28 October 2022 - London Probation’s staffing crisis – but better news on YOTs

Our first inspection results for London Probation Service continued the worrying trend of the past year, with each of the three PDU reports we published on 18 October rated as ‘Inadequate’ and inadequate ratings for all of our case quality standards.  We were particularly concerned about Hammersmith, Fulham, Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham PDU, where we declared an ‘organisational alert’ in view of the hundreds of cases we found that did not have a named probation officer or PSO and were therefore not being properly supervised. Worryingly, this included 58 unallocated MAPPA cases, some of whom had committed very serious offences. Whilst these have now been matched with practitioners, the other huge challenges facing London Probation won’t be so easy to fix.  Top of these, is what amounts to a staffing crisis. There are vacancies across virtually every role and function in London, with an overall vacancy rate of 43 per cent in HFKCW PDU at the time of our inspection, which is unsustainable.  The most recent published probation workforce statistics show a total headcount for London in June 2022 that was 237 lower than in June 2021, in spite of heroic efforts to bring in more PQiPs and PSOs. And this is being  compounded by rising sickness rates in the capital – now up to an average of 17 working days lost per annum – piling yet more pressure on those practitioners who are in post. Worryingly, at a national level, it is staff with five to nine years’ service, exactly the sort of experienced officers the service needs to hold onto, who have been most likely to leave.

In marked contrast, our youth offending service ratings have held up very well during the pandemic with our scores for London YOTs inspected after March 2020 matching, or even exceeding, those before the pandemic, with continuing strong scores for staffing, partnerships and services.  At the same time as we were inspecting Hammersmith and Fulham Probation, for example, we were also inspecting Hammersmith and Fulham Youth Offending Service, which we rated ‘Outstanding’. Staff there told us caseloads were manageable; they felt valued and well trained; vacancy levels were low; robust quality checks and management oversight were in place and 85 per cent or more of the court cases we assessed passed our quality threshold.

Smaller caseloads are, of course, a significant factor in explaining this difference and significantly higher pay for YOT case managers than probation staff is helping recruitment (including of disaffected probation officers). But I wonder if the YOT model of locally autonomous services, often fully integrated into the local authority, with a wide range of embedded specialist staff (mental health, speech and language, ETE, drugs workers) is also a significant factor in the improved quality of supervision and support they offer and the resilience they have shown through the pandemic.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect in the world of youth offending services. An important analysis by our HMI research team was published last month of almost 2000 cases across 43 different YOTs looking at the identification of safety concerns relating to children (PDF, 564 kB). Whilst in general, YOTs score higher on risk assessment and management than probation, there are still gaps, particularly for community resolution cases. In a relatively large minority of cases, for example, the safety classifications deemed appropriate by our inspectors differed from that recorded by the case manager (we usually judged that the classification should have been higher). This can have damaging consequences, as the child may lose opportunities for support by the YOT and other partners, and potential victims can be left without protection.  Given that nearly half of the court cases supervised by YOTs involve violence against the person and that 27 per cent involve children assessed as presenting a high or very high risk of harm to others, it’s very important to get this right.