Over a third of probation officers have insufficient time to help offenders in ‘unmitigated disaster’ of part-privatised service

Over a third of probation officers have insufficient time to help offenders in the part-privatised service because of bigger workloads and unrealistic targets, new research says.

The researchers, Professor Gill Kirton, Queen Mary University of London, and Dr  

Cécile Guillaume, Roehampton University, surveyed almost 1,000 probation officers, and carried out face-to-face research with 100.

They looked at the effects of the government’s privatisation of around half of the probation service in 2015, in which lower risk offenders are looked after by 21 private companies and the rest by public sector organisations.

The researchers found that the privatisation was “unprecedented in terms of its scale and scope and it has proven to be something of an unmitigated disaster”.

In an article in the Work, Employment and Society journal, published by the British Sociological Association, the researchers say that:

  • 35% of those responding (296 officers) agreed with the statement “I am unable to spend enough time with individual clients.”
  • 35% of those responding (248 officers) agreed with the statement “I have a bigger caseload.”
  • 53% of those responding (449 officers) agreed with the statement “Targets are unrealistic.”
  • 67% of those responding (590 officers) agreed with the statement “Profit motive will corrupt traditional probation values.”

Also, because of the bigger caseloads and unrealistic targets, probation officers were unable to keep to same standards as before. 36% of those responding (304 officers) agreed with the statement “I regularly have to cut corners/compromise professional standards to meet targets.”

In the article, Professor Kirton, of Queen Mary’s Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity, and Dr Guillaume, of Roehampton University’s Business School, said that the part-privatisation was “rather unique in that it proffers a cautionary tale of the multiple dangers of splitting and partially privatizing a core service delivered by professional workers”.

They said that the privatisation had been carried out by the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling “against massive opposition from criminal justice experts, senior probation leaders, the unions representing probation workers, and the workers themselves. The exercise – Transforming Rehabilitation – went ahead without piloting and no meaningful consultation.”

It had created “conveyor belt” conditions in the privatised part of the service that meant that officers “instead of prioritizing the needs of individual clients, were now required to work in the name of organizational excellence, which could mean having to compromise what they regarded as professional standards.

“Practitioners in both parts of the service complained that they were under newly recruited managers whom they regarded as unqualified to manage probation.

“It was quite clear that probation practitioners perceived the ethic of care and humanistic sensibility towards clients that are so central to the profession’s identity as existentially threatened by introduction of the profit motive.

“The privatization project was and remains an ideological one, not least because of the absence of evidence that it delivers the promised service improvements and reductions in costs.

“The privatization of probation is unprecedented in terms of its scale and scope and it has proven to be something of an unmitigated disaster for professionals.”

Speaking about the research, Professor Kirton said the reason probation officers were unable to meet targets was not through any inefficiency or lack of will, but because their case loads were too heavy.

Probation officers told the researchers:

“I truly believe that offenders will receive a poorer service and staff will struggle to provide the high level of service they have always given. Consequently, the public will be at risk.”

“I do not consider that we are in a position to protect the public, but we will be the scapegoats when tragedies happen.”

“I’m now at the end of my tether and the only thing that keeps me in the job is the work that I do with my offenders – a lot of my caseload is people that I’ve been working with for a long period of time, mainly lifers.”

“The whole idea of making money out of people’s acts of crime and the fallout from it is I think for many people quite disturbing. It shouldn’t be a money making operation. I have colleagues who were morally upset at the idea because some of the companies that were bidding were involved in arms and all sorts of different businesses.”

Since the research was carried out, the government has announced plans to bring the probation service back fully into public ownership.

For more information, please contact: 

Tony Trueman
British Sociological Association
Tel: 07964 023392 


  1. The researches carried out a survey of members of the main probation union, Napo which represents about 60% of main grade probation practitioners. In total they received 992 responses, about 17.5% of members. They also interviewed or held focus groups with around 100 members.
  2. The article is entitled ‘When Welfare Professionals Encounter Restructuring and Privatization: The Inside Story of the Probation Service of England and Wales’, and will be published shortly online in Work, Employment and Society, a journal run by the British Sociological Association and SAGE.
  3. The British Sociological Association’s charitable aim is to promote sociology. The BSA is a Company Limited by Guarantee. Registered in England and Wales. Company Number: 3890729. Registered Charity Number 1080235 www.britsoc.co.uk