Institute for Government says that renationalisation process was undertaken too quickly – but was ultimately ‘mostly successful’
The speed at which the Ministry of Justice renationalised outsourced probation services created issues with IT systems and “caused unnecessary pressure” on staff, a think tank has said.
The reunification of probation services in England and Wales between 2019 and 2021 was “mostly successful in bringing together many different component parts” but with “bumps in the road the MoJ should have foreseen”, according to a report from the Institute for Government.
But the IfG warned that “swift action” is needed to improve probation services or the latest transformation “risks being added to the long list of unsuccessful historical restructures”.
The merger was the fourth major restructuring of probation services in 20 years. It reversed then-justice secretary Chris Grayling’s failed 2014 Transforming Rehabilitation plan, which saw parts of the probation service privatised into community rehabilitation companies (CRCs).
The MoJ set out its finalised plans for the reunification in June 2020, with a target for all services to be fully returned to the MoJ within a year. It successfully met this deadline on 26 June 2021, transferring 7,000 CRC staff to HM Prison and Probation Service.
This was an “impressive” achievement – particularly given that, according to the report, an MoJ non-executive director privately gave the timetable a 3% chance of success – but the transition should have been extended by up to six months, the IfG said.
One of the key problems was that IT systems were not ready when CRC staff transferred to the MoJ, which meant they had to keep their existing cases until the new system was developed to accept them. They joined the HMPPS system by December 2021.
These IT delays “led to unnecessary pressure on some staff,” the IfG said.
More than half of probation staff said they had been dissatisfied with high caseloads at the time of the merger and the guidance they were offered on how to manage this, a September 2021 survey by HM Inspectorate of Probation found.
The “aggressive” timetable also meant CRC staff were not given enough time for a proper induction, the IfG report added.
Existing caseload pressures were exacerbated by staff shortages, with CRCs freezing recruitment for up to three months prior to unification to minimise the costs of hiring and then moving additional staff over to the MoJ, the IfG said.
“While understandable, this led to critical gaps in the workforce,” the report said.
Despite the workload issues, probation staff who answered the survey said the transition had mostly been well managed.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “As this report recognises, we successfully unified the Probation Service to deliver better and more consistent supervision against a challenging backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The extra £155m we are now investing in the service every year has allowed us to recruit thousands more staff and encourage further innovation to robustly manage offenders in the community and cut crime.”