MPs want to limit probation caseloads under new Unified Model

Work with Offenders on the latest Justice Committee report which looks to limit probation caseloads to 50 per officer

Last Friday (23 April 2021), the House of Commons Justice Committee published its report from its inquiry into the future of the probation service. The Justice Committee report welcomed the decision to re-unify the Probation Service. It warned, however, that after the disruption of the past seven years these changes must be fully thought through, properly funded and expected to remain in place for a period of decades rather than years. The Committee sought an assurance on this from the Ministry of Justice.

The Justice Committee report also acknowledged that the transition to the new Unified Model of delivery was a “huge operational challenge” in the context of the pandemic, including changes in management systems, IT and buildings leases.

Caseloads

The Chair of the Committee, Sir Bob Neill MP, (the Conservative Member of Parliament for Bromley and Chiselhurst) singled out one key issue from the report at its launch:

“The last few years have been very difficult for the hardworking men and women who look after our probation services. First, they had to cope with a misguided and badly implemented re-organisation. Then Covid struck, making everyone’s job doubly hard. I hope our report will help shape a much better experience. There are lots of recommendations in it but let me draw attention to a simple and important one. No probation officer should have to cope with a caseload of more than 50 clients. If we can stick to that rule of thumb, I think we have a fighting chance of improving the situation.”

A number of commentators have noted that setting one caseload figure for all probation officers is problematic – the demands of a caseload vary considerably depending on whether service users are in prison or the community and the level of needs they might have. The figure of 50 is taken from a recent piece of research conducted by the probation inspectorate which found some US studies which concluded that the reoffending outcomes for probation officers with caseloads higher than 50 were worse than for those with smaller caseloads. Currently, it appears that most probation officers working for the National Probation Service (who supervise only high risk offenders) have caseloads smaller than 50 while many officers working for the Community Rehabilitation Companies (who supervise low and medium risk offenders) have caseloads higher than 50.

Senior managers will have an interesting challenge to integrate staff and balance caseloads, while matching service users with the appropriate expertise. Each group of staff will have developed different skills and knowledge relating to the different client groups they have been working with over the last seven years.

Reunification 

The new Unified Model for delivering probation still has provision for contracting out some services to be provided by private or voluntary organisations. This is called the ‘Dynamic Framework’. It is a commissioning mechanism for providing resettlement services needed after release from prison as well as rehabilitation interventions aimed at reducing reoffending for those on community orders.

Witnesses appearing before the Committee broadly welcomed this initiative although there were some concerns about how it may work in practice, particularly for smaller, third sector or voluntary providers of services who might be unprepared, or not have the resources, to tackle a complex commissioning process.

The Committee also raised concerns about the potential for contracts to be underfunded and recommended that the Ministry of Justice set out how they are modelling these contracts financially, and what is being done to ensure that contracts are sufficiently resourced and deliverable.

Support for those leaving prison

The report notes that successful rehabilitation relies on a successful transition from prison to probation. This includes good communication between soon-to-be released detainees and probation officers, as well as the provision of help in areas such as accommodation, finances, education and employment.

The Justice Committee welcomed the additional Ministry of Justice investment which had resulted in improved services for people leaving prison and said it hoped the service would continue to improve under the new Unified Model coming into operation in June.

However, the Committee asked the Ministry to set out in detail how it intended to manage pre-release services under the new model. There were many practical challenges to address such as security clearances for probation officers visiting prisons and access to areas in prison buildings where meetings could be held.

The workforce needed to do the job 

The Select Committee noted that low staffing levels have historically been a problem in the sector. The report acknowledges that staff are working through the pandemic and against the backdrop of a second major reform programme in recent years. The Committee thanked and praised probation staff for their hard work and dedication, particularly during the past year.

The Ministry said 1,000 new trainee probation staff would be taken on in 2020/2021. Other witnesses said it would take a long time to train these recruits and added that the government’s plan to recruit 20,000 new police officers was also likely to increase demand for probation services.

The Justice Committee report said it welcomed the government’s commitment to employ 1.000 new recruits but said it was not clear whether this was in addition to the 464 vacancies that already existed. It asked the Ministry for clarification on this point.

Finally, the Committee also welcomed the government’s commitment to employ more ex-offenders as role models and support staff.