Chief Inspector calls for an independent review of the Probation Service, publishing his final annual report

The outgoing Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell, is calling for an independent review of whether the Probation Service should return to local control, two years on from unification into a national service.

The announcement comes as the Inspectorate publishes its annual report, which will be the Chief Inspector’s final report before leaving the post on 29 September 2023.

The Chief Inspector, Justin Russell, has published the following statement:

“The Probation Service is struggling. It’s more than two years since the unification of probation back into the public sector as a single national service. I said at the time that this was unlikely to be the silver bullet many were hoping for. Sadly, this has now proved to be the reality. Yes, there are staffing issues, yes there was a considerable impact from Covid-19, but as this annual report shows we have seen little improvement in our inspections over the past two years. The supervision of people on probation isn’t at the level it should be.

“Probation is, and always has been, a locally delivered service, working with local partners like the police, children’s services, and NHS trusts. To make the most of those partnerships, local probation leaders need freedom and flexibility to commit resources and staff to match circumstances and to be able to speak publicly to both defend and advocate for their services. Currently, they often feel heavily constrained and that they play second fiddle to the priorities of the prison service to which they are tied in the new One HMPPS structure.

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


“Elsewhere in the report we highlight often chronic staffing shortages at every grade which have led to what staff report perceive to be unmanageable workloads caseloads and to the poor quality of management oversight of frontline practitioners which was of an acceptable standard in only 28 per cent of cases. Major gaps in the services provided to people on probation to meet the underlying needs which may have driven their offending are also identified, as well as ongoing delays in ensuring that court requirements to complete unpaid work or offending behaviour programmes are delivered.”

Public protection

“My main concern is public protection, which has been a consistently weak area for probation in my four years as chief inspector and has become worse since unification. The Probation Service must assess and manage cases where there is a risk of serious harm robustly. We are still seeing safeguarding enquiries with local children’s services being made in only 55 per cent of the cases where we feel these are necessary and domestic abuse enquiries with the police in less than half. Probation officers have too many cases and too little time to focus on this key area of their work, putting the public potentially at risk as evidenced in our Serious Offence Reviews of Damien Bendall and Jordan McSweeney.

“I am disappointed that my time as chief inspector has not concluded with a more optimistic picture. With staff numbers increasing and caseloads coming down, the outlook may be more positive, but it is vital that these improvements feed through into better quality probation supervision, which our recent research proves leads to lower re-offending rates.  I’ve been lucky enough to meet hundreds or probation staff across England and Wales – I’ve never doubted their desire to do the right thing. And I sense a determination amongst service leaders and managers to improve. As I leave this role I wish them well in this endeavour – it remains a hugely important one.”

Summary of the HM Inspectorate Annual Report 2022/2023

This annual report covers the 31 local Probation Delivery Unit (PDU) inspections across 10 regions between June 2021 and July 2023.

Ratings: The results of these 31 inspections have been disappointing:

  • only one PDU (South Tyneside and Gateshead) was rated as ‘Good’
  • 15 PDUs were rated as ‘Requires improvement’ and 15 rated as ‘Inadequate’
  • the average (mean) score of these inspections was five out of a possible 27.

The quality of sentence management has got worse: when data for the most recent round of inspections is compared to the combined Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and National Probation Services (NPS) data for the same regions from before unification the percentage of cases rated as of sufficient quality was lower across all key quality questions.

Leadership and delivery: Only one PDU was rated ‘Good’ on our leadership standard and 13 PDUs were rated as ‘Inadequate’ on our services standard – with a strong correlation between these 13 and the services rated ‘Inadequate’. Ten services were rated as ‘Inadequate’ on our staffing standard, reflecting the chronic staff shortages we uncovered across England and Wales.

Case supervision: Probation practitioners performed better at engaging with people on probation during supervision. But, disappointingly, no element of the supervision process was delivered satisfactorily in more than 62 per cent of the 1,509 cases we inspected. Only three out of 31 PDUs were sufficient in assessing risks of serious harm in more than half of the cases we inspected a key reason why 15 services received an overall rating of ‘Inadequate’.

Comparison of case data pre- and post-unification: While we know that performance has been affected by Covid-19 and unification, we are concerned that there appears to be little improvement in our inspection scores during the sixteen months when our inspections took place. Gateshead and South Tyneside – the only PDU rated ‘Good’ showed that improvements are achievable. What does ‘Good’ look like?

  • a strong, committed staff group with reasonable workloads
  • a skilled and committed group of senior probation officers providing good oversight
  • good continuity of supervision – without frequent changes of probation officer
  • excellent partnerships, especially with police and children’s services.

Court work and risk of serious harm: Of the 31 inspections, 22 services had a court team based at the PDU, so we also inspect their work. Half of the PDUs we inspected were rated ‘Inadequate’ for court work and one-third ‘Requires improvement’. One PDU was rated ‘Good’ and three were rated ‘Outstanding’.

Our concerns focus on the lack of comprehensive risk assessments at the court report stage:

  • 51% of police domestic abuse checks had not been completed where required
  • 48% of safeguarding checks with local children’s services were not completed
  • 58% of home visits were not undertaken where we felt they should have been.

If the initial risk assessment at court (or at the start of sentence) is wrong, that error feeds through into poor plans and poor case management, as our Serious Further Offence reports have found (see chapter four). The performance of many court teams was adversely impacted by under-staffing. However, where our inspectors found good performance and high levels of sentencer satisfaction these tended to be because of good strategic planning.


Notes to editor

  1. Probation Delivery Units (PDUs) replaced Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and the National Probation Service (NPS), which merged into a unified Probation Service in June 2021.
  2. This report is available at on 19 September 2023 00.01.
  3. HM Inspectorate of Probation is the independent inspector of youth offending and probation services across England and Wales.
  4. The Inspectorate uses a four-point scale: ‘Outstanding’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires improvement’ and ‘Inadequate’. An Inspectorate rates specific aspects of each service and also gives an overall rating.
  5. For media enquiries, please contact (E-mail address)