News of what the Ministry of Justice in England and Wales has been doing has been seeping out and is generally being referred to in many of the presentations and discussions dismissively as a complete and unmitigated disaster. Delegates from several of the former Eastern European countries are here keen to learn from the best of what is happening in probation in the rest of the world and in the past they may have considered there was something to learn from aspects of how we do things in England and Wales.
However, what our Ministry of Justice has done is now broadly considered to be a disaster and was described by one delegate to me as a policy now considered 'so toxic' that it is not worth the expense of the trip to find out how badly things are going wrong. This particular person had been to England and Wales before and actually believed they had been misled by representatives of our government - surely not. Most conversations I have had have involved those I am talking to expressing concern and sympathy for all probation staff in England and Wales as soon as they learn where I am from.
Obviously as a trade union representative I can only talk about the experiences reported to me by members (anonymised of course) and it is like reporting from a parallel universe where things have taken a bizarre turn. Some have read reports in their own countries of our plight and when they learned these have a basis in truth they are appalled - naturally they thought that what they had heard was probably exaggerated or inaccurate.
The probation profession, probation work, and probation staff in many European countries are held in relatively high esteem and it is accepted that like nurses, firefighters and teachers they do an essential job on behalf of the public and are justifiably deserving of support. When crime rates and prison numbers fall in their countries they are celebrated and actually given official credit for this achievement as it is realised that this success benefits all in their society - why not in England and Wales?
I cannot name names of those who I have spoken to, for obvious reasons, but it is clear that the reputation of the probation service in England and Wales (once rightly revered as a major influence on probation practice) has been severely damaged and some at this conference who have written about probation for many years have even gone so far as to say 'mortally wounded'.
I myself grew up with the probation service and I have always been proud to call myself a probation officer even if in the future I am increasingly likely to end up doing another job. However, I cannot help feeling a deep sense that I have been completely betrayed by our political masters when I hear the probation service in England and Wales being described by those from other countries as 'finished' and that there is 'little of value that can be learned from the flawed English model'.
Surely we must always have hope that we can repair the damage and learn from those countries such as Sweden, Norway and Belgium that are now closing expensive prisons and in some instances retraining their surplus prison staff as probation staff. We on the other hand are building more prisons to warehouse people. No sane person in those countries where they value the professionalism and dedication of their probation staff through actions rather than words is looking to England and Wales as a model of how to do things and are instead shaking their heads in disbelief and expressing in strong terms that we have lost our way in the woods.
Not one delegate I have heard here is saying 'Wow, you have to hand it to those guys in England and Wales for proving everyone wrong!!! That's the kind of rehabilitation revolution we would love to have in our country' but I have heard plenty of people say things along the line of 'What are you crazy guys thinking?' Of course I have to explain that Napo and I are not responsible for the actions of those in power but I can't help feeling that in some small way that I am because the principles and values of probation in England and Wales cannot be dismantled or destroyed and we all have a responsibility to keep hope alive.
However, it appears from what I have heard that the international reputation of our probation service in England and Wales is now pretty much in tatters and responsibility for that must be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of those who have used their position to destroy something that was not in need of major change or reform and embark on a risky experiment that goes against all that has been previously learned about what works and what is effective in probation.
No amount of political spin can change reality but it might distort it. It does not please me at all to report that we are currently seen by others as being up to our necks in 'deep yogurt' without a paddle and are now regarded as the 'sick probation service of Europe'.
David A Raho
(Republished from Facebook with permission).