Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Free Labour

Volunteers have been around for a long time in the Probation Service and traditionally this was recommended as a way of helping to decide whether the type of work appealed or not. Some areas, including my own, decided to dispense with them as managerialism took a hold, but were quickly reinstated as public spending cuts began to bite. 

Now of course volunteers are regarded as essential by the privateers running CRC's as a way of cutting costs. Volunteers used to be regarded as 'added value' in helping professional staff supervise clients, but increasingly they are being used for core tasks and even performing clerical functions. Selection, training and supervision vary enormously and I suspect trouble is being stored up, but that's another story.  

Interestingly, the NPS have recently decided they don't want volunteers at all and CRC's have been told to withdraw those that have been working with NPS clients. The speculation is that the decision might at least be partly to do with cost as I've heard talk of CRC's wanting to charge NPS £30 an hour for the services of a volunteer! Another example of how innovation is indeed developing nicely as the TR omnishambles beds in. 

So, as we await to hear just how far the next round of Tory spending cuts will affect probation, it's probably worth taking a look at other key public services such as the police and their plans for volunteer labour. Here's Danny Shaw's report on the BBC website:- 

Volunteer army may swell police service ranks

Most people don't choose to spend their weekends at a police station. But Alan Hunt does.Every Friday and Saturday night, between 19:30 and 04:00, you will find the cheerful pensioner in a back office at Blandford Forum police station in north Dorset.

His "job" is to monitor footage from four CCTV cameras covering the centre of Blandford, a bustling market town notable for its distinctive Georgian buildings. At closing time, with people making their way to and from Tiffany's, the town's only nightclub, Alan comes into his own, scrutinising a bank of TV screens for signs of trouble on the streets.

He is patched into the police radio system and alerts officers when they're needed on the ground. "Somebody bit somebody's ear off," says the 73-year-old, recalling the worst thing he's seen in the five years he has been doing the role. "There was a chap with a knife once," he adds. The retired builder and road-sign maker is Dorset Police's most prolific volunteer. The unpaid work he does for the force fulfils an ambition he has nursed since childhood.

He says: "When I left school that was my original intention - to go into policing, as a student. But unfortunately we were not a very rich family so my mother said, 'You've got to stay at home and earn some money.'"

There are 400 other police volunteers in Dorset. Half work in staff roles, like Alan Hunt; half are special constables, with the full powers of police officers. Martyn Underhill, the area's police and crime commissioner, wants to increase volunteer numbers and expand what they're able to do.

He says: "I see it as a fantastic resource. As Robert Peel said, 'The public are the police, the police are the public' - this brings diversity, it brings additionality, it brings great scope to policing I believe in".

Greater role

The Home Office also wants to extend the role of police volunteers. A consultation closed in October on plans to give them a wider range of powers and create the volunteer equivalent of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs). The proposals are expected to be included in the Policing and Criminal Justice Bill later this year.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, writing in the consultation document, says unpaid police staff play a "vital role in community safety" but there is "more that volunteers can do". Mrs May says she wants to encourage people to get involved in policing if they have "skills in particular demand" such as accountancy and IT, in order to help forces investigate cyber-crime and fraud.

I met Adam, 37, one of this new breed of police volunteers at the central London offices of the National Crime Agency (NCA). He didn't want me to know his surname because of the sensitive nature of what he does. His paid job is a security adviser for an insurance company that allows him to attend NCA meetings and carry out special projects - it builds up his experience, improves his CV and helps the NCA catch criminals.

"Because I've got quite a lot of experience in IT, I see things maybe somewhat different to how they would," says Adam, who had to be vetted before taking on NCA duties earlier this year. He wouldn't take a paid job with the NCA because he can earn significantly more in the private sector - but the benefits for the NCA of being able to tap into such expertise for free are clear. The organisation receives about 50 applications from volunteers each week, 10% of which are successful.

Sensitive issue

But at a time when the paid police workforce is shrinking, the recruitment of volunteers is a sensitive issue. Unison, one of the trade unions that represents PCSOs and other police staff, is concerned the Home Office proposals are simply a cheap way of plugging gaps in the police service resulting from government cuts; 37,000 posts have been axed since 2010, and thousands more are projected to go over the next five years.

Ben Priestley, Unison's national officer for police and justice services, says a "Home Guard" of 9,000 volunteers has been "quietly recruited" to backfill roles that have been lost, raising concerns about competence and accountability. "There's a general question about whether the general public believe that policing should be carried out by, in many cases, well-meaning amateurs," says Mr Priestley.

"Policing is a serious business, dealing with serious crime, and our members who work as police staff are fully trained, they're fully vetted and they're very, very committed to the job they do. If you're a volunteer, you're not under the direction and control of a chief constable, as police staff and police officers are, and that's a very real problem, and I don't think the general public would be happy about that."

Police volunteers

There are currently 16,000 volunteer police officers in England and Wales, known as special constables. Specials undergo training, wear police uniform and have the same powers in law as their "regular" colleagues. They tend to do mainstream policing, such as foot patrol, crowd control and crime prevention, rather than specialist work, and have to be available for at least 16 hours each month.

In addition, there are 9,000 volunteers performing a wide variety of different staff jobs in the police. The union Unison, which surveyed police forces last year, says Kent has the largest number of volunteers (850), while volunteers in Thames Valley put in the most hours (70,000). The survey identified more than 60 volunteer roles, ranging from mountain rescue to animal welfare, crime scene investigation to firearms licensing.

Unison says most of the 43 constabularies are planning to increase their use of volunteer police staff, including Nottinghamshire, which is aiming for a fivefold rise by the end of 2015.

At Dorset, Mr Underhill says a "complete complaints system" is in place for volunteers, though it's seldom needed. He says the recruitment of volunteers is not driven by austerity - at least in his constabulary - but is a way of supplementing the work of paid staff.

That's certainly in evidence at Dorset Victims' Bureau, based at Bournemouth police station, where employees and volunteers work side by side, updating crime victims about their cases and giving them advice. Whatever the objections, the financial realities of policing are such that this partnership between police and citizens will become even more of a feature of law enforcement in the years ahead.


  1. I worked for 6 years with the MET Police as a special constable, I loved the role and making a difference. Anyone who volunteers for any role should be proud of themselves for making a difference!

  2. Shouldn't you be financially rewarded for your work.

  3. HMRC needs volunteers as much as the police. HMRC is criticised today for poor customer service and not catching enough tax dodgers. Could this have anything to do with the 40% of staff cuts in the past ten years? Is there possibly a link between performance and staff resources? This does not seem to have been highlighted by the public accounts committee.

    A 40% cut to MP numbers would save a lot of money. And if they become stretched volunteers could be recruited. But the knife of austerity does not reach the Westminster Village where subsidies, expenses and pay rises are sacrosanct. But, in mitigation, they all work late into the night!

    Interesting that the CRCs are commodifying their volunteers and changing for hiring them out. How long before you buy one and get one free? I don't think charging should be extended to volunteers in police uniforms as this market is already cornered by strip-o-gram companies and it would be unfair competition according to EU trade laws.

  4. I recall during the TR débâcle that there was the occasional defence of the passive behaviour of senior probation managers: we were told that in public they had to respect the democratic mandate of the politicians, but in private they were furiously pursuing their objections to TR. And yet we know that in politics it's public pressure that more often than not makes the difference.

    Yesterday a serving police constable told the home affairs committee that the proposed cuts to police budgets are 'madness'. We are seeing ex and current senior police leaders speak out in public. They clearly believe that they have a higher mandate: to tell the truth about the likely impact of further draconian cuts.

    Senior police officers are prepared to speak out to defend the police service and they intend to mobilise public opinion in their support.

    This contrast in leadership behaviour brings home just how spineless and cowardly probation leaders were in defending the probation service. I know all this is history, but I would hate them to forget that when they had an opportunity to show real leadership, they took the money and ran.

    1. I applaud you my friend, you have summarised nicely but precisely the lack of leadership in most probation trusts. Only two leaders can I recall speaking out publicly against the TR omishambles.

  5. Great point, Netnipper

  6. My mate is a DS in a northern force and they made no secret of the fact that a stint as a special was expected before selection as a regular copper - and that was in the late 80s. Volunteers are going to be exploited more than ever with the public sector cuts biting. Not long before we get to the 'can't even get an interview to be a volunteer' stage of despair - gotta be good for £30 an hour - can't have any old do-gooder!.

  7. This comment was lost having been linked to a deleted moronic contribution:-

    "The 3rd sector are the cornerstone of goodwill. Some volunteers do better work than paid people cm but some volunteers are not always reliable. On my caseload volunteers regular don't turn up for apps"

    1. The Dorset man cited in the article quoted in the main post is a good example of this. He's clearly dedicated to his role and shows a great deal of commitment, and is probably highly valued by the officers he works with. But he's 73, and with the best will in the world he won't be able to keep doing this job forever. What kind of succession planning is in place? Are they just going to hope for another, equally committed volunteer to take his place?

      The volunteers I've come across in Probation have generally fallen into one of two camps: younger people looking for experience to bulk out a CV, and people approaching retirement age (or retired on medical grounds) who have lots of time to fill. In many cases the former move on to paid work as soon as they can (and good luck to them) whilst the latter can be picky about the sort of cases that they work with (which is also fair enough - they're giving up their own time). I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of volunteers who I've felt have been completely reliable and able to give the sort of consistent, regular support that my clients have needed.

  8. Probation Officer4 November 2015 at 22:45

    Volunteers are important but shouldn't take/replace jobs of paid workers, particularly qualified and experienced professionals.

    A very important point Gas been made above;

    "Senior police officers are prepared to speak out to defend the police service and they intend to mobilise public opinion in their support.

    This contrast in leadership behaviour brings home just how spineless and cowardly probation leaders were in defending the probation service. I know all this is history, but I would hate them to forget that when they had an opportunity to show real leadership, they took the money and ran."

  9. I'm all for the big society. The more volunteers the better. There a cheap resource and a quick fix to under resourcing. Volunteers are the future whether you like it or not

    1. Especially if they push up YOUR performance related pay, eh?. Trebles all round!.

    2. I think you forgot to make your usual asinine reference to the free market...

      5 years on and Cameron no longer makes any reference to the Big Society - why? Because it was an utter failure. I know people who have been actively put off volunteering because of the thought that the work they were doing was replacing paid work for someone else.

  10. Volunteering as an addition to is one thing but using volunteers instead of paid workers should not happen especially where risk is involved. Untrained paid staff is bad enough. Receptionists have not been trained properly and have been overheard giving out confidential information in reception.

  11. An elderly volunteer who worked with us nearly killed one of our offenders in a road traffic accident. He and the offender were ok but a family man coming in the other direction was killed. The volunteer was jailed for death by dangerous drive. He was worried about the offender being late for an appt. The offender had been scared by the volunteers driving on numerous prior occasions but didn't say anything . He could have been killed.