Reviving Our Neglected Probation Service: A Vital Step Towards Empowering and Protecting Women


Probation Service

The Troubling Reality of the Probation Service in England and Wales

Imagine if just one in 30 schools was rated “good” by inspectors. Imagine if half of our NHS hospitals were rated “inadequate”. Imagine if less than 50 per cent of our police forces could be relied on to conduct sufficient domestic abuse checks.

Well, each one of those damning statistics is the reality of the Probation Service in England and Wales, according to the latest annual report by the statutory watchdog that oversees it.

A Dire Record

Only one out of the 31 Probation Delivery Units (PDUs) in South Tyneside and Gateshead was deemed “good”. Of the rest, 15 were rated “requires improvement” and 15 ”inadequate”. The average “score” of these inspections was five out of a possible 27.

In any other public service, there would be an outcry over such a dire record. “Hit squads” would be sent in, institutions put in special measures. There would be urgent Commons questions and widespread TV coverage.

But probation, like some other areas of Government activity, really is a Cinderella service with even less profile and attention than our prisons or social care. It seems that the only thing that makes politicians take notice is when things go so disastrously wrong that people die.

A Consistently Weak Area

Justin Russell, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation, didn’t mince his words as he set out the findings. “My main concern is public protection, which has been a consistently weak area for probation in my four years [in the job],” he said.

Russell rightly highlighted two horrific cases of failures that led to murders by men on probation. Damien Bendall, who murdered three children and his pregnant partner; and sexual predator Jordan McSweeney, who stalked and killed law graduate Zara Aleena.

Both cases uncovered a litany of probation failings, with the service failing to categorise either killer as high-risk offenders.

Inadequate Risk Assessment

McSweeney murdered Ms Aleena in June 2022, nine days after his release on licence from prison. He had been wrongly assessed as “medium risk” by staff who were under “mounting pressure”, according to the probation inspectorate.

Probation officers have too many cases, too few staff and insufficient time to manage “potential risks of serious harm”, the latest report found. It’s truly shocking that around 100 murders every year – one every three days – are committed by people on probation (even though that’s a small fraction of the total in the system).

Just as worrying as the murders, the report found that the Probation Service failed to prioritise safeguarding for children in 45 per cent of cases, and made the necessary domestic abuse enquiries with the police in less than half of cases.

Indeed, earlier this summer, the Chief Inspector had a separate, but equally damning report that only 28 per cent of people on probation had been properly assessed as to whether they were at risk of committing further domestic abuse.

With nearly 75,000 people supervised by the Probation Service identified as a current or former domestic abuse perpetrator, that’s a further, frightening failure.

A Compounding Problem

What has compounded that failure is the disastrous Cameron-era privatisation of the service by former justice secretary Chris Grayling. The decision gave 21 private companies responsibility for the supervision of 150,000 low- to medium-risk offenders, but was a “mess” that ended up costing the taxpayer half a billion pounds.

The difficulty is that the renationalisation ordered by Grayling’s successor Robert Buckland in 2021 itself carried risks in the way it was conducted. The Chief Inspector warned at the time that it would not be “a magic bullet for improving performance” and his latest report confirms that in spades.

In fact, Justin Russell now says there has been “little improvement” and has taken the bold step of recommending an independent review into whether probation should move back to a more local form of governance and control.

The Path Forward

The key, it seems, is not just public versus private provision, it’s central versus local management. The Chief Inspector points out that local multi-agency youth justice services – 70 per cent of which we rated as “good” or “outstanding” last year – should be the model.

The other key factor is another Cameron-era decision: austerity. The inspectorate has repeatedly warned about staff shortages and the latest report talks of “chronic staffing shortages at every grade which have led to what staff report perceive to be unmanageable workloads caseloads”.

A three-year pay rise helped and some 2,000 staff are, finally, being recruited to fill vacancies by next spring. But it will take years for them to get the experience vital for public protection and the senior staff needed to provide the mentorship are leaving in droves.

After a lethal cocktail of government cuts, a botched privatisation and renationalisation, probation is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with our broken public services. It’s time it got the attention it deserves.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of our company.


Micheal Kurt

I earned a bachelor's degree in exercise and sport science from Oregon State University. He is an avid sports lover who enjoys tennis, football, and a variety of other activities. He is from Tucson, Arizona, and is a huge Cardinals supporter.

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