Analysis: National Probation Service faces staffing crisis

Work With offenders digs into the detail of a highly critical report by probation inspectors

Much of the recent criticism of the probation service has focused on the underperformance of the 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies. Indeed, so poor has been their performance, that the Ministry of Justice has decided to cut short their contracts and redesign the whole probation service.

The National Probation Service (NPS) has been relatively free from censure – until today that is. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation just published a report which says the NPS is badly hampered by staff shortages, stretched middle managers and poor offices and facilities. The report’s criticisms are directed at the MoJ and Her Majesties Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), rather than probation staff.

Probation inspectors embarked on this report after they found that all seven divisions of the NPS had recurring problems with staffing and facilities. As a result, they decided to initiate an extra inspection into HMPPS’ provision of central functions to the National Probation Service.

After commending the NPS staff for their commitment and hard work and praising the organisation’s leaders, Chief Inspector Justin Russell said that high workloads and a poor facilities maintenance service means the NPS is underperforming.

At the time of the inspection a staggering 615 probation officer posts (out of a total of approximately 4000) were vacant. The problem is particularly bad in London and the South East and inspectors noted that since the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms were introduced in 2014, not one of the seven NPS divisions has been fully staffed.

Unsurprisingly, the inspectors found staff are seriously overloaded. Sixty per cent of NPS staff have workloads that exceed their expected capacity. Nearly three in ten have been allocated workloads of more than 120 per cent of expected capacity.

Victim liaison officers, who work with victims of serious and sexual crimes, have an average of 215 cases on their books.

The inspectorate was equally critical about the staffing level of middle managers. Senior probation officers are expected to manage teams of up to 10 staff. However, in practice, half of them were managing teams of double that size in addition to extra corporate responsibilities. More than two thirds of Senior Probation Officers (68%) said they “seldom” or “never” succeeded in getting all their work done in a typical week. Many reported working additional hours.

The fact that SPOs are overworked and spend too much time on corporate tasks means that they do not have sufficient time to provide proper oversight and guidance to probation staff managing high risk offenders. This lack of supervision and support is often identified as a core component when things go wrong and offenders on probation commit serious further offences.

The inspectors are no less critical of the state of buildings in which probation officers work and see offenders. Facilities management is the responsibility of HMPPS which is clearly failing in these duties. Unsurprisingly, the management of NPS facilities is contracted out. The target is for all jobs to be fixed within 10 working days, currently only 43% are completed in this timeframe. Nor are the outstanding problems minor; inspectors themselves found a wide range of problems including: broken locks, faulty CCTV, vermin infestations and poor plumbing and heating. Indeed some offices are in such a state of disrepair that they cannot be used. Similarly, despite the urgent need for places in probation hostels (known as “Approved Premises”), there are bed spaces out of commission because repairs have not been undertaken.

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, inspectors also found that HMPPS has not been fulfilling its function to help probation staff learn from serious further offence reviews and complaints. Somewhat bizarrely, inspectors found that the organisation does not have a written strategy setting out how lessons from serious further offence reviews should be shared. So, although HMPPS has a quality assurance role for the reviews that individual divisions undertake when a serious further offence is committed or an important complaint is made, it does not currently take any formal steps to make sure that NPS divisions learn from mistakes made in other areas.

As many readers will know, the MoJ is currently redesigning the probation service with the National Probation Service taking back all offender management responsibilities from the private Community Rehabilitation Companies. This will involve the transfer of many hundreds of CRC staff to the NPS. If NPS facilities are not in proper shape, the new system is likely to be off to a shaky start.