Probation services – ‘disappointing’ work with drug users ‘lacks focus and funding’

Probation services are responding poorly to drugs misuse and addiction cases, according to inspectors.

Probation services across England and Wales supervise nearly 156,000 people in the community. HM Inspectorate of Probation estimates that almost 75,000 of these individuals have a drugs problem, yet fewer than 3,000 people were referred by probation services to specialist drug misuse treatment in 2019/2020.

HM Inspectorate of Probation partnered with the Care Quality Commission to examine how probation services supervise this cohort.

Inspectors found:

  • too few people on probation receive help to tackle drugs misuse – and when referrals are made, the quality of services is often not good enough
  • funding for treatment has reduced and criminal justice programmes to identify and refer people for treatment have “withered on the vine”
  • very few drug users on probation are being tested for drug use – just one in six of the inspected sample of known users
  • key information is missing, not captured properly or used to commission services. Probation services were unable to tell inspectors how many Class A drug users were on their caseload or how many were in treatment
  • six out of 10 magistrates that the Inspectorate surveyed said they were not confident probation was delivering the necessary treatment.

Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: “Drug-related crime causes widespread misery and costs the public purse more than £9bn a year. Yet there is a lack of focus and funding across the whole criminal justice system to tackle drug use and supply.

“The current system is not working well and the findings of this inspection were very disappointing.”

In the inspected areas, two-thirds of prison leavers received treatment for drugs misuse while in custody but did not continue to receive help on release. Inspectors were concerned to see poor follow-up arrangements in the community, with the situation considerably worse in England and better in Wales.

For several years, HM Inspectorate of Probation has reported on heavy workloads in parts of the probation service. Some probation officers managed upwards of 70 cases, which affected the overall quality of their work.

The findings in this inspection were consistent with the overall picture, with probation services often overstretched. Practitioners did not always have the time to examine individuals’ back stories and identify factors that could help support them into recovery, stay safe and move away from drug-related offending. Probation court teams made too few recommendations for treatment.

Two-thirds of the practitioners interviewed during this inspection felt they needed more training on the impact of drugs and how to support individuals with trauma and recovery.

At the time of the inspection, probation services were delivered by the National Probation Service and privately-owned Community Rehabilitation Companies. Major reforms took place at the end of June and probation services are now unified into one public-sector service.

The Inspectorate has made 14 recommendations in its report to improve the quality of supervision including more drug rehabilitation court orders, greater use of testing, and increased funding for treatment.

Mr Russell said: “Probation services have an important role to play in supporting positive change for individuals caught up in drugs and their supply.

“The new Probation Service must strengthen every aspect of its work with drug users. It needs to build a comprehensive picture of this crime-generating cohort and commission the right services to reduce their drug use. Justice and health organisations must work more closely together, for example to ensure continuity of support for prison leavers.”

Mr Russell added: “Earlier this year, the government provided additional funding to improve drugs treatment. While the announcement was welcome, the money is for just one year – we need sustained commitment to fund drug treatment and recovery for people on probation.

“I welcome Dame Carol Black’s recent call for additional ring-fenced government funding for substance misuse treatment. People on probation should be an urgent priority for any future increase in investment, which would cut crime, save lives and more than pay for itself in the long run.”

Dr Rosie Benneyworth from the Care Quality Commission said: “Where services were available and people could access them, we found dedicated health workers providing good quality care for people in need of substance misuse services. However, the vital holistic support provided around this can vary greatly and be a barrier to keeping people engaged and on their recovery journey.

“Concerns around the availability of these services, along with concerns around continuing engagement with people as they move from one part of the system to another, means that as it stands the right care is not reaching everybody that it should.”

Oliver Standing, Director of Collective Voice, said: “Effective drug treatment and recovery has real transformational power – reducing mental and physical health harms, supporting people into super-charged citizenship, healing families and creating savings for the public purse. And crucially it has a strong, proven link to reducing crime – keeping vulnerable people out of the criminal justice and leading to fewer victims of crime in the future.

“The findings of the report are stark. It is estimated almost half of those supervised in the community by the probation service have a drug problem. The fact that only slightly more than two per cent were referred into specialist support in 2019/20 surely represents a systems failure. Although community services have experienced a decade of profound disinvestment, Dame Carol Black’s recent review has set out a compelling vision of a refreshed and renewed system and made the case for major investment. This important thematic review will help to shape that brighter future.”


Notes to editor

  1. The report is available at on 18 August 2021 00.01.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Probation is the independent inspector of youth offending and probation services across England and Wales. The Inspectorate was supported by the Care Quality Commission, the independent regulator of all health and social care services in England, and Health Inspectorate Wales, the independent inspectorate and regulator of healthcare in Wales.
  3. This report focuses on the misuse of illegal drugs (such as cocaine, heroin etc) and prescription drugs. The report does not cover the misuse of other substances (such as alcohol, solvents etc).
  4. There were 155,679 people on probation in the community at the end of December 2020 (source: Ministry of Justice).
  5. The Transforming Rehabilitation programme split up and part-privatised probation services across England and Wales in 2014. The probation service was unified and put back into the public sector on 26 June 2021.
  6. Fieldwork for this inspection took place from January to March 2021 and included interviews, surveys and review of case files in: Middlesbrough, Manchester, Blackpool, Swansea, Lambeth and East Sussex. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, fieldwork was conducted remotely. We also worked with an agency to seek the views of people on probation. See Annexe 2 of the report for the full methodology.
  7. Dame Carol Black published the second part of her independent review of drugs on 08 July 2021. Paragraph 5.20 calls for more funding for probation services.
  8. Collective Voice is a membership body with nine members: Change Grow Live, Changing Lives, Cranstoun, The Forward Trust, Humankind, Phoenix Futures, Turning Point, WDP, and We Are With You.
  9. For media enquiries, please contact Head of Communications Catherine Chan on 07889 405930 or (E-mail address)