officer vacancies.

Staffing levels vary substantially by region, with the probation officer vacancy rate ranging from 19.6% in the West Midlands region to 31.8% in Yorkshire and Humber and 34.9% in London.

One of the reasons that the substantial increase in trainee probation officers has had limited impact so far on overall staffing levels is that the number of staff leaving the service has also increased considerably. In the year to March 2023, 2,098 staff left the probation service, an increase of 10% on the year before.  

We must hope that the PQiP recruitment campaign makes next year’s figures much more positive.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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