There's just 20 days left in which to submit comments to Chris Grayling regarding his plan to privatise most of the probation service. We all knew this was coming and now is the time to decide how to respond.
Probation staff are not particularly renowned for militancy, a fact reflected by NAPO the trade union having dual status as a professional association. Membership has been slipping, especially amongst more-recently qualified staff and other unions such as Unite have been steadily increasing representation.
Unlike other public services, such as the police, we also suffer from the lack of an effective national voice. This is partly to do with our historical local roots, but more recently due to having been nationalised and then denationalised within a very short time frame. The current plans involve regionalisation and privatisation, also in very short order. Most people would agree that we've been seriously pissed-about and I would argue that the time has come for some unity and sense of common purpose.
So, where is that to come from? Each of the 35 Probation Trusts is independent and collectively are represented by the Probation Association. I don't know, but I guess each Trust is preparing its own response. We know what the Chair of the Avon and Somerset Trust thoughts are, but what will the others be saying? Until recently, each Trust had been looking after it's own interests and planning cosy deals with various private and third sector partners. Hardly a good starting point for trying to come up with a unified voice.
Then there is management. The probation chiefs are represented by the Pobation Chiefs Association and their main spokesperson is Sarah Billiald CEO of the Kent Trust. I've recently queried the wisdom of fielding an accountant to speak authoritatively for probation, and this recent piece written for the Guardian doesn't exactly fill many practitioners with a great deal of hope:-
"The reforms do, however, present some real opportunities to increase reductions in reoffending, particularly through the new work with prisoners sentenced to under 12 months and by the incentives that payment by results can generate if designed correctly. There is huge potential to bring together the best of public, private and voluntary sector skills in different social and commercial vehicles to bid for and deliver the work in the proposed 16 geographical areas.
The real prize will be if players can come together in genuinely joint ventures that move away from traditional contracting arrangements. Negotiating these arrangements and commercial business planning will be the new leadership challenge for many chief executives who choose to lead a significant part of their service out of the traditional public sector. Suddenly, my chartered accountancy background is coming into its own as I find myself discussing working capital requirements, equity versus social investors, payment mechanisms and the like.