Life has a habit of throwing up the strangest and cruelest of ironies and yesterday 13th July 2011 provided just such an example. As many of us found ourselves gripped by the momentous developments being played out in Parliament and Rupert Murdoch for the first time ever having to bow to the inevitable and concede defeat, some of us became aware that the end of the Probation Service as we know it had been announced.
In a disgraceful letter from Michael Spurr at NOMS headquarters and addressed to all 35 Probation Trust Chairs and Chief Executives, it was announced that every Service must begin preparing for core tasks such as PSR writing and offender supervision to be outsourced in a bid to save money. Without doubt this signals the beginning of the end of the Probation Service as we know it and as a distinct and unified public service. In my view it pretty much makes a nonsense of the work that has been on-going into the role of the probation service at the Justice Affairs Committee since last year, particularly as they have now completed taking evidence.
The letter states that only a limited amount of consultation is intended at this stage, but that the Government intends to announce its preferred options in the Autumn. So, as we enter the summer holiday period and Parliament prepares for recess, those at NOMS headquarters are clearly going to be busy over the next few months preparing plans for our demise. Once again we find ourselves in the invidious position of having to call upon our many friends in the Judiciary, other professions, academia and Parliament to come to our aid in order to save an honourable and vital public service. If anyone has anything positive to say about what is still sadly a much-misunderstood service, now is the time to do it.
In a recent lecture by criminologist Prof Peter Raynor at Cambridge University and entitled provocatively 'Is Probation Still Possible?' he explained that 'Probation in the post war reconstruction period was seen as important, progressive and part of the development of the Welfare State.' He quoted fellow criminologist Leon Radzinowicz who said in 1958 "If I were asked what was the most significant contribution made by this country to the new penological theory and practice which struck root in the twentieth century....my answer would be probation."
But of course that was another era when much of social and criminal justice policy was developed by means of careful consideration and deliberation and not reduced to sound bites traded in tawdry fashion as a way of gaining some short-term party-political advantage. There was a degree of consensus about such matters and politicians broadly were content to be informed by academics and learned committees. Oh for the good old days! My temporary euphoria has faded and I just know it's going to be a very grumpy few months ahead.