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Staffing main concern over probation reunification

Probation reforms broadly on track but some concerns persist around staffing and services.

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Planning for reunification

A new (14 May 2021) report by probation inspectors finds that the plans to reunify the probation service and broadly on track but raises some concerns around staffing and services. The report: “A thematic review of work to prepare for the unification of probation services” examined how senior leaders, managers and staff are preparing for this change, which comes seven years after probation services in England and Wales were split up and part-privatised.

As most readers will know, the Transforming Rehabilitation programme created a National Probation Service to manage high risk of harm offenders and 21 privately-owned Community Rehabilitation Companies to manage low and medium risk offenders. [You can see my infographic of the TR timeline here.]

On 26 June, staff from all these organisations will come together into a single, public sector probation service. The service will supervise around 223,000 people who are preparing to leave or have left prison, or who are serving community sentences. The workforce will be made up of more than 16,000 staff, who are currently based in 54 organisations.

Main findings

Inspectors found that good progress has been made to ensure continuity of supervision and support for people on probation. A ‘lift and shift’ approach means staff transferring into the new organisation will keep their cases initially.

Chief Inspector Justin Russell also commented:

“Training plans are in place to upskill staff in new systems and to handle a mix of low, medium and high risk of harm cases in the longer term. Work is well underway to ensure offices, IT and other logistics are in place for day one.”

However, inspectors cited some concerns ahead of the transition. 

The Inspectorate has reported on staffing problems for several years. Southern regions, in particular, struggle to attract qualified probation officers. The vacancy rate can be as high as 35 per cent in some areas. While HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) has committed to recruiting 1,000 trainee probation officers in 2020/2021, with 443 already started in July 2020 and further intakes planned throughout 2021, it will take several years for them to complete their training. Some administrative and specialist staff transferring into the organisation are also unclear on their future roles.

The new probation service has set up a ‘Dynamic Framework’ to buy in specialist services for people under supervision, for example to help individuals find suitable accommodation or to access education, training and employment.

Inspectors found that HMPPS had failed to attract potential suppliers for some services and regions and were still trying to award contracts. With the clock ticking, there is a risk some specialist services may not be in place by June.

Services that help former prisoners to resettle in the community received extra government funding in 2019, which led to major improvements. Inspectors urged probation leaders to ensure this progress is not jeopardised when existing teams and contracts are replaced by new providers.

Recommendations

The probation inspectorate’s eight recommendations give a good insight into the main areas of concern ahead of re-unification. I have reproduced them in full below:

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service should:


1. ensure commissioning of services in regions is informed by an up-to-date strategic needs analysis of the full probation caseload, including all transferring CRC cases
2. ensure that an effective workload measurement tool is used in the unified probation service, which is informed by assumptions about timings that reflect current practice for all activities
3. ensure that regional probation directors review the services that have been commissioned nationally for their respective region within two years to ensure they meet the needs of their region
4. ensure clearer strategic oversight of resettlement services in each English region and Wales. We suggest the appointment of regional heads of resettlement
5. ensure an inclusive culture is in place that embraces different experiences and backgrounds of the staff forming the new probation model and gives equal status to interventions and sentence management staff
6. ensure appropriate services are in place to manage risk of harm and address risk of offending, during the last months of the CRC contracts before they terminate
7. ensure the skill base of transitioning CRC commissioning and corporate staff is sufficiently understood and employed appropriately in the new unified model.

CRCs including parent organisations should:


8. prioritise and facilitate the smooth transition of the CRC workforce to the unified probation service and relevant Dynamic Framework commissioned providers.

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