I've already said that I feel Tuesday was a good day for probation. Well as it happens, and by a strange twist of fate, as the leaked Transforming Rehabilitation risk register story was breaking and their Lordships were preparing a nasty surprise for Chris Grayling, Professor Paul Senior was on his feet in sunny Cambridge delivering a carefully crafted and measured lecture on probation's future.
The annual Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture has been a popular fixture in the probation calendar for the past 16 years and always strives to be topical. This year was no exception with Prof Senior provocatively choosing 'Privatising Probation : The Death Knell of a Much-Cherished Public Service? as his title. It seems the MoJ were only slightly appeased by the presence of a question mark, such is the level of sensitivity and insecurity about any serious debate on such matters nowadays.
I've had the pleasure of hearing Prof Senior lecture on a number of occasions and he never disappoints. With consummate mastery of the technology, a clear message and a perfect sense of the moment, he delivered a barn-storming performance. Whilst keeping his obviously passionate views about probation firmly under control, he never-the-less confirmed that if cut in half, 'probation' would indeed be written right through him.
The amazing thing about all this is just how many times we've been here before. An article from the Napo Journal in 1968 was entitled 'Is Probation to Die?' and of course it did in Scotland as criminal justice services became subsumed within Social Work Departments.
Following a canter through our history, the missed opportunities and mistakes such as the breakup of ACOP and Ethnie Wallis cringingly promising David Blunkett that 'we were here to do his bidding', Prof Senior had much to say about our present predicament, but firmly from the point of view of the glass being half full, rather than half empty. He did not wish to depress us any further, but rather sound a note of optimism. Yes we had lost much of the good leadership in 2001, but he felt the current chiefs were doing their best in very difficult circumstances and the Probation Chiefs Association formed only in 2008 was being effective.
He confirmed there was absolutely no evidence to support a case for change on the scale being proposed and there was nowhere in the world that was running offender rehabilitation in the way being suggested. Even those countries where the voluntary sector was involved, it was always firmly under state control. These plans were clearly not informed by evidence: they were definitely about saving money. At a time when arguably effective practice had never been better, it was ironic that the service faced break-up. The 21 contract areas, or 'chunks' as he called them, made no sense whatever, not having co-terminous boundaries with either Local Authorities or those of Police and Crime Commissioners.
Prof Senior did not wish to enter into the public good, private bad debate. The involvement of other players was a fact of life and he felt some good innovative practice was going on outside the public service. Interestingly he did not feel that the big winners from the bidding process would be the usual suspects such as G4S and Serco, but rather the myriad smaller service companies like Interserve, Mitie and Capita. Most had no knowledge of the work, but supposedly were good at 'back office' economies and would therefore have to rely completely on the expertise of the 'newco's' to inform and provide a quality service. The timescale for mutuals to be part of the process did not look promising.
Although he had serious doubts about how effective the rump public probation service could be given it's limited size, Prof Senior was clear that the 'newco's' would be absolutely key in effectively keeping the professional flame burning. The establishment of a Probation Institute was long overdue and discussions were ongoing as to how this could be achieved.
There are 'straws in the wind' and none of us know with any degree of certainty how things are going to pan out. Despite everything, Prof Senior was clear that 'probation' remains a strong brand and has all the elements present to claim to be an institution. The term has widespread understanding and despite the demise of the 'probation order' many years ago, it was interesting to note that in service user surveys, clients still referred to being 'on probation'.
The lecture was videoed and can be viewed here.