02 February 2023 - Probation in the news for all the wrong reasons

Our independent serious further offence (SFO) reviews of Jordan McSweeney and the review of Damien Bendall, in the past couple of weeks, were deeply concerning. In the run up to publication, I had the chance to meet with the relatives of both Terri Harris and Zara Aleena and brief them on our findings, which was an emotional and moving experience. It brought home to me, vividly, how much is at stake when things go wrong with probation supervision.

The media coverage of our reports was extensive – during interviews, and after, I was asked “is the service fit for purpose?” and “can you guarantee that the public is safe from future cases like this?” To which the honest answer had to be that it’s impossible to say, and that I have serious doubts as to whether the way that the service is currently assessing and managing risk of harm is fit for purpose. While we found clear failures in the quality of individual probation practice, there were also broader systemic issues in both cases which we are seeing time and time again, both in our local probation inspections and thematic reviews. These included: overloaded practitioners and line managers with well above their target workloads; significant delays in handing over cases from prison to community probation staff, resulting in last minute and inadequate release planning; and incomplete or inaccurate risk assessments. This is the case both the court stage and start of supervision, with very inexperienced staff being handed inappropriately complex cases with minimal management oversight.

During our inspection of Probation Service – London region, last summer, only 25 per cent of staff told us their caseloads were manageable and management oversight was effective in only 51 out 223 individual cases we inspected.  Chronic staff shortages (in excess of 500 vacancies) meant that, in the autumn, 12 out of 18 London delivery units were ‘Red’ in terms of the service’s own national RAG (Red, Amber or Green) ratings of concern – meaning that key business-as-usual tasks were being reduced or paused. Collectively, across England and Wales, two-thirds of the 850 cases we’ve inspected since unification have been found to be insufficient in terms of the quality of risk assessments we’re seeing. (The figure is even worse for medium-risk cases).

In his response to our reports in the House of Commons, on 24 January, Damian Hinds MP made clear that the government accepted all of my recommendations in both the McSweeney and Bendall cases. Indeed, in the latter, given that we submitted our report to the Secretary of State at the beginning of 2022, many have already been implemented. This included a mandatory requirement, since last April, for domestic abuse and safeguarding enquiries on all cases being considered for a curfew order and extra staff to conduct these checks – as well as a new section on OASys, focused on child wellbeing.

I also want to see the service ensuring that all recalls are locally actioned within a maximum of 24 hours and police and probation working together to monitor and improve the speed with which recalled cases are returned to custody once licences have been revoked. The recall of an individual to custody signifies the risk they pose can no longer be managed in the community, therefore the timeliness of return to custody should be a priority. If acted on, and if the quality of risk assessment and management is improved across the service, I’m convinced that lives can be saved in future, so that some good may come out of these awful cases.