A new future for probation services
By Gemma Raw
Management of probation services is returning to the public sector. Will the new 'unified model' better support the work of probation officers and other probation staff? Earlier this year the Justice Committee published its report on the inquiry into the future of probation services in England and Wales – a document eagerly awaited not just by those working in frontline probation service jobs, but by everyone involved in or associated with the delivery of probation services. At the heart of the report was a new 'unified model' for delivering services, due to come into effect in June this year, which effectively takes the management of probation services back into the public sector. It divides England and Wales into 12 probation areas, each overseen by a new dedicated Regional Probation Director.
The new model comes after a difficult seven years for the probation service, following a much-criticised privatisation of the service under the former Secretary of State, Chris Grayling. A previous Justice Committee said in 2018 that the 'Transforming Rehabilitation' reform programme introduced in 2014-15 looked unlikely ever to work.
Reducing workforce pressure
In its report, the Justice Committee stressed the important role that probation officers play in the criminal justice system, thanking them for their hard work and dedication, particularly over the past year with the additional challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Committee found that one of the key issues for probation services historically has been low staffing levels. An HM Inspectorate of Probation inspection in January 2020 said that, for National Probation Service staff managing high-risk offenders, workloads were high, with 60% of probation officers carrying a workload over the 100% target level, and some much more. In December 2020 there were over 460 vacancies for probation officer jobs across England and Wales.
The Committee acknowledged that it was difficult to set an optimum caseload number because of varying factors such as case complexity and availability of support services. However, there was a consensus among probation service staff and senior managers that between 50 and 60 cases are the maximum number that can be managed well.
In May 2019, the Government said that it intended to go further than the reformed probation service working model, taking action to "strengthen the standing of the probation workforce and also make changes that support continuous professional development."
A work in progress
In May this year, the HM Inspectorate of Probation reported that plans to unite probation services were progressing well, but that some gaps remained. HM Prison and Probation Service committed to recruiting 1,000 trainee probation officers in 2020-21. However, it will take several years for those new recruits to complete their training.
Despite the inevitable challenges, there's considerable optimism. "I welcome the decision to unify probation services and bring them back into the public sector," commented Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell. "We interviewed more than 200 probation staff and managers, and the vast majority were positive about the future too."