This year the AGM of NAPO returns to the fine Victorian seaside resort of Scarborough on the North Yorkshire coast. It should prove to be a particularly important conference coming as it does on the eve of significant public spending cuts and inevitable privatisation of whole areas of probation work. In amongst the usual programmed contributions from government ministers and NOMS representatives, my eye was drawn to a scheduled fringe meeting about a new project. According to the blurb "the Offender Engagement Programme is a NOM's initiative to improve the quality and effectiveness of one to one work with offenders and reduce reoffending. The central hypothesis is that the relationship between the offender and the probation practitioner can be a powerful vehicle for changing behaviour and reducing reoffending."
My initial reaction was to sigh in disbelief that such a self-evident truth that has been a basic tenet of the Probation Service since it's inception, should be the subject of a 'new' initiative. It's clearly only worthy of derision and typical of an out-of-touch NOMS. Any fool knows the relationship between probation officer and client is the essence and secret of probation and has been confirmed by numerous research projects. But then I began to reflect on what I have witnessed over the last few years in my own office. We have had a steady flow of trainees coming through, many with psychology or sociology degrees and I've watched them struggling with mountains of paper accumulated in the name of 'evidence' as they wrestle with the NVQ agenda and distance learning degree. I admire their patience enormously because I know I couldn't do it. The TPO's represent the new culture within the Service and of course as a group they have been absorbing this new ethos through instruction and learning and I have previously discussed the cultural tensions that have resulted.
I will be honest and say this period has been very difficult for me. Traditionally I've always been actively involved with students around the office and been only too delighted to have them 'shadow' me - but I knew instinctively it wouldn't be fair to do this under the new arrangements as it would only serve to confuse them and exacerbate cultural differences. But like all PO's I was interested to watch their style with clients and compare it to my own. I have been mostly horrified at the formulaic and pejorative approach and in one instance will admit to professional voyeurism. I think the story is worth telling to illustrate my point.
I must have become aware of this client's dissatisfaction with his fairly newly-qualified PO when I saw him as Duty Officer one day. Now obviously in this job being unhappy with what your officer is saying is an occupational fact of life - but this seemed different and I got into the habit of reading the CRAMS entries when his PO had seen him. It basically painted a picture of a failing relationship and an officer who's hectoring, lectures and threats were clearly having little positive effect on what I felt was a pretty ordinary client.
By a strange twist, due to the officer being on leave, a few months later I found myself interviewing this young man at the local remand prison in relation to breach of his Probation Order. He had failed to report to his PO, stopped going to Community Service and committed more offences. He explained he couldn't abide his officer and had effectively just 'given up'. Now this was a difficult situation professionally. Although I was in no doubt it was the officers fault primarily - the PO is in control of the relationship - there is no way I would convey this to the client, and yet I had to try and repair this young mans trust in the Service. We talked about the options and I said it depended on him - I could either make a strong case for a fresh community order (but could not promise a different PO) or argue that the best option was a short custodial to 'clear the slate'. Guess what he opted for and what I felt was my moral duty to facilitate?
He got custody and I guess the example explains why regrettably we just might need a new initiative looking at that relationship between officer and client after all.