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“The first thing people need to appreciate is that it’s not just when you’re going into work. It’s all the time.” Dave (not his real name) is a serving probation officer with over 20 years of frontline experience dealing with some of the most dangerous and violent criminals in the country. He’s describing the constant and unyielding pressure of his work in a vital service at the heart of the criminal justice system. As a civil servant, he’s not supposed to speak out publicly, so he will only talk on condition of anonymity. But he wants the world to understand the level of stress and responsibility that he and his colleagues live with every day.
“It’s at night-time if you hear the police helicopter above you, you think: ‘I hope that’s not to do with my client who didn’t come in today, or my client who was making threats against somebody.’ It’s if you’re off on leave and you see something on the news and you think ‘is that to do with such-and-such a client?’ It’s waking up in the middle of the night thinking ‘I haven’t done this. I need to do that. I haven’t done the other.’I’m fairly sure 90-odd per cent of probation staff think that way.”
Dave is not the only disillusioned voice from the coal face. Claire (not her real name), quit her job as a probation officer six months ago, and is clear about the biggest problem she faced: “It’s the huge workload… You simply can’t be the safe practitioner that you want to be – or should be.”
The Probation Service is supposed to help rehabilitate offenders, reduce crime, and keep the public safe. But it’s not just the workers on the frontline who recognise that things appear to be close to breaking point. In September, the Inspectorate of Probation published its latest annual report on the service. It makes for very difficult reading and confirms the depressing picture of chaos, understaffing and poor performance.
The Grayling Effect
Over the last two years, the inspectors rated 31 local Probation Delivery Units (PDUs) in England and Wales, around a third of the total. None achieved the highest rating of “Outstanding”, only one was rated “Good”, with 15 PDUs rated “Requires Improvement” and the remaining 15 “Inadequate”. With remarkable understatement, the Inspectorate describes these findings as “disappointing”.
The service is still recovering from former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s attempt at part-privatisation in 2014. His big idea was to get rid of the 35 Probation Trusts in England and Wales which previously ran the service. In their place, he created 21 privately-operated Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), whose role was to supervise the 200,000 low- and medium-risk offenders. That left the 31,000 high-risk offenders under the care of a newly created public sector organisation known as the National Probation Service (NPS),
Those reforms didn’t quite work out as planned, to put it mildly. A study in 2019 by Professor Gill Kirton, of Queen Mary University of London, and Dr Cécile Guillaume, of Roehampton University suggested that, far from improving efficiency, the changes simply created unrealistic expectations. They also led to bigger caseloads for the officers who remained in the public sector looking after the more dangerous offenders, leaving the public at greater risk. In short, the two academics concluded that the Grayling reforms had been “an unmitigated disaster”. 
Those reforms were finally abandoned two years ago, which means that, as the Probation Service is re-integrated and becomes fully state-run again, it is now undergoing its fourth reorganisation in the last 20 years. The Inspectorate of Probation concludes that dealing with the inherited problems of privatisation and the turmoil of yet more change means “the service has if anything got worse, not better”.
One of the biggest problems is staffing. In the Grayling years, the privately-run parts of the service didn’t release staff numbers, so the true scale of the cuts that were made by the CRCs is only becoming clear now that the service has been taken fully back into public ownership.
Some regions are now suffering particularly acute staff shortages. The inspectors found that Yorkshire and Humber, for example, has a vacancy rate of almost 32%, and in London it’s almost 35%. Those shortages often mean that there’s no continuity of supervision for the most serious offenders.
As Probation Officer Dave told Byline Times:
“It’s not uncommon that a high-risk offender could have 7 or 8 Offender Managers in the space of one year… I heard of one case where a man who was released on an 18-month licence had 11 managers. If you’re a serious offender, why are you going to keep opening up to a new manager time after time?
“It takes a lot to be frank with a stranger about difficult things. For example, if you’re a sex offender, you’re talking about issues like sexual stimulation, masturbation, fantasies. Why would you want to go through all that time after time with a new Offender Manager?”
The Government is trying to address the staffing issue with its first-ever recruitment campaign on national TV, radio and social media, which was launched a few weeks ago. One of the ads shows a tattooed ex-offender “Paul” being interviewed by two friendly, but earnest-looking probation officers who are assessing what level of risk he represents to the public. It closes with the tagline “An extraordinary job. Done by someone like you.”
Ex-Probation Officer Claire takes a dim view of the advert. “The idea that there would ever be enough staff for two officers to interview someone is ridiculous… And that slogan at the end? It just rings hollow. They certainly don’t treat you as extraordinary when you’re actually doing the job.” Serving Officer Dave has a rather more pithy verdict: “It’s absolute shite.”
It will be some time before we know whether the campaign is having any discernible effect on recruitment. What is clear right now is that the officers who remain in the service are often exhausted and demoralised, with many suffering acute stress that frequently leads to their taking sick leave. Inevitably, that has an impact on the quality of service they can offer. Probation Officer Dave told Byline Times an alarming story about the effect that had on one particular offender.
“I know of one officer who had been interviewing an offender, and she’d agreed to relax the terms of his curfew so that it began at 11 pm rather than 7 pm, as it was previously. But before she had the chance to update the notes on his file, her manager suddenly marched into the office and told her that she had 6 new cases added to her workload.
“She was so stressed and upset that she had to go home sick. So when the offender she’d been interviewing arrived home that night in time for what he thought was the new agreed 11.00 curfew he was arrested, because unknown to him, the notes still said he should have been home by 7 pm. And that offender was sent back to prison.”
One of the key areas of concern in the Inspectorate of Probation report is the supervision of offenders after release from prison or sentencing in court. In over 62% of the 1,509 cases they reviewed, none of the six key elements of the required supervision programme was delivered satisfactorily.
That finding indicates some of the most troubling questions for the Probation Service: Is it still up to the job of keeping the public safe? Is it able to provide accurate assessment and management of potential risks? Worryingly, the inspectors found that, in over two-thirds (67%) of cases, provision was “insufficient”.
They also found other serious failings: In cases where inspectors judged that child safeguarding enquiries were required, they were only carried out just over half (55%) of the time. Where domestic abuse inquiries were deemed necessary, they were done less than half (49%) of the time.
Anyone familiar with the cases of Jordan McSweeney or Damien Bendall will know how serious such failings can be. McSweeney was under probation supervision nine days after his release from prison in June 2022, when he sexually assaulted and murdered Zara Aleena as she walked home in Ilford, East London.
In 2021 Bendall committed four murders in Killamarsh, Derbyshire while still being supervised by probation. He murdered his partner Terri Harris, her two children John Paul and Lacey Bennett, and Lacey’s friend Connie Gent. He also raped 11-year-old Lacey. The inquest into those murders finally opened last week and is expected to conclude by the end of October.
Former Probation Officer Claire remembers those cases with a shudder. “They were utterly horrific for the families involved… But there’s also the feeling of: Could that officer who supervised those offenders have been me? … And what makes that feeling worse is that you don’t feel safe as a probation officer having a conversation with managers in which you’re vulnerable, a conversation about the fear of making mistakes, even when you haven’t made one.”
The testimony of Claire and Dave paints a picture of officers under extreme pressure on the frontline of a service close to breaking point. The probation inspectors’ report confirms the impression of organisational chaos and systemic failures. With this as the backdrop, it’s hard to believe that there won’t be more Jordan McSweeneys and Damien Bendalls to come.
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