From the moment Michael Gove stepped into the MoJ he must have realised what a crock of shite Chris Grayling had left for him. Yes we know teachers have good reason to loathe him, but he's not a bully like his predecessor, he strongly believes in the need for research to influence policy and he's cerebral, polite and I believe is capable of being reasoned with.
We know he's already reversed several of Chris Grayling's bad ideas such as the proposed massive Youth Prison, indicated a willingness to give Prison Governor's more autonomy and announced an urgent review of Probation Officer training. This latter decision, right at the point his department was set to award a contract for training, must have seriously pissed off his senior Civil Servants and given their track record, that's no bad thing in my book. Some say he doesn't trust his top team and again, given the catalogue of departmental disasters, who'd blame him?
It's obvious that things are going to be very different at the MoJ under Michael Gove and there's evidence that he's casting around for ideas and even reading up on penal policy matters and taking a wider perspective than Chris Grayling ever could. This has got to be good news and I find it noticeable that the new minister is 'keeping his powder dry' before leaping in with any major policy decisions. But he will be aware that things are going seriously wrong in virtually every part of his balliwick, CPS, Courts, Prison, Tagging, Interpreters, Legal Aid and finally, the surreal split world world of TR.
On top of this he has to make significant savings in his department and therefore it strikes me now would be a very good time for some serious discussion about how we currently do things and how they can be done better, more efficiently and with improved outcomes. So, where is this going to come from?
I have to say it always irritates me that some readers don't seem to understand where I'm coming from regarding Napo. A strong union and professional association is absolutely vital to the future of probation in my view, it's just such a shame that members have been so badly served by their leadership in recent years. It's not just about personalities, it's internal structural deficiencies that have long been known about, certainly from Judy McKnight's days, but have never been addressed, let alone acknowledged. In happier times, all these internal problems didn't really matter, but when TR came along they proved disastrous and may yet prove fatal to the future viability of the union.
In my view, if there isn't some serious soul-searching at the Eastbourne AGM next month, Napo really is finished. We know membership is falling and with people being weary, angry and confused, my hunch is that registrations are down significantly. But people must understand that this is probably the most important AGM in years because the very future of the union hinges on it and it must therefore be quorate.
For probation to have a future it must have a strong and vibrant union that helps set the agenda and therfore with some trepidation, can I urge members to consider a trip to the seaside next month? Please.
This always seems to get me into trouble when mentioned, but in the context of trying to save something from the ashes of TR and the immeasurable damage caused to our profession, I think we really do have to support it. Yes, I know all the arguments about it's birth, the unfortunate timing, the suspicions about Graylings motives, it being a trojan horse etc etc., but lets try and be rational here and consider a number of things.
The probation ideal, its philosophy, the essence of it has to reside somewhere in a confused, surreal, split and generally hostile political world post-TR. Whatever the circumstances or motives for its birth, what is clear is that the MoJ mandarins were against it from day one and have ensured that the NPS has nothing to do with it. This in itself speaks volumes to me and gets my immeadiate attention. Why are they so anti a professional body? For a control-freak outfit, could it possibly be precisely because of it's independant nature?
I suspect those at the top at the MoJ would rather have preferred an outfit that was under contract and hence control, rather than something independently run by the likes of probation-lifers such as Paul Senior and Sue Hall. Let me put it like this. If it would suit the MoJ control freaks to see the Insitute fail, may I suggest it could well be in the professions best interest to ensure that it doesn't?
The Bigger Picture
Some readers may feel it's not significant, but I happen to think that the current changes in domestic politics brought about by the Labour Party electing Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson are cause for hope not just generally, but specifically for us in probation. For the first time in a long time, we now have people at the helm of the Labour Party who not only understand what probation is about, but also have a track record in supporting us.
Bringing Charlie Faulkner back into frontline dialogue on Criminal Justice matters can only be good for ensuring we have a thoroughly competent and more intelligent debate on issues affecting probation. Just cast your mind back to the incompetent Liberal Democrat spokespersons on such matters during the time when they shafted us during the Coalition days. They are now history thank goodness and we now have a real opportunity of being able to influence a sensible debate on criminal justice matters and that can challenge the growing commercialisation agenda so loved by our right-wing Tory government.
On this last point, it's been brought to my attention that concerns are growing in America about what can happen when business interests get involved in penal affairs. This from USA Today:-
Bernie Sanders seeks to ban private prisons
Sen. Bernie Sanders said he hopes to end the “private, for-profit prison racket” with the introduction Thursday of bills to ban private prisons, reinstate the federal parole system and eliminate quotas for the number of immigrants held in detention.
The Vermont independent, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, introduced the “Justice is not for Sale Act” with Democratic Reps. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Bobby Rush of Illinois. It would bar the federal government from contracting with private incarceration companies starting two years after passage.
“The profit motivation of private companies running prisons works at cross purposes with the goals of criminal justice,” Sanders said. “Criminal justice and public safety are without a doubt the responsibility of the citizens of our country, not private corporations. They should be carried out by those who answer to voters, not those who answer to investors.”
Taxpayers pay $80 billion a year bill to incarcerate 2.3 million people, according to the lawmakers. Of the nearly 1.6 million people in federal and state prisons in 2013, 8.4 percent were in private facilities. Ellison said the private-prison industry spends millions each year lobbying for harsher sentencing laws and immigration policies that serve its bottom line. “Incarceration should be about rehabilitation and public safety, not profit,” he said.
The legislation would reinstate the federal parole system, abolished in 1984, and increase oversight of companies that provide banking and telephone services for inmates. It also would end the requirement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement maintain 34,000 detention beds. Sanders said the bill represents only a piece of the major criminal justice reforms he believes are needed, but he’s convinced the issue can find bipartisan support.
“Making sure that corporations are not profiteering from the incarceration of fellow Americans is an important step forward.”
Not surprisingly, with the profession going through the trauma of TR and many good experienced colleagues feeling forced to jump ship before being pushed, the blog is changing. The comment thread in particular is becoming ever-more fractious and now lacking some of its former erudition and insight. Nevertheless, my trip to the Leicester conference confirmed that it's been worthwhile and probably will continue to be a useful focal point for news, support and information especially in times of crisis, for some time to come.
Even with readership now down to averaging 3,000 a day, it looks set to pass the 3 million mark by Christmas and despite the odd sniping, I still get enjoyment from putting it together. But the old adage about it only being as good as the contributions still holds true. If people still care about this wonderful thing called probation and want it to survive, I think we're capable of finding ways of demonstrating one of our legendary traits, that of resilience.