Thursday 29 December 2022

Here We Go Again

Judging by media reports today, one has to wonder where the Labour Party is getting it's Criminal Justice System advice from as they head down the unintelligent and blinkered 'tough on crime' path again:-  

Victims choose offenders’ punishment under Labour’s anti-social behaviour review

Shadow justice secretary Steve Reed says he will update Tony Blair’s ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ mantra and focus on prevention. The victims of anti-social behaviour could choose how offenders are punished under plans being pitched by Labour.

The opposition has positioned itself as the party of law and order, with shadow justice secretary Steve Reed saying he will update Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan and put prevention at the heart of their approach.

The Times said freedom of information requests showed nearly two million reports of anti-social behaviour had gone unattended over the past three years, while community sentences halved over the last decade from 185,265 in 2011 to 72,021 in 2021.

Criminal justice consultancy Crest Advisory attributed the decline to magistrates losing confidence that the sentences would be completed, the paper added.

Mr Reed said increasing and strengthening the use of such sentences would tackle reoffending rates and give “a voice directly to victims.” He told The Times: “Victims will be able to select the unpaid work that offenders carry out, so victims will be seeing justice done.”

Labour wants to widen the scope of community sentences work beyond tasks such as clearing wasteland, decorating community centres, repairing churches and removing graffiti. It also proposes victims sit on new community payback boards overseeing sentences and ensuring they are completed.

Mr Reed said he wants to update Mr Blair’s 1990s slogan about being “tough on the causes of crime” by reviewing how to put prevention at the heart of the criminal justice system. The review will look at how countries including New Zealand have adopted an approach of providing specialist treatment to prevent reoffending by those living with domestic violence or parents with serious mental health problems.

Mr Reed said: “Rather than just giving up on those people or letting them get out there and offend, I want to keep people safe and keep our community safe. “You can do that by tackling the effects of the trauma that leads them to offending. By doing it, you make them much less likely to offend again. “So if you really want to keep people safe, we’ve got to update Labour’s old slogan: ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ and make it fit for the future. “This whole science around trauma in early years didn’t exist in the early 1990s when Tony Blair came up with that phrase. So I want to update it for today.”

The party branded as “disgraceful” recent figures showing more than one million thefts went unsolved last year. An analysis by Labour of crime statistics found that 1,145,254 cases of theft were dropped last year because the police failed to find a suspect. It said that on average a domestic burglary costs victims £1,400, with the party warning that families were losing millions due to unsolved crimes.

Labour said that if it was in government, it would put 13,000 more police on the streets in a move funded by merging procurement for forces in England and Wales. Earlier this year police chiefs in England and Wales promised that forces will attend all residential thefts.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper on Tuesday called the figures “disgraceful”. “Theft and burglary are awful crimes and should be properly investigated, not just left for the victims to make an insurance claim. “The Home Secretary has no plan to turn this around and is instead obsessed with gimmicks rather than a serious plan to catch more criminals. “Labour has a fully costed plan to put 13,000 extra neighbourhood police on our streets, fighting crime at its source and supporting communities.”

The party also found that the overall charge rate, which is the proportion of crimes that result in a suspect being arrested and charged, has fallen to a low of just 5.4%, down from over 15% seven years ago.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “As the Home Secretary has made clear, we welcome the commitment for police attendance at home burglaries. “We continue to support the police, including through record investment and the recruitment of 20,000 additional officers by March 2023.”

Monday 26 December 2022

Will The Dots Be Joined Up? 2

From Telegraph yesterday:-

Judge praised 'brave' triple child killer, months before his murders

Errors in previous sentencing led judge to tell Damien Bendall he did not think 'for a second' he would reoffend again

A judge told a triple child killer he did not think “for a second” that he would be back in court again as he released him just months before the murders, The Telegraph can reveal.

Damien Bendall, 32, was last week condemned to spend the rest of his life behind bars for bludgeoning three children and his pregnant partner to death with a claw hammer in Killamarsh, Derbyshire, in September last year.

Three months earlier, he had escaped with a suspended 17-month sentence for arson from Judge Jason Taylor KC, despite his extensive history of violent offending.

The Telegraph last week disclosed how a probation officer who assessed Bendall’s record for the judge was sacked for gross misconduct after miscategorising him as “medium risk” rather than “high risk” in a pre-sentence report. It was among a string of blunders that prompted the Ministry of Justice to order the probation inspectorate to carry out a full review of the case, amid concern Bendall should never have been free to kill.

Lacey Bennett, Connie Gent and John Paul Bennett were killed by Damien Bendall at a house in Derbyshire

Now, this newspaper can reveal that the sentencing judge believed the violent drug addict to be a reformed character when he chose not to jail him for pouring petrol over a “random” BMW and torching it. A transcript of the 19-minute sentencing hearing at Swindon Crown Court, obtained by The Telegraph, showed the judge was swayed by personal mitigation “set out in the pre-sentence report”.

What the pre-sentence report did not include, however, were crucial details about Bendall’s troubling past which the probation officer had failed to access and feed into the risk-assessment system. It allowed the judge to conclude that the arson appeared to be “an isolated incident” and hail the thug’s “brave decision” to move away from Swindon to “start afresh” with his partner, Terri Harris. “That is probably, frankly, the best decision you have ever made,” he told the defendant.

The judge said he believed Bendall was “genuinely remorseful” and had taken steps to address his problems with substance abuse. But in reality, Bendall continued to be a heavy drug user. He was fuelled by cocaine when he savagely killed Ms Harris, 35, her children John Bennett, 13, Lacey Bennett, 11, and Lacey’s friend Connie Gent, 11, who was sleeping over.

He then raped Lacey while she lay dying, before taking a taxi to Sheffield to exchange John’s Xbox for more drugs.

Three months earlier, as the sentencing hearing concluded, the judge had told him: “I do not think for a second you are going to come back to court. “I really hope now you have turned a new leaf and I hope you can carry on with the new chapter in your life.” He then added: “You can leave court.”

Earlier in the hearing, Rhianna Fricker, the prosecuting barrister, urged the court to consider the offence as “high culpability” and recommended the judge set the starting point for sentence at two years’ imprisonment. Emma Hillier, Bendall’s solicitor, said the defendant had been taking prescribed medication, for a “mass at the back of his head which affected his nerves”, that mixed badly with alcohol. He did not remember the offence, she said.

At his sentencing hearing for the murders, Vanessa Marshall KC, Bendall’s defence barrister, would again say that he had no memory of his crimes. Ms Hillier said the arson, which took place in the early hours of May 9 2020, was “completely” random and Bendall did not know the owner of the car. She then described how Bendall had “cut ties” with his past and moved up to live with his newly-pregnant partner, Ms Harris, adding that “he looks after” her two children.

Last week, Mr Justice Sweeney said one of those children, Lacey, was raped “as her young life was ebbing away” in the “grossest breach of trust” by Bendall. Bendall was also said to have been “abusive and controlling” in his relationship with Ms Harris. Terri Harris was pregnant at the time of her death. 
He had “a significant background of violent offending”, including a three-year sentence for robbery in 2011, a three-year sentence for attempted robbery and possession of a knife in 2015 and a 54-month sentence for grievous bodily harm and actual bodily harm in 2017.

The sentencing hearing for the murders was also told how Bendall killed a dog by battering it with a brick because his friend could not afford medical bills.

The Telegraph previously revealed that a second probation officer, who took over Bendall’s case when he moved to the East Midlands, had been found guilty of misconduct for putting a trainee in charge of monitoring him. The supervisor has been suspended but is understood to be mounting an appeal against the misconduct finding.

Last week, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “These were appalling crimes and our thoughts remain with the victims’ families.

Friday 23 December 2022

Will The Dots Be Joined Up?

This case can now be fully reported and is going to raise some very uncomfortable issues for both the MoJ and HMPPS that cannot simply be sorted by throwing staff under the bus. HMI Justin Russell has been asked for a Review. Today's Telegraph:- 

Murderer was left free to kill after probation blunders

Violent offender who went on to kill Terri Harris and children John Bennett, Lacey Bennett and Connie Gent classed as ‘medium risk’. A multiple child murderer was left free to kill after “appalling” blunders by the Probation Service, The Telegraph can reveal.

Damien Bendall, 32, was given a whole-life sentence this week for killing three children and his pregnant partner with a hammer in Killamarsh, Derbyshire, last September, three months after receiving a suspended sentence for arson. It can now be disclosed that a probation officer who assessed Bendall’s record for the sentencing judge in the arson case has been sacked for gross misconduct after miscategorising him as “medium risk” rather than “high risk”.

Probation officials believe it is unlikely that Bendall – who had a history of violent offending – would have been free to carry out one of the most grotesque child murder rampages in recent decades if the pre-sentence report had accurately reflected his risk. The probation officer in question is understood to have spent a lot of time working from home, meaning other members of the team did not get the usual opportunities to offer advice on or read the report.

Bendall’s probation supervision was subsequently passed from Swindon, where the arson took place, to the East Midlands, where another officer has separately been found guilty of misconduct for allocating his case to a trainee. The catalogue of errors has prompted the Ministry of Justice to order the Chief Inspector of Probation to carry out a full review of the case, which sources said is likely to be released in the new year.

The revelations raise fresh questions about the adequacy of Britain’s Probation Service after a report in September found that around 500 serious offences a year were being committed by offenders under supervision. The agency has also been beset by high-profile scandals including that of Joseph McCann, who went on a rampage of sexual violence across the country while under supervision, and Usman Khan, a terrorist who murdered two people in Fishmongers’ Hall, London, while being monitored.

Sir Robert Buckland, who served as justice secretary until three days before the Killamarsh killings, told The Telegraph on Thursday night: “I think we have to acknowledge that such an error is just an appalling failure. The ministry has to be as open and transparent as possible about why it happened, and most importantly to make sure the risk of that happening again is kept to a minimum, if not eliminated. Frankly, there should be processes in place that means various thresholds and tests would be met before that sort of fundamental mistake could be made.”

Sir Mike Penning, another former justice secretary, said: “People’s lives have been lost because the system has failed them. The probation officer’s pre-sentencing report has failed them, the system has failed them.”

Some staff ‘looked for shortcuts’

Sources told The Telegraph that probation officers are required to spend eight or nine hours entering details into the convoluted Offender Assessment System (Oasys) to calculate an offender’s risk, leading some staff to “look for shortcuts”. The officer who prepared the pre-sentence report in Swindon failed to access all the background information about Bendall and consequently did not enter crucial details into the Oasys system, it is understood.

A probation source said: “The risk assessment came out lower than it should have been. He should have been flagged as ‘high risk of harm’ but he was graded ‘medium risk’ instead. As a result, he was allocated to a trainee – it wouldn’t have happened if he’d been ‘high risk’.” 

To make matters worse, the source added that probation officers in the Swindon region at the time were not allowed to recommend custody in their pre-sentence reports. A probation inspection of the region in July last year found that “well over half of the reports we inspected did not draw on all available sources of information”.

Bendall was allowed to return to the home of his partner, Terri Harris, in Killamarsh on the condition that he wore an electronic tag and regularly met the trainee probation officer. His trial heard, however, that he had been using drugs heavily and was fuelled by cocaine when he bludgeoned to death Ms Harris, her children John Bennett, 13, Lacey Bennett, 11, and Lacey’s friend Connie Gent, also 11, who was sleeping over. Bendall raped Lacey as she lay dying before taking a taxi to Sheffield to exchange John’s Xbox for more drugs.

Sources said the supervisor found guilty of misconduct in the East Midlands had not done all the background reading into Bendall before allocating his case to a trainee. A more experienced probation officer would have been better equipped to spot possible signs of his spiralling drug use and any concerning patterns of behaviour. The supervisor is understood to be appealing against the findings of misconduct, as they had responsibility for overseeing around 30 officers because of staff shortages in the region. The individual did not lose their job.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “These were appalling crimes, and our thoughts remain with the victims’ families. The Deputy Prime Minister asked the Chief Inspector of Probation to conduct a review of this case, and we will respond further once this is published.”

The Government invested in an extra 1,000 trainee probation officers in 2020, followed by a further 1,500 the following year in a move designed to ease caseloads on individual officers and manage the risk of offenders more effectively. It is hoped an additional 1,500 officers will be recruited by March next year.

Saturday 17 December 2022

Napo Job Opportunity

Yesterday saw the usual Napo mailout to members and if you were of a cynical view you might be tempted to feel that advertising the post of General Secretary just before Christmas isn't really designed to encourage too many applicants:-

The law requires all union General Secretaries to submit themselves for re-election at least every five years. To comply with this regulation, an election must be held for the position of General Secretary of Napo before 30 June 2023.

In accordance with the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, Napo has appointed Civica Election Services of 33 Clarendon Road, London, N8 0NW as the Independent Scrutineer of the election.

The election process begins on Friday 16th December 2022 with the publication of the advert for the post of Napo General Secretary on the TUC, GFTU and Napo websites.

The election procedure and timetable are available here: Procedure Timetable

The advert containing full details for the post can be found here.

Please note that the incumbent will be standing for re-election.

For further details please contact the Office Operations Manager, Keith Waldron.


Regular readers will recall that following some spirited discussion at the Eastbourne AGM, we discussed the intended timetable for the likes of 'hustings' should the union find itself in the position of receiving more than one applicant. If memory serves me correctly, on the last occasion of a contested election the incumbent declined to submit themselves to the process and therefore it could not proceed.    

General Secretary 

Salary: £76,288 to £88,579 pa exclusive of London Allowance (£4,729 pa). Pay award pending. 

The post holder is the senior elected employee of Napo and will need to provide strategic leadership across all of the union’s activities. Their role includes acting as the union’s principle national spokesperson and they are expected to lead on professional issues. In addition they will have responsibility for and where appropriate participate in negotiations relating to members’ salaries and conditions of service. 

The successful candidate will have a demonstrated track record within the trade union movement and it is desirable that they can demonstrate an understanding of the requirements of Napo’s professional status. 

If successful following election, the applicant will be required to take up the post on 1st July 2023 following a suitable handover period. Remote working / Hybrid working. Expectation of travel to some meetings where required. Please note that the incumbent will be standing for re-election. Closing date: 13th January 2023 Interviews: 23rd – 27th January 2023


In other news:-

Unions meet with new Probation Minister 

The start of this week saw Napo and our sister trade unions attend an introductory meeting with Damien Hinds MP, the new Minister for Prison, Parole and Probation. As is usual in these engagements time was limited, but we were able to demonstrate just how passionate we are in retaining our profession; and our fundamental concerns about the current direction of the Probation Service's intentions to encapsulate Probation within 'One HMPPS'. We said that this invokes an overwhelming feeling of being subsumed by our important but very different value based Prison Service. The very fact that the 'One HMPPS' is the terminology being used, clearly outlines to those within, that we are not at One, we are different. We will challenge the 'one size fits all approach' which we know will simply not fit, will not recognise the individuals we work with, will not protect the public, and subsequently not reduce the number of victims - which as many of you continue to tell us, is core to the work we do and continue to do, day in and day out.

We heard from the Minister that the employer intends to commence consultation with the Trade Unions in the new year. We will stand firm and tall on behalf of our members, and will continue to implore the employer to recognise that this cost cutting project will result in significant costs to the value of the work you do. We are not resistant to change, we have continually evolved and reformed especially when the profession has felt that it is under attack. Yet, we will oppose the 'tick box culture' we are being expected to conform to.

Another main feature of the meeting was the unions combined resistance to the employers future intentions on Programmes and Interventions and the threat to public safety and the pay of our members if the current thinking evolves into final policy. In next week’s mail out we will provide a comprehensive narrative as to why this second big campaign is so vital to our members future, and our developing efforts with the Labour Party to convince them of the dangers around such a move, if they are successful in the next General Election.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Information Requests

Here we have the first of two opportunities to share information useful to the work of probation. There's an opportunity to join a focus group:-

Invitation to Join a Focus Group


The purpose of the 2022 CEP audit is to examine the caseload and workload of probation staff across Europe. The audit objectives are to explore:
  • How probation bodies across Europe deal with an increasing caseload
  • What measures are taken to prevent an excessive workload
  • What steps can be taken to encourage national jurisdictions to increase the number of probation staff in order to fulfil the aims of probation.
The audit is being undertaken by Dr Jane Dominey and Ms Vesna Zelić. You can contact them with any questions by emailing.

Invitation to Join a Focus Group

The audit will use focus groups as one way of gathering data about caseload and workload.

Two focus groups are planned. One on Monday 19 December at 14hr (CET) and the other on Tuesday 20 December at 10hr (CET). They will take place via Zoom and in English. Each group will last no more than 90 minutes. We will send you the focus group questions on Thursday 15 December.

We want to invite probation practitioners and managers from across Europe to join a focus group. We are particularly looking for focus group participants who manage caseload and workload issues in their organisation. As well as staff responsible for delivering probation services, this could also include staff who are responsible for measuring and managing workload.

We plan to recruit focus group members from organisations across Europe and from a wide range of organisations.

To Get Involved in a Focus Group

To join a focus group please email Ms Vesna Zelić by 15th December.

Please let us know:
  • Your name, your role and your organisation.
  • Whether you are able to join the group on 19 December or 20 December.
If you would like to join a focus group but can not attend on either of these dates please let us know. It is possible that there will be a January focus group and, if there is, we will contact you about this.

We will also be arranging interviews early next year. If you are interested in being interviewed but are not able to join a focus group, please let us know.

For the audit to be useful and relevant, it is important to hear many experiences and opinions. We are sure you recognise the importance of including a wide range of views.

Thank you for your interest and your participation!


An opportunity to take part in research:-

An exploration of the reasons that probation staff voluntarily leave the probation service


Study Title: An exploration of the reasons that probation staff voluntarily leave the probation service

Faculty Ethics Committee Ref No: FHSS 2022-048

Name and contact of researchers: Laura Haggar and Michelle McDermott


We are researchers from the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Portsmouth, and are conducting research into the reasons that individuals have voluntarily left probation practice to gain insight into staff attrition.

We are seeking responses from ex-practitioners who meet the following inclusion criteria:

Have previously worked in operational probation roles (grades 3-5) in England and Wales


Have voluntarily resigned from the probation service since May 2019


Are not currently employed by HMPPS

If you meet this criteria we would like to invite you to take part in this research study by completing this anonymous online survey. This should take no more than 10 minutes to complete. The survey questions will include some demographic information as well as questions about the role that you held in probation. These questions are asked to identify whether there are any trends in the responses. The next set of questions will be open-ended, and will ask questions related to your reasons for leaving probation practice and your current situation. Please do not disclose identifying information and please ensure you only share information that you feel comfortable sharing. We recognise that there will be a range of experiences affecting decisions to leave and so please only take part if you feel comfortable exploring these issues. If any questions cause concern or distress, please either skip the question or exit the survey.

The responses are entirely confidential and, should you wish to participate, you can withdraw at any point until the survey responses are submitted. Due to anonymity, we will be unable to retrieve responses to be withdrawn after submission. Data will be stored securely on the researchers shared drive.

The data will be analysed to identify themes in the reasons for voluntary resignations. It is intended that the findings of this research will be disseminated via journal publication, professional networks and academic arenas. Where appropriate the data may be made open access. Verbatim quotes will be used to construct the analysis.

The researchers are also looking for participants to be interviewed about their experiences. If you would be interested in taking part in an interview please use the link on the final page of the survey to register your interest. Should you choose to participate you will be asked to complete a consent form and attend an online interview at a mutually convenient time.

The research has received ethical approval via the University of Portsmouth Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences ethics committee. Should you have any concerns about the research please contact (see details via link).

Thank you for taking the time to read this participant information. Should you have any questions please do email the researchers:

Laura Haggar 
Michelle McDermott 

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Houston, We Have a Problem.

Regular readers will be very familiar with the notion that this blog regularly highlights relevant research and articles from various professional journals with the intention of bringing them to a wider audience. I'm happy to say that this practice has developed over the years and I believe helps stimulate discussion and debate. 

When publishing extracts from the research into the role of SPOs, I must admit I was somewhat surprised that it should re-ignite such an outburst of pent-up feeling and largely negative testimony from contributors. Of course I should have known because for some time the blog has been charting what seems an inexorable decline and dysfunctionality, somewhat speeded-up since reunification. It strikes me that things are now so bad that I've been tempted to pose the notion that the whole endeavour is becoming toxic. 

But an even bigger surprise has been the reaction on Twitter, much of it seemingly to deny the validity of much anonymous testimony - no attempt to engage with it, just deny it. But then that's the official MoJ/HMPPS civil service mindset all along isn't it? Amongst everything else, we clearly have a disconnect. Anyway, from Twitter:-

"Lots of SPO bashing on here over last few days. We're never going to get through this difficult period if we start turning on one another. Let's get back to being a supportive community & sharing ideas etc - that's always been the #Probation twitter I've enjoyed."

"Strange how people sling negativity on Twitter. Love to see them say it out of the safety of their keyboard. I have only had positive experiences with my SPOs. IMO, the entire structure needs to change!" 

"Me too, before becoming an SPO myself, I think I had about 6-7 different SPOs throughout the years. All very different, some I got on better with but all of them were decent, hard working and supportive."

"Noticed negative SPO comments on here. My PQiP SPO is amazing. She is thoughtful, protective of my role and really listens to my perspective. She always makes time for me, even when I can tell she hasn’t always got that time. Although, I accept that not all SPOs are the same."

"I don’t doubt any SPO isn’t passionate and wanting to support their team-I’ve had some pretty amazing SPOs and unfortunately some not so amazing. Probation in general is difficult at the mo but those who have a different, negative experience shouldn’t be overlooked too."

"My PQiP SPO has been fantastic, gutted she’s leaving but excited to gain different knowledge from our new SPO. Haven’t had much experience with the other SPO’s in office but they have all been nothing but friendly and approachable. It can’t be any easy job!!"

"I’ve seen some negative posts recently, I’ve only had the pleasure of working with passionate and supportive SPOs that drive good quality practice and support the Offender Managers. They do a hard role…"

"Our article on the emotional labour of SPOs has resulted in a lot of negativity towards SPOs - this was never our intention. I’ve come across great SPOs, and less great ones. All organisations have difficulties and problems; SPOs aren’t responsible for those we see in probation." (Jake Phillips)

"I guess I'm partly responsible, but I think it's pretty clear to me that it's symptomatic of widespread malaise within the organisation, something which senior management and policy makers seem to refuse to acknowledge. Surely there needs to be some serious internal reflection." (Jim Brown)

"Yes, agree that the response is symptomatic of wider problems/malaise." (Jake Phillips)

"It’s funny as those at the top with the ability to make change seem to ignore it and just want to load staff with more pointless tasks."

"So difficult trying to highlight issues without ppl blaming individuals. In my BBR research I tried to make clear this is issue of policy, not workforce. My report specifically points to similar HMIP inspections as evidence. I still heard rumblings this is likely 'localised'."

"I muted Jim Brown a while back. Anonymous complaints tweeted without context or reference just add nothing. Much as I loathe the mismanagement of the Probation Service, SPOs are not the problem."

"It’s not very nice is it, seems to be coming from one account determined to cast doom and gloom at every post they make. The SPO’s in my area are so supportive and are integral parts of the team. It’s a rough time atm but we are all in this together."

"The account referred to may well be mine, but of course is quoting largely from well-articulated commentary on the blog. It would be helpful if the issues raised were engaged with by all who still value what many still feel is a very worthwhile endeavour." (Jim Brown)


Over the years that I have read this important blog, I have found solace in the knowledge and wisdom of other contributors, and found comfort in the entries of other colleagues far and wide whose shared experience of the service resonated with my own throughout difficult times and through specific service issues. So thank you for the Blog Jim. The blog on SPO's is timely to me in many ways as I approach retirement at the end of this year. I would be lying if I said I was not counting the days.

It is timely also because last week, and in reflective mood, I felt an overarching sense of disappointment with myself. Had I failed in my role as a front line PO for all these years because I did not attain the role of an SPO? I gave myself a good talking to and so did my partner. The onlooker always sees more of the ball game. 

The focus of my professional life has always been to attain knowledge and experience. So I took on some extremely difficult but ultimately rewarding secondments instead of climbing the greasy pole. Some of these opportunities I don't think are open to colleagues today, but I write under correction for that. The downside of that is that, I missed opportunities to go for the SPO role in the community because of contractual requirements in secondment posts. It tended to be dead men's shoes so SPO roles did not come up that often, unlike now. I left the service to go elsewhere and when I returned the calamitous TR had happened. I returned to the service to find it unrecognisable. However, I am not going to rehearse all that here, but to say that I agree with most of what has been said on these posts for the SPO role. 

Not that long ago, I applied for one of the plethora of SPO posts which appealed to me. I had all the experience and knowledge they said they needed and the backing of my own SPO. Did I get it? Nope. Not even an interview. It became clear to me that my face no longer fit and they did not want lengthy service, experience, ability and competence, but inexperience, pliability and 'yes' people who would support those above them but had little idea of how to support the teams they would be expected to manage. 

I found out later that those chosen for the role were urged to apply. I admit I felt angry and disappointed and applied again for another SPO post and got an interview. I then withdrew my application because I knew at the 11th hour I did not want to be a part of the management structure as it is today. I don't know why the hell I applied other than to prove to myself that I could at least get an interview. I felt I was better placed in the PO role to use my experience and knowledge to help and mentor trainee staff in whichever role they were in and resign myself to that where I have felt appreciated and valued. 

In the area in which I work management have recently withdrawn the mentoring role and I am not sure if this is throughout the service. I find it a grave and short-sighted mistake. On-Line learning is one thing, but it does not teach you how to handle those whom you are entrusted to supervise or what to watch for in supervision and on home visits. Not a chance.

So to finish, over the years I have had some wonderful SPO's who knew more than I did and had my back which is all I require of a manager. While it was not perfect, I did think we had the best days before TR and most may disagree but that is my experience and my opinion. On the downside, I have had one or two truly dreadful SPO's whose damage is still legendary and should never have been within 40 miles of managing a team and who stand as a example of how not to do it. Most SPO's have to walk the difficult line between senior management. Most do it very well.

So there you have it.

“SPOs are positioned in the organisation as ‘vital and loyal lynchpins’ … SPOs are required to use various emotional labour techniques to sanitise directives and persuade frontline staff to accept them.”

The only bit of the research I do agree with is that SPOs get very little support for doing a lot of work. We don’t earn much more than when we were POs either.

I’m an SPO with over a decade of probation management experience, much more as a main grade PO. I can tell you this research does not reflect my experience but some of the comments do. Yes, managers can be hand-picked and coached to be ‘yes people’ to senior grades. Many are happy to do so too, or know no better because it’s how they were managed as POs so know no different. Others can be flakey, collusive, bullies, incompetent or just sit with the door closed because they don’t care. I’d like to believe I tread a fine line between doing right by staff and pleasing the senior management. For me I’m lucky they immediate SPOs around me are similar and we have good teams. It’s not always an easy task and you really have to avoid the barbed wire on both sides of the fence.

I agree with 19:08’s 6 points and I’ve seen all those horror stories too. You learn to be like the wise owl.

There was an owl liv'd in an oak
The more he heard, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard.

O, if men were all like that wise bird.

pso, po, admin, cso, spo, aco... whatever role one has there are some basic skills & attributes that would make the workplace bearable:

1. Don't be a bully
2. Support those you work with
3. Respect each other as human beings
4. Respect each others' strengths & weaknesses
5. Communicate clearly with everyone
6. Be honest & have intergrity

For my money you could have 200 years' or 2 months' experience in the probation role, but... you have to demonstrate the above in spades to get my vote.

Sad to say my experience is that for the last thirty years or so such attributes have not been valued, that nepotism & self-serving power games have driven many key appointments and this is why - in my humble opinion - the probation service has been actively disassembled to align with NOMS/HMPPS & to become the shitshow we currently have to endure.

I was involved in personnel selection panels in the 2000's. I saw how candidates for a range of roles were 'filtered' to suit the agendas of certain senior managers, how selection matrices were doctored. I challenged those practices & paid the price many times over. I raised the issues with Board members, Trust members & NOMS. I was, in essence, told to shut up. No illegaity was proven (what a surprise) & I was subsequently ostracised, bullied, targetted & eventually manoeuvred out of the organisation.

I saw excellent candidates excluded. I saw excellent people in-post being hounded out of their roles to make way for the cuckoos. I saw excellent people being broken by the bullying of an organisation which was developing what I believed to be an unpleasant agenda of personal gain, & profit. Looking at the puddle of shit that lies before us in 2022, I don't think I was too far wrong in 2006.

Ha, the recruitment process is you fill in an interview form then you attend an interview, it’s not that difficult. Too many times we hear of SPOs getting jobs we all knew they were tipped for, the ones already in favour with managers and senior managers. Interview processes are never objective when the interviewers know the applicants.

I agree the SPO job can be a difficult one. I’ve seen many a SPO brought down by nasty disgruntled practitioners within their teams, usually they’re the bullies and those that felt they should have got the job instead. Likewise I’ve seen many SPOs prosper because of the fabulous practitioners within their teams.

I do not agree with this research and I doubt the right calibre of SPOs were interviewed. SPOs are not the link between practitioners and the organisation, we all are, and any who think they are have become delusional on their grade status. If we relied on managers to interpret everything for us then we could not possibly claim to be professionals.

I personally know at least half a dozen probably more front line Probation Officers that would not, in a million years, agree to becoming a SPO. They know full well the pressures from Senior Managers to confirm to the Command and Control rigid Civil Service way. I also know of a very few SPOs who somehow have managed to retain their integrity despite these pressures. My observation is that a whole swathe of potential SPO Managers has been cut out of Probation and this is so detrimental not least because these individuals are now at or near retirement. What a waste.

And that’s the problem. Many become SPOs and take other manager roles because they don’t like the Probation Officer job, don’t like working with offenders or just aren’t very good at it. Instead of moving on they take managerial or specialist roles and then proceed to tell others how to do the job that they couldn’t do. These are not difficult positions for them to attain because their like-minded manager friends sit on their interview panels. There’re too many managers that are so past their sell by date they should not be advising others, yet they hang on to the job until retirement. There’re too many others that have been in the job such a short time they don’t understand who they are let alone understand what probation is. They shouldn’t be left alone to manage probation staff, and I’d estimate there’s no more than 1-2 decent SPOs in each Probation region. You’d think this is all made up but it’s really not!

Probation is toxic, I believe the JFDI culture from senior managers in Trust days pervades in senior managers still. Add the dead hand of the Civil Service with its dreadful HR process-is-all “we are here to support the managers not the staff” functions and the disconnect between front line practitioners and managers is explained. Staff working under workloads they can never successfully manage leads to behaviour issues too. The very worst behaviour I have experienced has been between staff, not from the clients/ service users/ offenders/ People on Probation. Face the truth, the service is no longer aligned to the values those of us who cling to this blog believe it should be.

I think Interim SPOs are a problem if they're being promoted within the PDU they've already been a PO at. There's a glaring conflict of interest. A tendency to support wholesale (often poor) behaviour of other POs that they've had existing relationships with, without critically thinking and encouraging bias and not best practice. They also won't criticise more senior SPOs. Again, this creates a conflict of interest and a culture where things are swept under the carpet or other POs who don't have the existing relationship with said interim SPO feeling undermined and fobbed off. You're not supposed to have bias - unconscious or not - as a PO dealing with POPs, but it seems fair game for this to occur between PO and SPO. 

Depending on their emotional intelligence and ego (or lack of the former, exaggerated in the latter) many of them let the power go to their head or use new staff or POs they don't have a relationship with as examples to use to exemplify their competency in the role to their bosses, exploiting newness or the power dynamic. Again, this is not good for the PO, PQIP, NQO who has been singled out. Yes, this happens. It's not human nature. It's a choice. But it's condoned through the dreadfully tedious and often toxic world of office politics, despite rules and safeguards and ratified literature to prevent it happening.

My biggest issue is SPO’s are given, by all accounts, very little training and are not aware of current case management practice which makes it very difficult to be managed by them. I have now got to the point whereby every new SPO appointment made is not a surprise and I sit there in despair as you know full well they will not be able to cope or their previous practice is poor. The amount of SPOs promoted whose case management I’ve had to clear up is ridiculous. It’s this in my opinion that makes it difficult to foster effective working relationships between SPOs and their team.

The training for POs isn't up to much either and is glaringly inconsistent, as are offices: many poorly run with outmoded operational agreements that aren't efficient or supportive of new staff. Choose your PDU very very wisely. Most are very badly run, even though it's within the gift of the 'team' (yawn) to work together and not to single out or discriminate against others. I've seen better team work in a silo of separate offices. In my experience, Inclusion is an aspiration, not a right or the natural order of things. Oh, and don't be a hard worker - you'll be exploited for all you're worth, whilst others' are picking scabs off you to cut corners so you do more of their work. The cliched "Welcome to Probation" refrain reared its head the other week. I've been in Probation 3 years. Ever the dim-witted condescension and foolishness that pervades the thinking of singular ambitious half-wits only too happy to use you to advance their career. Three years is a long welcome. Twit!

I think many on Twitter are those in past or present management and specialist roles, or are management-pleasers. They will obviously say how great probation is when all the reports say it is not. The rest of us comment anonymously on this blog as if we revealed ourselves we’d have some difficulty in the morning.

Sunday 4 December 2022

Is Probation Toxic?

I find it an extremely uncomfortable thought, but the response to yesterday's blog post about some research on the role of SPOs has forced me to reconsider the notion that a Service I care very much about has become toxic. The thought did first flash through my mind when hearing of the Casey Review into the Metropolitan Police and the astonishing revelations confirmed by the new Commissioner. Then there was another devastating report on the London Fire Brigade.

We know about the Home Office toxic culture regarding Windrush and more recently the asylum situation, and there's been concern regarding HMPPS. On many occasions I've voiced worries regarding the dead bureaucratic hand of the Civil Service, but never really thought the Probation Service per se and now an enforced bed fellow of the Prison Service has become tainted and well, just plain toxic. But the fact is there are so many worrying stories and views swirling around on here, the 'secret' Facebook group and 'Review' sites such as 'Indeed' that maybe the time has come for a similar independent review of the Service. I regularly hear of bullying, toxic environments and workplace harm and even leading to PTSD diagnoses.    

This is a flavour from Indeed, but sadly much is not readable due to the pathetic practice of insisting readers file a Review first:- 

Poor management and very high sickness levels, due to stress.

Probation Officer (Current Employee) - Bradford, West Yorkshire - 30 December 2021
The most stressful part of working in the Probation Service, is the poor management, of whom are never held accountable to their superiors. A huge caseload and not enough hours in the day to be able to do your job efficiently is a constant daily worry! If you really want a career that you feel makes a positive difference in peoples lives, don't be deluded by thinking you will do this by working in the Probation Service.

Stressful workplace, that can negatively affect your mental health

Probation Service Officer. (Former Employee) - London - 7 November 2022
Impossible to retain staff due to being overworked, underpaid and not a respected profession. Expect a large caseload, to work beyond your contract hours including weekends and to rearrange leave to meet admin deadlines and not to interact with the service users. Impossible to switch off, expect emails after midnight. I was lucky to have supportive colleagues, amazing admin team and managers that don't micro manage.

Poor management. High caseloads

Probation Service Officer (Former Employee) - North West - 25 October 2022
Stressful job that you will take home with you. High caseloads and lack of tools to do the job effectively. Training is given but you are not allocated the time to absorb it.  


The Prison Service side of HMPPS is no better:-

Too many cons, not enough pros

Business Administrator (Current Employee) - 1 November 2022
All experience staff leaving means no one to train the newbies. Pay was bad until the pay rise this year, bought the non operational staff wages up a fair amount! Management are terrible, they don't listen or care about staff at all. Don't ever get sick or develop a chronic illness, they will try and get rid of you.

Great people, bad management

Business Administrator (Former Employee) - 16 November 2022
I thought working there is like giving back to the society but I now know that I can give back in many other ways. The place needs a complete overhaul. Very low pay, bad management, bad working environment, sub standard equipment to carry out daily tasks and bullying is regularly overlooked. I'm happy I've moved on in my career and will never ever go near the prison service again.

Corrupt Government Organisation

Business Administrator (Current Employee)  - 7 July 2022
No staff support from senior management. They already know who they are promoting so you'd be lucky if an advert even comes out. If your face doesn't fit you won't get anywhere. If you think logically, it's not a place for you.

Toxic environment

Mechanical Engineer (Former Employee) - 18 October 2022
Shambolic organisation,
Understaffed overworked
Management is clueless
Toxic environment and culture
Nobody has your back when something hits the fan.
Strongly advise anybody to give a wide birth.


Whilst rooting around on the internet I came across this which struck me as particularly redolent of the current situation:- 

From Probation Officer to Career Coach

This month, I thought I’d interview...myself! I made a change quite early on in my career. It was a hard decision, having spent two years studying and training for it. However, the experience now helps me empathise with how my clients may be feeling. Here, I share my story and what I learnt along the way. I hope my words inspire you to take action, should you find yourself feeling like I did - stressed and in a career that you see little future in.

1. What work were you doing before?

I studied Psychology & Criminology at University, and went on to train as a Probation Officer after that. This involved a two year training course where I completed a second degree and an NVQ, whilst working with a small caseload of offenders. I worked with offenders in the community and in prison, helping to rehabilitate them by changing their criminal behavioural patterns.

2. How did you know a change was required?

I was quite young when I qualified, with little life experience. I remember one particular Monday morning where I was sat at my desk thinking, “Is this it? Surely there’s got to be more to life than this?” The career path laid out in front of me seemed incredibly stressful, frustrating, and not particularly exciting. I went on holiday around then and the thought of returning to work just filled me with utter fear and dread. I knew something had to change. I came home and handed my notice in on my first day back!

3. What helped you make the decision to finally do something about your situation?

It sounds a bit odd but it was a feeling that took over, more than anything. The career just didn’t feel right anymore. I got to the point where enough was enough, and it just seemed obvious and logical to move on.

I had secured a 12 month temporary contract, through a family friend, doing something completely different (Professional Services Marketing), which meant I had something to go to. I think this helped me bite the bullet and move on, even though I didn’t really know what I wanted to do next.

Having my parents onboard helped too, as they made me realise I could always go back to being a Probation Officer if I changed my mind.

Saturday 3 December 2022

Who'd Be An SPO?

Right from starting my career in the Probation Service, it was pretty clear that being an SPO was a thankless task having to deal with all the stuff from above, as well as absorbing all the angst from below. Ok it was a very early and stark observation borne of my university tutor placing me in a team undergoing crisis and with the words 'it's a difficult placement but we think you can handle it'. Within weeks the SPO went off sick with a nervous breakdown, never to be seen again. The team had destroyed that man and it had a lasting effect on me. But it's always puzzled me, if the joy in the work was interacting with clients, why on earth would you give that up?

Anyway, here we have a fascinating piece of research and article looking closely at the SPO role and published in the European Journal of Probation. As with most academic stuff, it's long and should be read in its entirety, but in order to give a flavour I've decided to go with the selected quotes from those who took part.  

‘Pushed from above and pushed from below’: Emotional labour and dual identities amongst senior probation officers in England and Wales


Senior Probation Officer’s (SPOs) in England and Wales work at the ‘front and centre’ of the organisation’s hierarchy. They act as both manager and developer of frontline probation practitioners. Previous research has focused on the emotional labour undertaken by probation practitioners yet there is very little research on the emotional labour of SPOs, even though they must be skilful emotion managers of their own emotions and those they supervise. Using data gathered from interviews with 28 SPOs and managers across England and Wales, we analyse how SPOs’ emotions are ‘controlled’ by senior management, and how SPOs ‘control’ the emotions of frontline workers they supervise. SPOs attempts at managing emotions are resisted by their supervisees, and SPOs resist the emotional displays they are expected to present in their work role. We conclude by considering the impact of emotional labour on SPOs and how best to support them in their role.


"Some of the emotions that crop up the most I guess are things like just a sense of frustration with the system, the sense of frustration about the detachment of higher-level probation staff..... up there, from the actual practice of managing service users on the ground, you know, they are very disjointed and their expectations of what we can physically achieve are quite unrealistic to some degree." (Ursula)

"I think you get all of the direction from senior management about the things you need to implement and sometimes you don't agree with those things, but you have to implement them, and you have to do it in a way that gets the team on board." (Brianna)

"In terms of my emotional management what I'm not always great at is hiding emotionally how annoyed I am because I get frustrated by stuff, like ridiculous things, you know, organisational ridiculousness really frustrates me because it gets in the way of us being able to discharge a job effectively…and there are times as an SPO where you're so burdened." (Eugene)

"I think when I'm in team meetings, when I'm in supervision sessions it's very calm, very measured, very supportive but I think on the inside at points it is frustrating, there are points I'm feeling at times quite angry. I can feel quite resentful at points as well." (Oliver)

"That was a really difficult experience because all the way through that she was extremely frustrating, unbelievably infuriating but, again, you actually had to maintain the professionalism." (Tianna)

"They're coming to you and it might be that you think ‘why the hell are you feeling this way? because that to me, you know, probably there's people in a different situation that might be ten times worse or have got more workload than you but for them they're living and breathing a difficult situation so I suppose it's, again, putting your personal views aside and trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes and think, okay, well why for you is this really difficult at the moment?" (Heather)

"Even if you don’t agree with having to provide stats every week or so, or COVID reporting or whatever it is, and you’ve got to do it and you’ve got no choice….But it’s about trying to think that there must be some reason why they want this all the time, these stats, these figures. Trying to have that conversation with the staff so that they understand we’re not just asking you to do this because we want to waste your time, there must be a logic to it." (Ursula)

"I had a manic day with appointments and everything, I had two officers crying because of different issues, one about an offender, the other about personal stuff." (Brianna)

"All the emotions I've been talking about. Some people will come to me in tears … Other people might be quite angry [asking] ‘Why aren’t there enough staff?’, you know, they have the opinion that maybe other staff aren’t doing as much as they are, so you have to manage that." (Ursula)

"When I want them to see that I empathise with them I allow them to see that, that I have empathy for you, that I have empathy that you are struggling or that you're finding this particular report difficult or that you're about to miss this deadline and I want them to see empathy and I think they do see empathy." (Lillian)

"I was honest, I said ‘You're going to make me cry!’ We just kind of talked it through and reassured her that, one, she was safe and okay, two, she won't have to see that person again…and also reassured her that she was good at her job and doing what she was supposed to do." (Rhonda)

"Yeah, it's reacting to people as well and also trying to work out how you get a message over in a way that's acceptable because it's dead easy to say you can't do that, don't do that but all that does it puts it underground. So, it's about with a smile on my face saying let's explore why you've said that shall we? What do you think's going on?" (Winston)

"Handing over any message that comes from above and trying to sanitise it and make it in such a way that it's not going to, you know, it's either understandable to your staff or not too kind of - some of the messages you get are quite hard hitting, you think my team at the minute are struggling, if I send this message out it's just not going to go well." (Toby)

"It really is - the role of an SPO in the organisation is anything the organisation can kind of dictate. We are probably the meat in the middle of the sandwich, and we get squeezed from every direction and it's a difficult job." (Toby)

"One of them just left this week who's a really brilliant manager and she was my manager when I first joined, and she said I can't keep up. It is, it's quite a difficult job. You have to have a lot of resilience." (Toby)

"I'll give you an example because this is real, and this happened yesterday. So my team are kicking back at the moment, well, one of my team is kicking back… So we had that discussion, it got very heated. They think they're being hard done to because they're keyworkers, we're front facing at the end of the day." (Jemima)

"So yesterday I came out of that meeting absolutely drained after nearly two hours feeling that I couldn't stay on site. My emotional bucket has been drained for probably the last eight weeks really and has just been getting worse and worse and worse." (Jemima)

"Give me 50 high risk offenders rather than two really difficult members of staff! It's like, oh my god. It's draining. It's draining." (Frank SPO)

"I think when people are angry, in general what I've allowed them to be is angry. You can't rob the genuineness of somebody's emotion…if somebody comes in that is really angry I saying, okay, calm down, have a glass of water is not really going to get you the result that you want to achieve and so you have to kind of understand and ask the right questions to understand why they're feeling the emotions that they're feeling without asking a question that's going to trigger or exacerbate and that is a really nuanced set of skills." (Eugene)

"I said to the deputy head the other day, I says look, all my staff have been in every single week and you're complaining because we want to close the office because it's snowing? So I mean sometimes I get annoyed about it, and I make it clear I'm annoyed." (Mia)

"I wouldn't let it go to the point where I was unprofessional or anything if that makes sense but if things are annoying me, I'm not afraid to say, yeah, I think these decisions are utterly ridiculous but how can we make it work best for us? Because there is a professional way of using your frustration to acknowledge where you're at but find a solution to how in practice you can make it work best for you." (Eugene)

"You're a little bit of everything; you’re a manager, confidante, enforcer of process and performance management as well as trying to support and develop people as much as you can, and you have to be emotionally nimble to be able to do that I think. And with honesty and openness - the way that I was able to, manipulate is not really the right word, but the way in which I present and manage myself allows other people to have trust and honesty in return with me." (Eugene)


Discussion and conclusion

This article makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the challenges SPOs face in the probation service in England and Wales. The consideration of ‘control’ and resistance both by and of SPOs through the lens of emotional labour provides a rich understanding of the demanding emotional expectations place on them as frontline managers. SPOs find it necessary to skilfully fulfil their varied and ever-expanding responsibilities. It also highlights the tension between their role as developer and manager, in the context of increasingly managerial demands. Our analysis also sheds light on the nature of probation work and how emotions are appropriated for the ends of criminal justice. There are some limitations to this study, most notably that the sample was self-selecting, and so may be skewed towards those people were keen to discuss the emotional labour they performed as SPOs. As referenced in the methods section above, there were several people who initially indicated in the survey that they were willing to be interviewed. This may be a result of the delay between survey completion and interviews (due to the COVID pandemic), their circumstances changed, and they did not respond. Nonetheless, it means that our sample is not representative of the SPO population and so our findings need to be understood in that context.
Their position in the PS means SPOs are required to be ‘emotionally nimble’ (Eugene SPO Generic), skilful in the art of emotional labour knowing when and how to ‘control’ theirs and other’s emotions. In doing so, it is clear that SPOs are:
required to produce a more complex and varied species of emotional labour than is often required in the service industry… This reflects the greater variety of issues faced by leaders and the greater variety of leadership work required to deal with them. (Iszatt-White, 2009: 448)
Given the emotional skill required by frontline managers in the PS to fulfil their role, it is important to recognise the value in having experienced senior staff in the SPO role and to understand that the way in which these emotional skills are best learned is through experience. It also prompts questions around the suitability or otherwise of engaging SPO and senior managers from outside probation practice.

The need to engage in complex and varied emotional labour, with emotional display expectations that, at times, conflict with the underlying values and identity of SPOs can be traced back to the shift in focus of probation practice and its effect on how staff should be managed. SPOs were originally employed as senior practitioners whose role was to advise and encourage those less experienced than themselves. However, from the late 1970s onwards, the move from a predominantly welfarist to a neo-liberal ideology resulted in ‘reduced social welfare, the intensification of punishment, and the increasing marketisation and re-regulation of criminal justice agencies to free market principles’ (Walker et al., 2019: 118). In probation, this brought about an increased focus on targets and accountability, cost effectiveness and risk management which led to SPOs taking on an increasingly managerial role.

The congested space which SPOs occupy means they are caught in the middle of organisational demands and staff pressures (Coley, 2020). This requires SPOs to ‘control’ their own emotions and the emotions of those they supervise. In an illustration of what display rules are at play in probation, we have also shown that the suppression of undesirable emotions is not enough. SPOs are expected to circulate directions from senior management in ‘a way that gets the team on board’ (Brianna SPO Generic). SPOs are an emotional buffer between senior management and frontline staff. Organisational policy – which is uncompromisingly direct – means SPOs are required to use various emotional labour techniques to sanitise directives and persuade frontline staff to accept them. The way in which the organisational hierarchy has developed, places increased pressure on SPOs to perform emotional labour in a way that creates conflict between their different job roles. Consequently, it is noteworthy to consider the emotional toll this has on SPOs and how this might be alleviated by thinking about how organisational policy is presented by senior management. The increasingly managerial nature of probation work – a sharper focus on enforcement, punishment and risk management and public protection – combined with the expectation to maintain the senior practitioner role results in tension for SPOs which can only be managed through surface acting. While surface acting ensures SPOs present requisite emotional displays there is a price to pay in the form of negative consequences such as burnout and role overload (Tolich, 1993; Wharton, 1993; Wharton and Erickson, 1993). We can see here glimpses of the emotional burden placed on SPOs raising questions about the scope of the SPO role and the demands it places on them.

Deep acting is one way of reducing the potentially negative consequences of being emotionally ‘controlled’ but SPOs must still invest themselves emotionally in the work they do. Being frontline managers means SPOs can understand the job role of frontline practitioners and the challenging situations they find themselves in. SPOs are therefore well-placed to provide the organisation with a human face of management and be pivotal in the provision of support for the well-being of practitioners. However, this aspect of the SPO role means tapping into their own experiences as frontline practitioners and prioritising an identity akin to Reuss-Ianni’s (1983) ‘street cop’. The resultant ‘sanitisation’ of organisational messages inevitably puts pressure on SPOs to manage these identities or risk negative consequences. It must also be borne in mind that in this context SPOs are positioned in the organisation as ‘vital and loyal lynchpins’ (Dudau and Brunetto, 2020) between senior management and frontline workers and can create or destroy value in the public service provided by the PS where it does not conform to their own underpinning values. The benefits of value congruence underpinning professional leadership (Iszatt-White, 2009) leads to less emotional dissonance and the negative consequences highlighted above and this represents an area for future research focused on authentic leadership and emotional labour to shed much needed light on the role and identity of SPOs.

Our analysis sheds light not only on the role of the SPO in England and Wales but also on the PS itself. The probation service has become increasingly managerial in recent decades (along with myriad other public sector institutions) and the experiences of SPOs serves to underline how this is manifesting on the ground. That SPOs are responsible for performance management as well as developing practice and supporting staff, demonstrating the influence of 30 years of new public management and the challenges this brings to a staff group which is and remains value driven (Grant, 2016).

Ultimately, our analysis points to the demands of high workloads which are currently endemic across probation in England and Wales for both practitioners and SPOs. Whilst the impact of this on the quality of probation practice is recognised by HMI Probation (2020), it is clear from our research that high workloads present similar issues for frontline managers. There are – it would seem – significant risks to SPO well-being that have their roots in the tensions that exist in the SPO role and the emotional labour that is demanded from them. One solution here would be to introduce a clearer definition of the SPO role and reduce the amount of work they do. Another solution may be the introduction of a senior practitioner role which is often seen in the context of social work. This would have the effect of improving the amount and quality of support they can provide to frontline practitioners and, in turn, improve the quality of work done with people on probation.

SPOs find themselves stuck in the middle of an organisation which itself is dealing with high workloads, difficulties in recruitment and retention and questions over its legitimacy amongst the media and general public. However, SPOs play a crucial role in holding the two ends of the organisation together by being the link between what the organisation is trying to do, and the frontline workers who are responsible for putting policy into practice. Our research highlights the need for the probation service to do more to support SPOs as they navigate the ‘intrepid path’ between being held to account by senior managers, protecting the public, supporting staff and helping people on probation to desist from offending.

Chalen Westaby, Jake Phillips, Sam Ainslie, and Andrew Fowler

Friday 2 December 2022

Probation's Journey Continues

Extracts from the first part of the latest Academic Insights paper 'Professionalism in Probation' has produced some very interesting responses, so here is the second and final extract. 

2.3 Towards a relational future for professionalism: opportunities and challenges 

In 2018, just four years after Transforming Rehabilitation was implemented, the Government announced yet more probation restructuring. Initial plans for the next iteration of services retained a commitment to a ‘mixed market approach’ (MoJ, 2018, p.3), with the Government pledging to work with CRCs to renegotiate contracts. However, after a consultation (MoJ, 2018), a subsequent response (MoJ, 2019), and several (draft) target operating models (HMPPS, 2020a, 2020b, 2021), it was announced that offender management would return to the public sector – a decision influenced in part by the Covid19 pandemic. Probation was unified in June 2021: CRCs were terminated, with services divided between 12 regions and housed within the Civil Service. The Chief Inspector of Probation has warned that while unification ‘is not a magic bullet for improving performance’ (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2020a, p.8), structural reform can provide the stability from which to rebuild. In this sense, it offers opportunities for the future of professionalism, but also challenges. 

Among the challenges for probation as services are unified is the recent uptick in punitive rhetoric. For example, in September 2020, a white paper entitled A Smarter Approach to Sentencing (MoJ, 2020a) mostly contained ‘tough’ measures, including longer sentences for a variety of offences. As a result, changes to sentencing, alongside plans to increase police numbers and a prison building programme, have led the Ministry of Justice (2020b) to predict that the prison population could rise to 98,700 over the next six years. The likely impact of such punitive discourses on probation caseloads poses both organisational and individual challenges. At the level of the organisation, appeals to ‘tough on crime’ initiatives undermine public confidence in community sentences, for pro-punitive sentiments mean that probation services can struggle to gain credibility (Robinson et al., 2012). Probation staff, meanwhile, may experience difficulty in (re)articulating and realising a distinct ideology of service if individual caseloads increase – especially from within the Civil Service, if these values conflict with Government policy (Carr, 2020). 

Caseload pressures can also be exacerbated by the challenges of recruitment and retention. A survey of 1,534 probation staff conducted by HM Inspectorate of Probation (2022, p.15) as part of their most recent annual inspection of services revealed that about half (51 per cent) thought their workloads were ‘not so manageable’. Additional funding was allocated to recruiting 1,000 staff onto the Professional Qualification in Probation in 2021, the training pathway to become a probation officer, with another 1,500 in 2022 (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2022). However, lengthy vetting procedures, the time taken to train new staff, and increasing resignations (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2022) suggests that the benefits of recruitment and (re)professionalisation strategies will take time to realise. The role of the staff-client relationship in supporting desistance is salient within the probation literature (McNeill, 2006; Weaver, 2011); hence, it is crucial that staff, as the service’s most valuable asset, are the subject of ongoing investment. If, as argued above, professionalism in probation refers to a way of organising work according to knowledge, discretion, and the opportunity to realise distinctive, people-centred identities, then reduced caseloads and the greater provision of training can enhance professional skills and afford the space to deploy and reflect on such expertise. 

Key to the plans to develop professionalism in probation is the creation of ‘an independent statutory register for probation professionals’ (MoJ, 2019, p.4), with the intention of (re)forging a common identity among all staff. This seeks to better recognise probation work as a profession, building upon similar proposals by HM Inspectorate of Probation (2019a) to bring the service into line with other certified professions, such as medicine. The register will mandate professional training, ensure that clients and the public are protected from gross negligence via debarment (MoJ, 2019), and provide ‘access to high-quality, practical learning resources that… support day-to-day tasks’ (HMPPS, 2020c, p.9). While, at the time of writing, there has been little progress on the professional register, it provides an ideal resource through which to (re)establish a clear ideology of service. Here, Canton’s (Academic Insights paper 2019/02) analysis of the European Probation Rules (EPR) provides a framework within which to develop the professional register. Articulating values grounded in human rights and the minimisation of harms, he contends, is at the core of the EPR. Making such values explicit through the professional register can serve to instil a common identity among probation staff that was fractured by Transforming Rehabilitation. 

And yet, while attempts ‘to improve… professionalisation’ (MoJ, 2020a, p.63) through appeals to its ideal-typical tenets have thus far been presented as vital to the future of the profession, McNeill (2019, p.145) states that an exclusive focus on staff betrays a ‘tunnel vision in the supervisory imaginary’. He argues that the development of new ways of working ‘begin in the wrong place’ (McNeill, 2006, p.45) if the focus is on practice rather than how individual change occurs. As probation scholars have argued, professionals do not ‘own’ the process of desistance (Albertson et al., 2020); rather, its ‘rightful owners [are] victims, offenders and communities’ (Maruna, 2006, p.24). Relevant persons other than professionals can thus play a meaningful role in decision-making. This is supported by recent research which indicates that services can be improved if we enable meaningful citizen participation. HM Inspectorate of Probation (2019b) argue that service user involvement in service provision benefits staff by providing insights into how clients experience probation. Greater involvement in, and co-production of, services is a way to ‘democratise engagement with service users’ (Weaver, 2011, p.1045): learning about clients as individuals rather than cases, as one member of staff put it, enabled him to ‘see the person behind the risk’ (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2019b, p.15; emphasis in original). This suggests that probation professionals have an important role to play in reinforcing a sense of belonging in clients through a focus on collaborative relationships. 

Restorative practice could represent a framework through which probation can better embed partnerships ‘between the state and individuals, victims, families and communities as co-producers of justice’ (Weaver, 2011, p.1048). Indeed, restorative theories around conflict ownership and the notion of justice as identifying and meeting stakeholders’ needs (Christie, 1977) correspond closely with the literature on the desistance process (Maruna, 2006; McNeill, 2006). Marder (Academic Insights paper 2020/04) notes that restorative practice comprises:
 • values – including stakeholder participation, the goals of addressing and repairing harm, and a focus on cultivating positive relationships 
• language – open, non-judgemental questions, encouraging emotional expression and reflection 
• processes – including circles, family conferencing and mediation, through which the values are enacted. 
Marder argues that better integrating a restorative culture within probation would ‘actively build positive relationships with and among colleagues, clients and the community [and] enable those who hold a stake in a given issue to participate voluntarily in dialogue and decision-making around that issue’ (Marder, 2020a, p.4). As the 2018 Council of Europe framework on restorative justice states, restorative practice has a wide range of applications across probation (Marder, 2020b). In this way, it holds significant potential for building relationships with victims and communities, promoting multi-agency work, and healing internal divisions (Tidmarsh and Marder, 2021). 

That probation ‘services are part of an ecosystem which is… suffering from declining investment’ (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2020a, p.6) heightens the need for ‘co-productive’ approaches – defined by Bovaird (2007, p.847) as: 
‘the provision of services through regular, long-term relationships between professionalized service providers (in any sector) and service users or other members of the community’. 
Such an approach is supported by Rule 12 of the EPR, which states that probation services ‘shall work in partnership with other public or private organisations and local communities to promote the social inclusion of offenders’ (c.f. Canton, 2019, p.7). Relational approaches that involve people on probation, such as restorative practice and co-production, have the potential to expedite the acquisition of pro-social and non-criminal identities (Weaver, 2011). Unification provides an opportunity not only to re-centre probation as a public sector profession underpinned by knowledge and expertise, but also to build professional networks in the community. Here, the provision of time and training can enable staff to develop the links which can help them to realise a client-centred ideology of service. 

Perhaps the most promising initiative which emphasises the benefits of involving external stakeholders in service design and delivery is that of ‘community hubs’, introduced by some CRCs as a way to support multi-agency working with local health and welfare organisations. They are an innovation that staff and service users have generally received positively (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2020b). Community hubs thus illustrate probation’s potential for co-production, as the connective tissue that binds together different social spheres and the communities they represent (Senior et al., 2016). Albertson et al. (2020, p.6) suggest that the range of actors involved makes hubs ‘well placed to affect structural impediments to desistance at the nexus of community, society and the individual’. Desistance literature emphasises not what is done to an offender in the course of a criminal justice sanction, but rather, the importance of acquiring positive internal narratives (Maruna, 2006). Remaking the temporal-spatial and relational boundaries of probation practice by promoting ‘enabling’ structures can thus hasten the ‘discovery’ of agency (Albertson et al., 2020). 

Unification, therefore, offers an opportunity to build on best practice. Investment in staff should be at its core: 
• providing the foundations for upskilling professional knowledge and expertise  
• improving autonomy to work with people on probation and build community links 
• helping to develop the ability to reflect critically on practice. 
A clear focus on enhancing the tenets of professionalism identified in this paper can thus help to rebuild an identity and culture within probation which is relational, collaborative, and, above all, person-centred.

3. Conclusion 

After years of instability within probation, the potential for some stability as a result of unification is welcome. Transforming Rehabilitation has brought many of probation’s underlying issues to the surface; its essence (Senior et al., 2016), if not lost altogether, has been further tainted by the logic of competition and profit. The ‘national service of second chances’ (House of Commons Hansard, 2020), as the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice recently described probation, itself requires a second chance. Most staff within the new probation body will likely welcome the changes, while remaining anxious about the future (HM Inspectorate of Probation, 2020a) – especially, as Carr (2020) has observed, from within the unfamiliar institutional environment of the Civil Service. 

The next iteration of probation should be reconstructed around the professionalism of its staff, its most valuable asset, with the goal of building and maintaining a wide ‘network of relationships’ (Dominey, 2019, p.284) at its core. A renewed focus on ‘professionalism’ is rooted in a recognition of the need to re-professionalise staff through knowledge, education, and training, and to engage them in an evidence-base. The benefits of this strategy will take time to realise, particularly because it takes place against an all too familiar backdrop of punitive criminal justice rhetoric and projections that prison populations will continue to increase (MoJ, 2020a, 2020b). A likely increase in people on the probation caseload could further hinder professional autonomy and an ideology of service. It is thus vital that further recruitment enables staff to spend more time with people on probation and to reflect critically on their practice. This, alongside resources like the professional register, can help to re-emphasise shared values and create a positive service identity into which new staff can be socialised. 

Greater co-production with external stakeholders, too, can underpin a relational basis for a new ‘professionalism’ – one that respects the service’s unique history and culture while emphasising its contemporary relevance as a social, legal and moral arbiter between people on probation, the state, victims and communities. This collaborative, bottom-up focus on relationships, between and among people on probation, communities and professionals, clearly overlaps with restorative practice (Marder, 2020a). Indeed, the new probation body could explore dialogic and restorative models to negotiate a new culture to which all staff buy-in. With sufficient institutional support and investment in the wider social infrastructure in which the service operates, probation staff can pursue a professionalism which is grounded in ‘thick’ (Dominey, 2019) relationships that help the new service to recapture its legitimacy.


Mention of 'relationships' here takes me right back to the beginning of this blog and something I published in 2010 'It's the Relationship Stupid' and re-visited in 2017 'Nothing New'. I understand recently-departed Chief Probation Officer Sonia Flynn will be undertaking work on setting up the Professional Register as part of the Probation Workforce Programme.