Stretched probation staff facing 'unreasonably high' workloads, watchdog warns ministers
Probation officers dealing with some of the country's most high-risk criminals are working with major "staff shortages, stretched middle managers and poor facilities", ministers have been warned.
In a hard-hitting new report, the independent HM Inspectorate of Probation said staff at the National Probation Service - which oversees 106,000 high-risk offenders, including those convicted of violent and sexual crimes - are facing "unreasonably high" workloads as the Government struggles to recruit enough people for the job.
The NPS was set up under David Cameron's government in 2015, which split the existing probation service into two parts in a move that drew criticism from Labour and has since been savaged by the National Audit Office which said the Ministry of Justice had "set itself up to fail".
NPS attempts to rehabilitate high-risk offenders while new, privately-run Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) were set up to manage the rest.
But in a major u-turn last year, the Government announced that all probation services were to be brought back under public control, with the NPS set to gain responsibility for all offenders.
In its latest report, the inspectorate said the publicly-run NPS had provided a better service "than that delivered by their CRC equivalents", heaping praise on its leadership and the "range and quality of services" offered.
But the watchdog said there was now a "critical shortage of probation officers" as it warned that those taking on the job faced "a lack of investment" in their training - with London particularly hard-hit.
It found that 60% of NPS staff had workloads "that exceed their expected capacity", while nearly three in ten had work piling up that was "more than 120% of expected capacity".
Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: "Staff across the NPS are committed and hard-working and leadership is good at every level, but high workloads and a poor facilities management service means the NPS is not performing to its full capability.
"At the time of this inspection, there were 615 probation officer vacancies across the NPS. The service is especially short of this crucial grade of staff, who play a vital role in rehabilitating offenders and protecting the public. The problem is especially acute in London and the South East."
The inspectorate has urged ministers to do more to recruit "sufficiently skilled" staff and ensure they have a "manageable" workload once on the job.
The Ministry of Justice has also been warned of a big mismatch between probation staff and the offenders they work with. Seventy percent of the workforce is female, whereas men make up 97% of the offender population - a gap the watchdog said showed the NPS was "not attracting sufficient numbers of men into the profession."
Mr Russell said: "Many probation officers have unacceptably high workloads. Staff are under pressure and this could compromise their ability to build effective working relationships with people under supervision and to manage all cases to a consistently high standard.
"NPS probation officers are working with people who have committed serious offences and who require intensive supervision and rehabilitation. We found staff shortages mean some newly-qualified probation officers are allocated complex cases that they do not have the skills and experience to handle competently."
The report was seized on by the Liberal Democrats, who said the Government was "failing in its most important duty: keeping people safe".
The party's justice spokesperson Daisy Cooper said: "Staff shortages in the Probation Service mean that high-risk individuals in our communities are not being properly supervised.
"This alarming report shows that ending private probation contracts and unifying the system, while clearly necessary, will not be nearly enough to fix the major problems in probation."
Responding to the report's findings, Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said: "We know that probation is not getting enough of the basics right – that’s why we are bringing all offender management back under the National Probation Service, which the independent inspectorate says is good at protecting the public.
"It is also clear that the workload is simply too high for many probation officers and the 800 new officers currently training to join the NPS will make a real difference.
"I am reassured that the chief inspector shares my confidence in the vision and leadership of the National Probation Service – which will be essential to delivering these reforms."