New concerns over probation officer numbers after reunification

Work with offenders interrogates the latest workforce figures

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) workforce quarterly statistics are not normally the most exciting read. But today’s edition will have found a wider readership than usual. With the reunification of the probation service just five weeks away (D Day is 26 June), there are mounting concerns about whether the new service will be sufficiently staffed.

Last week, probation inspectors raised concerns about the long-standing shortages of probation officers, noting that Southern regions in particular, both National Probation Service and CRCs, have consistently struggled to attract sufficient numbers of qualified probation officers with the vacancy rate as high as 35 per cent in some areas. The inspectors highlighted that 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, but pointed out that it will take several years for them to complete their training.

The figures

We now turn to look at the figures, it’s important to note that these figures only cover staff currently working for the National Probation Service – Community Rehabilitation Company staff are not included. Like all government departments, HMPPS loves its jargon. Here’s how it defines the different grades of frontline staff:

“Key grades in the NPS include band 3 probation services officers, band 4 probation officers (collectively known as probation practitioners), as well as band 5 senior probation officers. Staff who are training to be a probation officer work as a probation services officer during their training, so a proportion of the probation services officers in post will be working towards the professional probation officer qualification.”

Today’s statistical bulletin gives workforce numbers at the end of March, so the picture presented is almost completely up-to-date.

The good news is that the number of probation service officers, which as we have seen, includes a number of people training to be probation officers, has grown substantially over the last year. As at 31 March 2021 there were 3,136 FTE band 3 probation services officers in post, an increase of 393 (14.3%) over the past year and an increase of 461 (17.2%) over the quarter.

The bad news is that the number of probation officers, the grade where there are currently so many vacancies, has barely moved. There were 3,537 FTE band 4 probation officers in post at the end of March, although this is a small increase of 76 (2.2%) over the past year, it represents a very significant decrease of 117 (3.2%) compared to the previous quarter.

For the sake of completeness, the number of band 5 senior probation officers in post at the end of March was 874 FTE, a substantial increase of 63 (7.8%) over the previous year.

We shall have to look at the next quarterly bulletin (which should include figures for the whole probation service with the 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies having ceased to exist on 25 June) to see whether the trend in the numbers of probation officers is rising or falling.

Either way, it looks like it may take several years before areas in the South of England with chronic shortages of probation officers get up to full staffing levels