01 July 2020 – Inspecting in uncertain times

COVID-19 has changed all our working and family lives in profound ways over the last three months. For HM Inspectorate of Probation, it has meant the suspension of our normal inspection activity since 23 March and a radical shift in the focus of our inspections for the remainder of this year.

Given the huge impact the virus has had on business as usual for both probation and youth offending services, we didn’t feel it appropriate to continue with our normal programme of local inspections, so we will be spending the summer and autumn looking at the effectiveness of the emergency delivery models that youth and adult services have put in place and at the implementation of recovery plans for the rest of this year.

Fieldwork has already started on the first of these national thematic inspections, looking at the experience of seven Youth Offending Teams and six local probation clusters during lockdown. We are interviewing frontline staff, managers and service users, and analysing samples of cases that have been supervised during this unique period. All interviews and focus groups are being conducted remotely by video link and though I’ve missed being out with the inspection teams on site, it did at least give me an opportunity to meet with YOT staff and managers (albeit virtually) in Essex, Newcastle, Southwark and the Isle of Wight last week to hear about their experiences. We’ll be publishing our findings later in the year but clear themes were already emerging about the advantages and challenges of such a radical shift in their operating model.

Though we had to pause our usual local inspections, we have continued to publish the results of work completed before lockdown. Over the past month, this has included a second inspection of Merseyside CRC and inspections of Medway and Bury and Rochdale youth offending services.

And yesterday, the Inspectorate published the results of its independent review into the supervision of Joseph McCann by the National Probation Service (NPS), during the period leading up to a series of horrific and high-profile serious further offences committed by him in April and May 2019. We found eight occasions when the NPS failed to revoke McCann’s IPP licence to ensure that he could not be re-released from prison without a Parole Board hearing and serious weaknesses in the way his risk to the public was assessed and managed. We also made a number of recommendations for improvements to national policy and practice, including: the need for a much more proactive approach by prison security teams to sharing information on concerns about prisoners with probation colleagues, better quality assurance of recall decisions, and the need for more approved premises places and an emergency referral system to ensure high-risk offenders get a place when needed.

The pause in our inspection activity has also given me a chance to reflect on what we have found so far in our inspections of probation services since last September. I discussed my conclusions in my lecture to the Academy of Social Justice, but in summary, it’s a mixed picture. Of the nine reports  we have published so far from our second round of CRC inspections against our new standards, four have shown an improvement in their scores (with three now rated ‘Good’ overall), but the remaining five continue to require improvement. It was pleasing to see the difference that additional funding for Through the Gate services has made – with six out of the nine services now rated ‘Outstanding’ for this aspect of their work. But assessment and management of risk of harm remains a real concern and the weakest area of performance, with less than half of the cases we inspected being satisfactory on this essential aspect of offender management and ongoing issues with police domestic abuse checks in some areas.