Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Probation Underground

As the MoJ continues to try and erase the word 'probation' and Napo members ponder who might be best to lead the union for the next 5 years, here's an interesting reminder in the current Probation Quarterly and I suspect, despite everything, this remains true:-
"have discerned what might be called a ‘probation underground;’ an enduring repository of traditional values, roles and practices attested in numerous interviews with serving practitioners, where a less censorious working language may have survived." 
Can probation be re-born in England and Wales? 

Maurice Vanstone and Philip Priestley introduce their book: ‘Probation and Politics: Academic Reflections from Former Practitioners’

Public services never stand still. They come and grow, they fade and die - now and then with a little help from their ‘friends,’ and new ones take their place. Sometimes change is on the side of the angels; sometimes not. Perhaps the most egregious example of the latter, maybe of all time, has been the recent ideological assault on probation in England and Wales. In 2013, seven of us, all former probation officers who became academics, had a letter published in the Independent protesting the proposed sale of probation to the private sector, due for Parliamentary confirmation the following Monday: 
To remove up to 250,000 of its cases and auction them off to an untried consortium of commercial interests and voluntary bodies is in our view to take a reckless gamble with public safety and to put at risk the prospects for personal change and reform which lie at the heart of what Probation is and does. (Canton et al. 2013) 
Following the passage of the Offender Rehabilitation Act (2014) into law we recruited further authors (making seventeen in all) and proposed a book of essays relating similarities in their shared career trajectories to public events within the criminal justice system. 

Collectively their contributions sketch an informal oral history of probation for almost half its lifespan in England and Wales. In Probation and Politics: Academic Reflections from Former Practitioners (Vanstone & Priestley 2016) they cast a critical eye over the history of the service, its values, and the effectiveness or otherwise of its diverse practice. They raise important questions about: the probation service’s identity, purpose, and methodology; its response to emerging research findings; its reaction to political pressure and an increasingly punitive criminal justice environment; its relationship with risk measurement; and, its adjustment to the needs of women and minority ethnic groups. These reflections reveal a deep level of uncertainty about the service’s survival as a humanising factor in criminal justice within the context of ever increasing, ideological, politically driven governance. 

A service receptive to change 

Since its inception the probation service has held at its core the principle that positive change is possible for people on probation, and consistent with that principle has been its own adaptability to change. In response to social and political demands, the lessons of ineffective practice, and the lure of new, often untested methods, it has embraced transformations in its functions, duties, responsibilities, theoretical foundations and practice. It is, therefore, no stranger to change.

That change has encompassed practice methods and their rationale, the types of work undertaken and how they have been managed, as well as the organisational shape of the service, but it has not altered its fundamental values encompassing as they have the notion of offering people who have been convicted of crime the humanistic opportunity of rehabilitation. The latter point, perhaps, has ensured that for the greater part of its history the service has occupied a constant position within the criminal justice system and been valued and endorsed by governments of different political persuasions. The fact that successive governments have deemed the probation service useful in so far as it allowed some expression of compassion within the processes of criminal justice has, perhaps, led to a reciprocal adaptability by the service in relation to its purposes, work and governance that has contributed to its survival. 

It is not overstating the case to say that the probation service has been suitably cooperative, constructive and flexible when faced with political demands and instructions. However, governance has intensified since the time chief officers were left to govern in their own way and probation officers allowed to do the job and make decisions largely unencumbered by bureaucracy, and in contrast, late twentieth and early twenty first century governance has been characterised by information systems and computer programmes, politically reordered objectives and priorities, National Standards, and new management systems. Much of this, it might be argued, introduced necessary improvements at both manager and practitioner level in the way the service was managed as well as in the practice of probation officers: those subject to intervention by probation workers need it to be skillful and informed by evidence as do the communities within which they live. There is no argument against change that demands professional accountability from managers and practitioners alike and raises expectations that practice should be informed by evidence of effectiveness.

Equally, it is not unreasonable to insist that changes made by government intervention should be driven by knowledge and evidence rather than ideology. What we have witnessed in the last few years are transformations emanating from a neo-liberal political philosophy that has led to the near extinction of a state agency with a hitherto distinguished history. Unsurprisingly, all of the contributions to the book coalesce around this sad reality.

Language, values, and the restoration of probation 

During the writing of Probation and Politics an umbrella debate between editors and authors addressed appropriate ways to refer to people who have broken the law, have been convicted, placed on probation, or served prison sentences. Latterly the view has grown that derogatory and pejorative labels for these groups are not only disrespectful in themselves but actually undermine the primary effort of probation to reduce rates of reoffending. The worst ‘offender’ in much of this ‘shameful naming’ has been the incorporation of probation into NOMS - the National Offender Management Service. Together with official encouragement (requirements) to routinely use the words ‘offender’ and ‘punishment’ in reports and other official communications, they have become embedded in official discourse to an extent difficult to avoid. Although the name of NOMS has itself been abolished, the odour of its punitive patois lingers on. 

If probation is ever to be restored to its proper place as a non-punitive, constructive response to law-breaking in the community, its traditional language, together with the values that inform it, will play crucial roles in the process. One contributor to Politics and Probation calls for the total ‘re-moralisation’ of probation along Kantian lines (Whitehead, 2016), echoing sentiments expressed elsewhere in the book and in the literature.

Equally vital to the restoration of probation will be the deployment of ‘evidence based’ methods for reducing reoffending together with evaluation procedures automatically integrated into practice - as tracked vehicles carry their own road with them. 

Authors in this collection share a common sense of outrage at what has become of their former profession, and a conviction that it must be born again, but none of them is sanguine about it happening imminently. However, some of them in their lifetimes of academic work have discerned what might be called a ‘probation underground;’ an enduring repository of traditional values, roles and practices attested in numerous interviews with serving practitioners, where a less censorious working language may have survived. 

The values include a bedrock belief in positive personal change, which Shadd Maruna identifies as a ‘key factor’when communicated by significant others of individuals desisting from offending (Sinclair-Jones, 2014). Could this counterculture also be construed as a probation-service-in-waiting ready to step forward when the present pandemonium of failing privatisations finally collapses under the weight of its own contradictions? 

Fingers crossed.


  1. "Abstract
    This book is a collection of essays by a unique group of authors about the political destruction of the probation service in England and Wales. All of them are probation officers turned academics, with a collective scholarly output that is both prodigious and distinguished. They address the history of probation, its underlying values and working methods, and the way it has been systematically dismantled by successive political administrations..."

    Probation and politics: Academic reflections from former.... Available from: [accessed May 31 2018].

  2. In other news ....

    Prison smoking ban 'fuelling HMP Leicester violence'

    ... and there was the HMPPS telling us what a resounding success the ‘smoking ban project’ had been !

  3. Might be straying off topic a bit but I think this is pretty important news. Are working Links about to go?


    1. Agree fully with the comment on the article;

      “Plough in extra cash, I don't think so. This is what happens when you put in an unrealstic bid to win the contract, cut jobs and then realise you're unable to deliver the service plus cream off a profit at the same time. Let them go bust and take the roles back in house. ”

    2. Lots of talk that Wales CRC is going to be brought back into the NPS, as a way of piloting this for other failing areas.

    3. That is important news. Why are we only finding out about it in a local mewspaper?

    4. I heard it was just case management that should be brought back. It indicates the failing contract wont be tolerated in Wales. That SSW branch really are keeping their fight going are they not? I notice the candidate GS had been invited for comment are they helping the campaign down there. ?

    5. The company that runs privatised probation services in Devon and Cornwall wants more money to continue operating the service, unions have claimed.

      The National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) said it believed private operator Working Links could seek to end the contract early if on-going talks with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) fail.

      Working Links is responsible for operating probation services for low-risk offenders in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall - one of three contracts it holds.

      Napo claims the company has lost more than 40 per cent of staff in the South West since it took over the service, and morale has plummeted.

      General secretary Ian Lawrence said: “My members would not be at all surprised to hear that five years into the contracts Working Links appear to be in a very difficult situation, operationally and financially.

      “Our view is Working Links should pay people what they are worth and should listen to the concerns of our members about their operational model.

      "If they cannot engage with staff and unions on this issue they should seriously consider handing back the keys to the MoJ.”

      Only 26 probation officers dealing with low-risk offenders are now employed in the three counties: eight in Dorset, 14 in Devon - a figure that includes the unitary areas of Plymouth and Torbay - and four in Cornwall.

      Seventy-one probation service officers, who support fully-trained probation officers working for what are known as community rehabilitation companies (CRC), are also employed by Working Links in the three counties.

      A spokesman for Working Links said enquiries should be directed to the MoJ, adding: “As with all our contracts, we are in constant communication with our funders. We are committed to reducing reoffending.”

      An MoJ spokesman said: "We are currently in discussions with CRCs about how to improve the quality of services."

      As well as running community rehabilitation in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, Working Links also has contracts to operate probation services for low-risk offenders in Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire, and a third in Wales.

      The publicly-owned National Probation Service remains responsible for dealing with high-risk offenders.

      A highly critical government report of Working Links’ operations in Gloucestershire last year said the company was using a flawed operational model. Working Links has been bought by the German-based hedge fund Aurelius since it was awarded the probation contracts.

    6. 10:11 already on here

      the Finance Director for Working Links, they actually did want to find ways to end the contract. To be fair, and not wanting to generate a who said what exactly debate, what was certain enough that the current arrangement of underfunded CRC costs could not continue on into the future. The risks of loss were too great and while the key arguments of financial borrowing service fees and credits continue the talks with MOJ shall be decided by the end of June.

  4. Sounds a decent record of what was.

    It is worth perhaps adding that the ways of probation in the English and Welsh Criminal Justice System have spread around the world, integrating with traditions elsewhere.

    The basic probation philosophy was carried into local authority social work from the Sebohm report era when juvenile then youth justice as well as work with seriously mental ill offenders was statutorily located within local authority, social service departments.

    Additionally the English and Welsh statutory response to disputes about child care within families also incorporated the attitudes and principles from early work with probation order supervisees by probation officers unofficially in their capacity, presumably as employees and officers of the local Magistracy, in hearings in domestic and juvenile courts. That was subsequently taken up in the higher civil courts and also extended into adoption and warship cases where guardians Ad litem or independent social work enquiries needed.

  5. The current government must be thankful for Brexit, Trump and Royal Weddings. It certainly keeps matters that affect the people, let us not forget that the Criminal Justice System affects a very significant percentage of our population, away from the headlines and is by accounts on this blog going bust in significant percentages too. I hope our dear leaders have a back up plan?