Friday, 30 June 2017

Guest Blog 64

The Twentieth Annual Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture entitled Helping, Holding and Hurting - A dialogue about Penal Supervision was held on Tuesday 27th June. It was set against the backdrop of a rain-sodden Cambridge University campus with the headline speaker being the doyen of desistance research Professor Fergus McNeill (University of Glasgow). 

A disparate audience composed of academic luminaries, a sprinkling of practitioners (some having heroically negotiated attendance as professional development) former service users and associates and friends of the late Bill McWilliams, were also treated to a panel presentation, in which Fergus McNeill became one of the interlocutors, which vividly captured something of the 'lived experience' of being supervised.

A shifting montage of photographic images underpinned by capsuled user perspectives accompanied the discussion that later ensued. Fergus McNeil picked up in his nuanced observations on some of the thorny challenges of humanising supervision in the newly commodified world shaped by the NPS/CRC split, how supportive options to desist can overcome what he colourfully denoted as 'f**k it!'  moments in the probationer journey, the often unsteady pathways of service user engagement and voices (one offered example was service users sitting on recruitment panels for new staff), balancing resources to achieve more accessible, inclusively designed offices (fortress probation), with one audience contributor extolling the arrival of the 'model office for probation staff'! and fostering authentic relational opportunities (the title of the talk was derived from an earlier presentation given by Fergus McNeill on the oral history of supervision in Scotland), which supervisory relationships are often hard won (and easily lost!) and aim to bridge the distance between supervisor and supervisee, that did not objectify users, went beyond surveillant risk management and offered better supervisory outcomes.

The latter part of the afternoon was facilitated by ex-London CO Heather Monro who pointedly alluded to her 'media moment' when pilloried by the Daily Mail for referring to service users as 'customers' although she remained studiously tight lipped when one questioner in the Q&A slot described the present situation in London Community Payback/Unpaid Work in stripping away any last vestige of rehabilitative placements as a ' travesty'. (readers will recall that the disastrous £37 million 2012 Serco contract to manage CP was negotiated by the former London Probation Trust!) 

I flagged up the recent HMIP report on the work of probation services in the court setting which whilst offering some positive news, the timely delivery of court reports! needed to be seen against a worrying drop in sentencer confidence in the effective delivery of community sentences and the paucity of meaningful information on the content of rehabilitative requirements and the disappointingly poor performance of the new CRC providers. Whilst information on the numbers of breaches is readily accessible - where is the information (if any) on the number of early discharges for good progress (or completion reports in the Scottish context) which surely is one tangible marker of successful supervision?

Rounding off the afternoon was the estimable Professor Rob Canton (whose latest opus 'Why Punish' comes highly recommended) standing in for Mike Nellis who was unwell. He reiterated the importance of the moral quality of supervision (inspired perhaps by some of the insightful research on the moral performance of prisons), the importance of listening to users 'being present' and valuing staff as the right thing to do and retaining a passionate commitment to rehabilitative interventions - penal values matter and promoting the vision of a service that motivated staff to offer opportunities for caring, compassionate and authentic practice. 

It was hard to reconcile within the rarefied confines of the campus setting some of the more pontifical claims heard from some of the contributors about the current state of probation, set alongside the lingering impact of much of the destructive aspects of demoralising organisational changes that pepper this blog, occupy the pages of recent unflattering Inspectorial reports and no doubt await a politically convenient Ministerial opening in the as yet unpublished findings of the MoJ review of probation services and which have so painfully disfigured probation in recent years.

Encouragingly the longevity of this lecture series shows little sign of 'desistance' and 2018 may well signal another such outing (Cambridge?) Having imbibed the heady brew of the Bill McWilliams Memorial lecture 2017 with such a notable professorial champion of probation I was left pondering - how such a prestigious lecture series which appears to exist on a shoe string budget and a well spring of inexhaustible good will and admiration for Bill's legacy might be better supported and promoted? Readers might have their own thoughts?

Mike Guilfoyle

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