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TUC CONGRESS 2023 Ministers must stop using probation as a political football

The service needs proper investment to recover from years of political meddling and to halt high staff turnover, argues TANIA BASSETT of Napo

THE probation service is in a staffing and workloads crisis which fundamentally undermines the effectiveness of the service and public protection. 

Napo, trade union for probation and family court staff, is seriously alarmed at the continuing lack of effective investment in the probation service since its reunification into state control in 2021.

There is increasing evidence to demonstrate the disastrous impact of this scandalous situation by way of:

• Unsustainable workloads and unfilled vacancy rates, meaning that it is not uncommon for practitioners to be holding case allocations of anywhere between 101-200 per cent against recognised capacity.

• Service delivery, as evidenced by the cancellation of specialised programmes for those convicted of sexual offences and a huge backlog of clients awaiting placement on community service projects.

• Public safety, where numerous reports from HM Inspectorate of Probation have been critical of probation senior management for not implementing past lessons and failing to develop systems that will create safe workloads and assist practitioners in protecting our communities to the standards expected. 

• Staff sickness has rocketed as result of poor working conditions and burn out from relentless workloads, with the main reason for absence being mental health and work-related stress. 

The above issues, which are the subject of a joint probation unions (Napo, Unison and GMB) campaign known as Operation Protect, are compounded by the proposed One HMPPS restructuring programme and its threats to jobs, the service and the profession.

One HMPPS will see probation being subsumed by the Prison Service and shows a clear political agenda to prioritise the imprisonment of those who commit an offence over rehabilitation, reducing reoffending and reducing victims.   

Napo general secretary Ian Lawrence said: “This threatens the integrity and professionalism of probation, before the service has been given time to recover from the egregious damage that has been visited upon it by incompetent politicians.

“It is high time that ministers stop using probation as a political football. Staff are exhausted by the working conditions and the never ending organisational change.

“The service needs to be left alone, allow staff time to breathe and go back to getting the basics right if we are ever going to have a world-class probation service again.”

Long-standing members of Napo, who have been in the service for up to 30 years have said workloads and working conditions are the worst they have ever known in probation. 

One member said: “In 25 years I’ve never known it so bad. I’ve seen staff crying at work then having to go off sick.”

This is clearly evidence by the fact that attrition rates are at an all-time high.

Despite promises from ministers that they have engaged in a massive recruitment drive in the last years with over 1,500 staff being recruited, the figures suggest that new staff are not staying in the profession. 

Lawrence said: “We are hearing from trainee probation officers that they intend to get their qualification then go on to jobs outside of the service. This just isn’t sustainable nor is it an effective use of limited resources.”

HM Inspectorate for Probation has echoed Napo’s concerns. It has cited significant staff vacancies right across England and Wales.

Chief Inspector Justin Russell has said recently that very little meaningful supervision with clients is being done due to excessive workloads.

In a piece of recently published groundbreaking research, HMIP found that high-quality probation supervision results in significantly better sentence completion rates and a reduction in reoffending. Clearly this is being hampered by the lack of time practitioners have to spend with clients.  

Napo is seeking public support from the general council for Operation Protect, and for the general council to lobby the official HM opposition to clearly map out their future plans to restore probation into a gold-standard service within the wider criminal justice system.

Napo policy is also clear that the probation service should be taken out of the Civil Service, remain distinct from the Prison Service and go back to being embedded in local communities.
 
Tania Bassett is Napo national Parliament and campaigns officer.

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