The probation service is committed to increasing recruitment to fill probation officer vacancies. The adequacy of staffing levels is monitored on an ongoing basis through operational management and plans around recruitment and retention.
I recently spoke to a probation officer who is off work due to stress. They told me:
“We are losing no end of experienced officers and management doesn’t seem to care.”
With record levels of staff leaving the service and overworked officers fearful that any wrong decision could lead to tragedy, what specific actions will the Minister take to improve working conditions for probation officers?
Although, obviously, people do leave the probation service from time to time, I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises the very vigorous recruitment campaign over the past three years. We have taken on: 1,007 new recruits in 2020-21; 1,518 in 2021-22; and 1,500 more this year. However, he is right that we need to work hard to make sure that we retain staff as well. There is a variety of strategies that we can put in place to make sure that that is the case, not least looking at the workload, which is often a cause of stress and strain. I am pleased to say that the latest numbers tell me that only 4% of probation officers have a workload above the recommended maximum, and there are obviously reasons why that may be the case. Having said that, there is, obviously, much more that we can do, and one of those things is to agree a productive and helpful pay settlement. We are in conversation with the unions and, indeed, with colleagues in the Treasury about reaching a conclusion on those discussions soon.
Dedicated probation officers are telling me that they cannot manage their workloads as it is. One said:
“I used to spend about an hour each week with my high risk cases, but that simply isn’t possible with my current caseload. I no longer have confidence I can manage my cases in a way that keeps the public safe”.
After the Prime Minister’s pledge to cut civil service numbers by a fifth, will the Minister now rule out any more cuts to the probation service?
As I said in my previous answer, we are always reviewing case loads. I know the hon. Lady will recognise that the Inspectorate of Probation report on case loads, workloads and staffing numbers indicated that the recommended case load should not exceed 50, although it also said that there should not be a precise target. I am happy to tell her that 96% of probation officers and probation service officers hold fewer than 50 cases, with an average caseload of 34. Having said that, we recognise that the profession, which is valuable and does important work, presents particular stresses and strains. As part of the reunification process, and moving towards a target operating model, staff wellbeing and welfare will be a key element in our considerations.