Long Form: Reunification of the probation service: dream or nightmare?

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Long Form: Reunification of the probation service: dream or nightmare?

National vice-chair, Keith Stokeld, shares his thoughts on whether reunification of the probation service will be a dream or a nightmare.

Having followed the presentations to the parliamentary committees over the failures around TR, can those who wish to make the case dare to dream the wasted years of TR are about to be reversed, or is there another nightmare?

Some of the responding commentary suggested the clamour for reunification came from those hankering for a bygone age that never existed. What would it bring compared to the promised innovation of the private sector. A promise that is in danger of evaporating as evidenced by HM inspection reports of poor performance with the flagship of “through the gate” sinking into a sea of failure. None of which is directed at the staff involved in its delivery, whose professionalism has been marginalised by performance management driven targets that fail to utilise the diminishing wealth of skills the companies inherited at their inception.

Reunification should not depend on highlighting the damage TR may well have wreaked on the ethics that inspired people to join the service. These values still attract new entrants in some circles until the reality of workloads hit home. So where was the innovation promised by exposure to the market? It would be easy to say it evaporated with commercialism. The argument for unification has to be on the basis of a service capable of dispelling the myth that innovation is safe in the hands of the private sector.  This could include reforming partnerships with the voluntary sector in order to be strong enough to expose the way bidders squandered the chance to use those they inherited, along with talent of workers they carelessly threw aside for profit.

Learning from the past includes an examination the journey of constant change endured by probation through the introduction of what works, risk management, accredited programmes and the apparent swop of national standards for professional judgement. All used to improve the effectiveness of probation. Part of this involved a certain John Patten who advocated “Just deserts” in the 90’s. The resulting act sought to put probation centre stage with the commencement of PSR’s and a greater influence with courts as well as sentence management. The problem was far from being in control, like players on a stage, someone else was writing the script for the probation service. Unless the practice vacuum is supported by improvements to recidivism, the next minister is free to put on a different show.

The problem was far from being in control, like players on a stage, someone else was writing the script for the probation service. Unless the practice vacuum is supported by improvements to recidivism, the next minister is free to put on a different show

It is vital to ensure reunification provides a strong vision of what the service should look like. Unless this happens, the process remains a potential hostage to the next protagonist who wants to make a name for themselves.

Take for example a certain Michael Howard with “Prison Works” and his removal of the training arrangements for probation.  No matter how much evidence was used to discredit Prison Works, every time it was repeated, it only succeeded in polishing its allure to those who sought a harsher sentencing regime. Those seeking reunification who ignore the need for credible sentences, do so at their peril.

Gaining credibility for a reunified service will be one that ensures a credible “what works” agenda is developed which may well use desistance theory and a reinvigorated accredited programmes that can plug the gap. There is evidence these can only work if underpinned by the personal relationship between service user and Probation staff. A relationship based on a sense of purpose underpinned by those values needed support the belief in the possibility of change. Even the terminology of the offender management model has proved divisive and added to the inertia of how a professional service should be viewed.

How could TR hijack a gold standard service? Labour’s 2007 act sought to use the introduction of local voluntary services to under pin the work of probation trusts. The then minister carved this up by using the section to tackle the recidivism rates of short-term offenders with the innovation of the market.  Under the terms the probation service was working at the time, it was like “blaming the Navy for the price of fish”. (Thanks to Lol Burke and Steve Colet).

The lack of support may well be arguably the result of being dazzled by the need to manage high risk. Informed by events like Jack Straw’s apparent attack on the weakness of supervision when he pursued the chief of London probation around the murder of two French students. A similar attack looms over the Worboys case and the Victims Service.

Whatever happened to tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime? Tony’s focus shifted to anti-social behaviour and everyone became caught up in a society where we have more cameras watching us per head that anywhere in Europe.

Every time a high profile case hits the headlines, the demand to ensure the risk assessment was completed takes away resources from delivering interventions. Much in the same way prior to the split high crime causers were apparently left to their own devices. Those who fall into this category are often found in communities who suffer deprivation and attract the reactive policies aimed at courting the popular vote. Similar to those given ASBOs, the demonisation of those repeat offenders, they become the focus for TR that allows the austerity agenda to avoid dealing with limited life chances that continue to oil the revolving door.  Whatever happened to tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime? Tony’s focus shifted to anti-social behaviour and everyone became caught up in a society where we have more cameras watching us per head that anywhere in Europe.

Those who apparently fell through the net and prompted TR are evidently in danger of doing so again as the CRCs lose effective control of the cases given to them. With an already stretched public sector, where are the resources to come from should the holes appear if one of these providers go the way of Carillion.

Exposing compliance verses commercially driven targets increase the potential for those being supervised to question the legitimacy of their provider. At the same time it would be critically important to recognise some staff were dissatisfied with the managerial response driven by the government agenda for “punishment in the community” They were willing to turn their back on the 1991 act with its National Standards and instead were attracted to the freedoms promised in the Private Sector.

Therefore reunification requires a service model with strong sense of identity. One with a theoretical base capable of persuading those able to do so, that such a move would be a pragmatic and cost effective option. One that has at its heart sufficient command of the ideological capital to see off the dogma behind the split. It needs to be future proofed around the continuous professional development of staff, it needs to command the respect of the courts and above all, transform lives for those it works for, not just because keeping probation public was a good idea.

 

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