Probation service failing to carry out necessary child protection and domestic abuse checks, finds inspectorate

Service would be better run locally, instead of nationally, to enhance joint working with social services, mental health trusts and other partners, suggests outgoing chief inspector

The brick exterior of the National Probation Service building.
Photo by Mara Louvain/ AdobeStock

The probation service is failing to carry out necessary child protection and domestic abuse checks when carrying out risk assessments on offenders, inspectors have warned.

Officers only made child safeguarding enquiries with council children’s services in 55% of cases where inspectors concluded they should have been made, according to their analyses of cases involving offenders on supervision in the community.

And child safeguarding enquiries had only been completed in 48% of cases where inspectors deemed this necessary in probation officers’ court reports, said the probation inspectorate, in its annual report, released yesterday.

The inspectorate made similar findings in relation to domestic abuse, finding that checks were made with the police in just 49% of supervision cases and 51% of court reports where inspectors concluded they were necessary. The figures were drawn from inspections carried out in 2022-23.

“Time and again we’re also finding that practitioners are failing to draw on a wide enough range of information when assessing risk,” said outgoing chief inspector of probation John Russell, in his foreword to the report.

Deterioration of performance since reunification of service

The report comes two years after the service was reorganised as a single public sector institution. It had previously, since 2013, been split into private-sector community rehabilitation companies (CRCs), responsible for low- and medium-risk offenders in specific regions, and a public sector national service responsible for the most serious offenders.

However, Russell said that performance, if anything, had deteriorated since the service was reunified because of high caseloads and inadequate staffing levels inherited from the CRCs.

While a £155m increase in annual funding had boosted recruitment, the service had struggled to train and mentor new starters because of an exodus of experienced staff and the challenges of remote working during the pandemic.

Russell also criticised the shift towards the service being run on a national basis within the same structure as the prisons service, which he said risked overshadowing it. He added that he had increasing sympathy with the view of many in the service that probation should be run locally.

The case for local management of probation

In the vast majority of cases, “all of the most important relationships for probation staff and the people they work with are local”, including with social services departments and mental health trusts, said Russell.

While the probation service had a seat on key local partnerships, its managers were “heavily constrained” by existing structures in being able to take effective local decisions.

He contrasted this with youth offending services, which are generally part of local authority children’s services and had “greater resilience and potential for flexibility and innovation that’s possible with a locally run and accountable service”.

Russell linked this to the “far better” inspection scores that youth offending services had had compared with probation services over the previous year.

“While I recognise that another reorganisation of the service, and any shift in this direction would have to be with the explicit agreement of local managers and staff, I think the time has come for an independent review of whether probation should move back to a more local form of governance and control,” he concluded.

‘We have made progress’ – government

In response to the annual report, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have made major progress in addressing the concerns raised in this report with the most recent data showing improved performance in key areas such as the proportions of ex-offenders in settled accommodation and attending specialist programmes to change their behaviour.

“This is thanks to our investment of £155m per year, allowing the probation service to recruit more than a thousand additional frontline staff in the last year to deliver tougher supervision and keep the public safe.

“The unified probation service is delivering greater consistency in supervision and we are already giving local leaders greater decision-making powers to better address the unique issues in their area.”

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