Bitter sweet reflections on a return to Llandudno

One of the highlights of my 17 year career in probation was attending the annual Napo AGM. So a return to Llandudno this week brought back so many memories having last been there for an AGM in 1979. What was unchanged was the enthusiasm, commitment and integrity of probation staff. I talked to many people whilst there and all expressed, in unison, their anger, their frustration and their sheer distress at the events surrounding these unprecedented and unjustified changes to the world of probation. The quality of debate and argument was as high as I can remember and it included stirring speeches from Tom Rendon, the Napo chair, Ian Lawrence, the general secretary, supportive MPs Elfin Llwyd and Leanne Wood and many many more.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak to conference and humbled by the positive response my remarks received. Though asked to speak on ‘what works’ I used the opportunity to repeat many of the remarks I had made at the previous week’s World Congress on Probation. At the Congress I had been disquieted by the lack of space given to the situation in England and Wales. When I raised these issues in my session they were received with interest and incomprehension. Visitors from over 50 probation services around the world were without exception appalled by what was happening here in England and Wales. Many consider the probation service in this country to be the model to draw upon to develop their own emergent services. They cannot understand that the state would want to lease its commitment to justice to an array of untried and untested arrangements. At the same time colleagues from England and Wales were relieved and grateful that the issues were no longer the elephant in the room. An opportunity was lost nevertheless to garner international support against these changes.

At the Napo conference I followed a similar theme. Whilst we have spent the last 15 to 20 years spraying the words ‘evidence based policy and practice’ on anything that moves and indeed showing through many pieces of excellent research that we have more answers to the questions posed around rehabilitation now than when we did when I was a young probation officer in 1979, it is intolerable that what is accepted and utilised is subject to policy priorities often facing the opposite direction to the evidence presented. Indeed I have often argued that what we are seeing is policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy. It is unsurprising that Chris Grayling is constantly being criticised for his selective attention to the evidence. He is a serial offender here ignoring evidence whether we are referring to the work programme, legal aid or probation. Repeated in so many conversations I had with concerned probation staff was the simple truth that the ideological driven, neo-liberal marketisation of rehabilitation services is the only consistent feature of the current government’s probation reform programme as it is of so much of its welfare agenda. There is no other sustained commitment to any other agenda despite the rhetoric. The commitment to innovation, and to reducing reoffending is part of the DNA of probation staff and therefore why not utilise that expertise not denigrate and destroy it?

The Head of NOMS made a spirited if doomed attempt to support his political masters but was deeply unconvincing in argument. I want to highlight just three issues concerning the future – a growing sense of unease about the construction and direction of the new National Probation Service (NPS), the folly and dangers of an over hasty implementation and the continued need and worth of fighting on to resist an increasingly untenable change.

It is instructive and worrying to note that in the last few weeks the role of the National Probation Service in this future world has been used as a prop to argue that the continuation of Probation and the worth of probation is thus guaranteed. Firstly it seems to have been conveniently forgotten that the last attempt to impose a National Probation Service in 2001 was an abysmal failure. Even Michael Spurr seemed to acknowledge that the success of the probation trusts in the last five or six years shows that a locally accountable, partnership driven service is more likely to reduce reoffending than a remote and bureaucratically driven national service. The recent replacement of a senior probation figure as the new director of NPS, whatever the reason, is symptomatic of the drive to create a command and control structure driven by NOMS where Probation staff become civil servants and subject to the suffocating and unquestioning delivery requirements imposed upon them. The NPS will, I am afraid, be an uncomfortable home to work in. If you look at any of the process maps provided recently on twitter by Joe Kuipers you will see just how complex structures have become. They assume a rational and linear process of engagement which does not fit with the chaotic and difficult world in which our service users inhabit and which a fragmented and competitive environment will further engender. There is talk of national standards returning to drive the NPS. I discussed in June ( Bill McWilliams lecture the difficulty of maintaining the essence of probation. It strikes me it is now abundantly clear that that essence will not rest with the NPS. Indeed when you look at the MoJ’s own evidence-based publication, coincidently (or maybe not so coincidentally) published on the same day as the announcement of the competition, you will see a firm statement of what they consider to be the organisational framework within which successful rehabilitation services can be delivered. They include four key elements:

The role of skilled, trained practitioners
Well sequenced, holistic approaches
Delivery of services and interventions in a joined up, integrated manner
Delivery of high-quality services

Put simply, these elements describe a probation trust and is a ringing endorsement of the work that trusts have done over the past few years. Somewhat ironic therefore that the world of probation with its locally accountable 35 Trusts, is being dissected in such a complex and fragmentary way that the possibilities of achieving any of these above evidence-based qualities has been severely compromised.

I want for just a few seconds to suspend my disbelief about these changes and pretend that the innovative and groundbreaking potential so often reiterated by ministers makes these changes both necessary and welcome. This is difficult but bear with me! Many commentators have already pointed out that the implementation of complex, untried systems without piloting, without staging and without sufficient time to embed is risky, dangerous and simply foolhardy. How can responsible public servants put services at risk even when its own risk register points to the potential calamity. This is not only a potential systems calamity. It rides roughshod over the lives of 18,000 probation workers and treats with surprising disdain the rights of victims and communities for public safety. It is surely never right that a political agenda based around a future election timetable should be the only criteria for continuing this mad rush to change. Surely there is now more than enough evidence to call a halt, even if you believe in its blueprint, and to allow this process, if it is to occur to be done in a way which would not put the public at risk and builds on current good practice, probation trusts are not the enemy here!

I saw a steely determination in Llandudno that probation staff, reluctant always to take militant action, but people who care deeply for the service users they work with, will not simply roll over and let such changes happen. Apart from seeking to avoid the unnecessary personal tragedies that will inevitably unfold, with job losses, job redirection and reductions to codes and conditions of service, probation staff will fight for something that they believe it. This is a vocational service not driven by monetary reward or competitive advantage. Michael Sandel, a political philosopher, has pointed out that the neoliberal marketisation of services raises crucial questions about the moral limits of markets. Surely the mark of any civilised society is that it would not treat its miscreant members as simply commodities to be sold to the lowest bidder. I urge everyone to join the growing ‘cacophony of noise’ against these changes. There is time to draw breath, to re-consider the folly and dangers of this process and to construct an evidence informed basis for change.

The call for papers. for thought pieces and letters to Grayling made by the British Journal of Community Justice has produced a fantastic response so far ( ) This will go to press and be in the public domain by mid December. We are still looking for more Letters to Grayling. I would encourage you to send your thoughts to the journal and we would be happy to publish letters anonymously, where people might be rightly concerned about their job security. I will send a copy of the journal to the Minister and will look to the social media to spread the thinking that will be presented in this issue. It is only a small contribution to the drip drip of noise which needs to be created. But make no mistake that noise is getting louder and I for one won’t rest until we find a way to cause this wrongheaded and evidence-bereft policy to pause and then to be abandoned.

Thank you Napo for welcoming me back so warmly.

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