21 September 2023 - A farewell from Chief Inspector, Justin Russell

At the end of September, I will be stepping down as Chief Inspector of Probation after more than four years in the role. It’s been a huge privilege to hold this post and to work with such a great and committed team of inspectors and headquarters staff – but also to get to know so many of those leading and working in probation and youth justice services.

Since I became Chief Inspector, we have published 101 youth justice service reports; 57 probation inspection reports; 20 thematic reports and (a new product for us) 13 effective practice guides. We’ve also seen the unification of the probation service back in the public sector and a national Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve reported to five different Lord Chancellors and seven different probation and prisons Ministers.

My final two annual reports – for our youth inspections and for probation – couldn’t have been more different. While 70 per cent of our Youth Offending Service (YOS) inspections last year we rated as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’; only one of the 31 probation inspections covered by my final probation annual report published this week was rated ‘Good’ – and 15 were rated as ‘Inadequate’. The combined impact of the pandemic and of transitioning to a unified model, plus the legacy of Transforming Rehabilitation and chronic staff shortages almost everywhere we’ve visited, has been profound.

When the Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and the public sector National Probation Service (NPS) were re-unified I cautioned that this by itself was not going to be a silver bullet for all the problems that the Probation Service was inheriting. Real transformation was a long-term commitment, and re-unification was just the beginning of that journey.

Two years on, that prediction has sadly turned out to be true – with the performance of the service against our quality standards having got worse not better since unification. This is particularly true for the quality of work to assess and manage risks of serious harm. Two-thirds of the 1,500 individual cases we have inspected since the autumn of 2021 we have judged to be insufficient against this essential core function of the service. We’ve found chronic staff shortages in almost every area we’ve visited and poor levels of management supervision – as well as large gaps in whether the needs of people on probation that might have driven their past offending are being met.

In the longer arc of history, the most recent structural reorganisation of probation marks the final step from probation being entirely locally run and funded at the beginning of the 20th Century, to being an entirely national one in the third decade of the 21st, with probation staff now all government civil servants and part of a ‘One HMPPS’ structure.

Many in the service hark back to the days (not that long ago), when probation was a genuinely local service – for which they were accountable rather than run from Whitehall – which focused on their partnerships and abilities to act autonomously within them. Given our results from the past year, and after speaking to probation leaders and managers around England and Wales, I have increasing sympathy with this view.

The Prison Service will always need to be national, given the constant pressure on prison places and the need to manage scarce functions like the high security, women’s prisons, and youth estate at a national level. And some probation functions, like the management of terrorist offenders after release are best managed nationally too. But for the great majority of the probation caseload, all the most important relationships are local, with locally run and accountable partners. These include police services; local authority housing and social service departments; mental health trusts; and drug and alcohol services. To make the most of those partnerships, PDU probation leaders need the freedoms to commit resources and staff; to agree local contracts; to decide on investments in infrastructure and to be able to speak publicly to both defend and advocate for their area’s services. But they feel heavily constrained in relation to all these freedoms and flexibilities by current structures. It is telling that our inspection scores for youth offending services, which can do all these things, have been far better than for probation over the past year and if anything, seem to have improved, in spite of the pandemic.

In part, of course, this is because youth justice services (YJS) have much more manageable caseloads – far lower than probation equivalents. But I think it also reflects the greater resilience and potential for flexibility and innovation that’s possible with locally run and accountable services, for the most part now firmly embedded in local authority children’s services. These strong relationships are also cemented by local YJS management boards. These include senior representatives of all services with which the YJS will be working, who have the power to get things sorted within their own services on behalf of the children on each YJS caseload.

I recognise that another reorganisation of the service, and any shift in this direction would have to be with the explicit agreement of PDU managers and staff. But the time has come for an independent review of whether probation should move back to a more local form of governance and control, building on the highly successful lessons of youth justice services – 70 per cent of which we rated as ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ last year.

My thanks to all of my colleagues at HMI Probation for all their hard work and support over the past four years. But thanks also to the services we’ve inspected. As we say at the beginning of every inspection report, without their help and co-operation our inspections would not be possible. I’ve been lucky enough to meet hundreds of probation and youth justice staff and managers across England and Wales in my time as Chief Inspector and I’ve never doubted their desire to do the right thing, even if that proved difficult in practice. I wish all them well for the future and hope for brighter days ahead.