Wednesday 22 May 2024

An Important Read - Part Four

Here we have the concluding part of Professor Rob Canton's article from the latest Probation Journal convincingly making the case for a comprehensive reassessment of the remit and role of probation in England and Wales. Undoubtedly, for a new government, it will require political courage, but most would now agree the service is utterly dysfunctional as part of HMPPS and the civil service and must return to some form of arms-length, locally-administered QUANGO.

Reaffirming probation as social work

While most offending behaviour programmes focus on thinking skills and the development of human capital, the cultivation of social capital is quite as important in reducing offending. The pathway out of offending should not be assumed to be a simple reversal of the route in: achievement of their own aspirations, personal relationships, opportunities for employment, accommodation and social resources are recognised to be strongly supportive of desistance (Shapland and Bottoms, 2017). Programmes are undoubtedly of value to some people, but are not necessary for some and almost always insufficient.

Like other branches of social work, probation must take into account both of personal agency and social circumstances in their constant mutual interactions. Motivation and abilities are necessary to take advantage of opportunities; opportunities must be available and recognised. This calls for encouragement, motivational work and skills development, but also for efforts to make opportunities and resources available. In overcoming obstacles to desistance or in ameliorating difficulties that have brought people into contact with social services, working with other organisations through brokerage, coordination and case management is central. Indeed the concept of ‘offender management’ derived from approaches originally developed in healthcare and social work (Holt, 2007).

There is a further – political – parallel. Many social workers have to confront the accusation that their personalised approaches conceal the structural origins of so much distress. The belief that many disadvantages reflect not only inequalities but also injustices generates moral and practical dilemmas around what has been called working ‘in and against the state’ (London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, 1980; Walker and Beaumont, 1981).

Individualised or family-centred approaches to social work can eclipse the overwhelming structural factors associated with clients’ struggles, risking collusion with injustice as well as limiting an understanding of the origins of many social problems and how best they might be mitigated. Similarly in penal policy one of the principal critiques of the ‘treatment model’ was that it translated structural, socio-economic disadvantage into individual pathology, obscuring and even exacerbating these injustices in ways that were both self-defeating and unethical (American Friends Service Committee, 1971).

Probation's professional repertoire has seemed substantially limited to trying to bring about personal change6. Centring on the assessment and management of individuals and pushing social context to the side have hollowed out probation discourse and suppressed its political and moral dimensions. Conceived as an agency of punishment – and now organisationally shackled to prison – probation has been discouraged from achieving its potential in community crime reduction7. Recent restructuring sets areas within a national, centrally governed Probation Service and distances it from the local dimensions of crime and desistance. Local areas should have the latitude to respond to their different economic and cultural situations: the responsivity of areas, no less than that of individuals, should be respected on grounds of effectiveness, but also as a component of legitimacy. The ‘sameness’ which bureaucrats tend to value, often mistaking it for justice and equity, could stifle local initiative and sensitivity to factors that matter to people in different communities. Here, perhaps, probation might learn from social services, where structure and lines of accountability at least make it possible for work to be responsive to local priorities.

Education and training

Probably for any profession, best practice takes place when staff endowed with knowledge and understanding deploy their skills in ways that give expression to the profession's values. Knowledge, skills and values accordingly constitute a serviceable framework for examining a professional curriculum8. It has already been suggested that while much of the social work curriculum is properly generic – for example, some knowledge of human growth and development, of psychology, of sociology, of relevant social structures and systems - different areas of social work require specialised knowledge. This challenge could be (was) met by distinctive streams.

Again, all social workers need certain skills, most of which are generic. Notably, both social services and probation work, under the authority of law, with involuntary clients to keep people safe and enable them to thrive. An involuntary client is not necessarily someone who engages reluctantly, or without appreciation – much less without benefit (Trotter, 1999). Involuntary clients are people who are clients whether they want to be or not: probation and social work are involved with involuntary clients in this same sense. Both require their clients (at least sometimes) to do things that they would not choose to do spontaneously or indeed would choose not to do. This calls for skills of engagement, developing relationships with people who may be suspicious or resistant, role clarity, motivational work, cultivating professional curiosity, problem-solving, analysis, judgement, teamwork, spoken and written communication, working purposefully in conditions of uncertainty. These are generic skills, even though they need to be honed and adapted to distinctive challenges. (There are, for example, particular skills in interviewing people who are bewildered - perhaps by mental distress or disability - and engaging with children.) However fundamental skills are common to all social work activities, can be explored in a university setting, and developed in practice. And all these skills are necessary for probation staff.

In their critique of genericism, Dews and Watts wrote of skills, but often what they were particularly rejecting were the values of social work. Many staff in probation at the time of the separation would have come across the authoritative statement of these values in the work of Father Felix Biestek (1957). Central to Biestek's account is the principle of respect for persons - an invaluable safeguard against the degradation or cruelty at which penal practices are commonly at risk. Biestek affirmed some particular values – values which practice and research have been shown to be essential to probation, even if now articulated in a different vocabulary. Thus: (Table 1)

Table 1. Social work and probation values compared.

Social WorkProbation PracticeRationale
IndividualisationResponsivityPeople are not all the same and practice must respect and respond to their differences.
Controlled emotional involvementEmotional literacyWork is often emotionally charged, both for client and worker, and workers must be sensitive to this, using it to therapeutic advantage.
AcceptanceMotivational work, including motivational interviewingMotivations fluctuate and workers may try to change or guide these. This is not achieved by recrimination or rebuke, which are more likely to generate resistance.
Non-judgemental attitude
Self-determinationAgency; self-efficacyPeople are and should be in charge of their own lives.

These are among the values specified by Biestek (1957). He included other values – for instance, confidentiality, where the boundaries are not always easy to determine. Once again, the positions for probation and for social work are just the same.

The principle of self-determination, which seems to have especially exasperated the Home Office, calls for particular consideration. This never meant that social workers were indifferent to the ways in which people acted: it affirmed the fundamental value of autonomy. Agency – taking charge of one's own life, actively seeking and creating opportunities - is a common feature of a desistance trajectory (Maruna, 2001; Farrall, 2011).

It is instructive, then, that while these values were likely to have been seen as the occasion for rejecting social work, they not only persisted in probation practice, expressed in a different terminology, but increasingly came to be recognised as essential to achieving compliance and reducing reoffending. They persist because they emerge from the challenges of staff trying to undertake difficult work in a principled manner.

Concluding reflections

Probation is social work, as so many countries recognise, and it is only political expediency that has encouraged successive administrations to repudiate that characterisation. Social work seeks to understand people, the difficulties that beset them and fitting responses to those difficulties in the context of social structure and circumstance, as well as in their psychological characteristics and their relations with others. This is how offending behaviour and desistance must be understood too and probation is limited and impoverished by neglect of social context. It is telling that youth justice in England and Wales has not lost sight of this and has managed to retain a strong social work ethos. Part of the explanation here, perhaps, is that it is politically easier to defend purposes of welfare and rehabilitation for young people, whose needs, vulnerability and capacity to change are more readily apparent than for adults. This makes it easier to defend a social work approach in response to their offences.

Nevertheless, despite the political posturing and reorganisation, there is a sense in which probation never left social work. As David Smith wrote, 
‘… for all the rhetoric of punishment and public protection, risk management and enforcement, when practitioners decide what they are actually going to do to engage and motivate clients, help them access resources and convey a sense of hope in the possibility of constructive change, they will find themselves using ideas and skills that have emerged from social work theory and research.’ (2005: 634)
Yet the formal repudiation of social work has been of considerable detriment to both professions. The separation of professional education in the universities has frustrated opportunities for fruitful exchanges in research and skills development (Raynor and Vanstone, 2016). In the past, the shared curriculum often involved practice placements in other agencies - a probation officer in training, for example, might be placed in family centre, a psychiatric facility or a community project. This made it easier for staff to resist reducing individuals to ‘offenders’, recognising the context in which the offences had taken place and desistance had to be accomplished. Reciprocally, social worker students might work in probation offices, gaining an appreciation of this work that would enhance their practice, especially when the agencies need to work in partnership. The educational curriculum no longer fosters these perspectives.

Safeguarding and public protection are essentially the same activity, even though different professions often have a different starting point in their complementary endeavour. A secure appreciation of one's role and its boundaries is essential in shared undertakings and this can only be fostered when the professions concerned have a deeper understanding of each other's responsibilities, resources, and ethos. So while it has been no part of my purpose to argue that probation or social work should take its educational model from the other, there is everything to be gained by closer alliances, including perhaps the sharing of modules in their respective curricula and even (although organisational difficulties should not be underestimated) exchanges in practice placement.

As for governance, any organisation ought to be structured, resourced and managed in ways that maximise its potential in achieving the purposes set for it. But sometimes it seems that probation policy has got this back to front – starting with governance without sufficient regard to the purposes, character and meaning of probation's work. Specifically, Transforming Rehabilitation was motivated less by ambitions to enhance practice than by ideological preferences for the involvement of the private and commercial sector. Again, while the reclaiming of the Probation Service and restoring it to the public sector was undoubtedly influenced by the transparent failures of TR, the creation of a centralised and national service – rather than a revival of the local Trusts - may well have been driven by the government's concern to have direct control over penal policy - which, as we have seen, became one of the principal battlegrounds in party politics and may become so again. Social services in England are the responsibility of Local Authorities and can be located within strategies for distinctively local provision. Probation should have position as well, as a key agency involved in promoting social (and not just criminal) justice.

This is an essential perspective for probation if it is to carry out its work in a manner that is both principled and effective, but has been ousted from what should be its central place by preoccupations with punishment and control. Rather than regarding other agencies as resources to address criminogenic need, probation could recognise its potential to put these other agencies in touch with some of their most needy and hardest-to-reach clients. As we have seen, research is now suggesting that that approach is invaluable in supporting desistance.

Political courage may be required to advance this understanding of probation. It is unfashionable to assert that probation has a duty to care for people under its supervision, or that the wider community has responsibilities towards people with criminal convictions as well as claims against them. It is therefore all the more important that probation and other social work services should stand as authoritative representations of how a good society should relate to those of its members who are struggling. No doubt these professions often fall short of the idealistic standards set out in this paper. Nevertheless, these are the values to which they should commit themselves and which they would be more likely to achieve if their historical connections were revived and reaffirmed.

Rob Canton


  1. Guardian yesterday:-

    Police chiefs have told ministers they fear that the crisis gripping the Prison Service in England and Wales is “unsustainable” and risks public safety, the Guardian has learned.

    Government and prison chiefs have taken a series of crisis measures because of overcrowding, including plans to free convicted criminals early and using police cells to house those who otherwise would be in jail.

    Sources with knowledge of the discussions between government and senior police leaders, including the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), Gavin Stephens, confirmed the dire warning had been given to ministers and senior officials in recent days.

    Senior police figures believe the use of their cells cannot go on, with the Prison Service paying to use them because of severe overcrowding.

    They have also been asked to consider delaying some operations that would lead to arrests to ease overcrowding, in advice issued by the NPCC. In addition, they have been asked to consider whether arrests can be delayed for non-priority cases, as long as the public are not placed in danger, according to documents first reported by the Times.

    One source said this would cover arrests where police could safely delay a raid for some time, or detaining multiple suspects, but not a case where someone is arrested immediately after committing a crime.

    Multiple sources confirmed the documents are genuine and accurately spell out the level of concern within policing.

    The document sent to police chiefs by the NPCC says: “Consideration is to be given to pausing non-priority arrests and any planned operations where large numbers of arrests may take place to ease the pressure within the criminal justice system.

    “Notwithstanding public protection remains a priority and a considered threat, harm and risk assessment is to be completed when considering any pause in police operations.”

  2. Off topic but may ring a bell

    1. The public have been told to register their interest if they want to attend a gross misconduct hearing into allegations against a police chief constable.

      Northamptonshire Chief Constable Nick Adderley is accused of misrepresenting his military service.

      He allegedly wore a Falklands War medal he did not earn and falsely stated he was a Royal Navy officer.

      The three-day hearing was due to take place in February, but was postponed until 28 May.

      Northamptonshire Police said spaces would be limited at the hearing, taking place at the Northampton Saints ground.

      The hearing will be held by the Northamptonshire Police Fire and Crime Commissioner and will be chaired by lawyer Callum Cowx.

      "We would ask that those wishing to attend let us know by close of business on Thursday," the force said.

      "Mr Adderley faces gross misconduct allegations to the effect that he has inter alia exaggerated the rank, duration and achievements in his service with the Royal Navy and implied that he served in the Falklands War in breach of several standards of professional behaviour."

      Mr Adderley was suspended following the allegations and Ivan Balhatchet is the acting chief constable.

      The proceedings followed an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

      In a statement last year, Mr Adderley said he had always worn his own medals alongside two medals his brothers gave him to wear when one became critically ill and one moved overseas.

      Anyone wanting to attend next week was asked to email

  3. I'm in the house stripping out my old files for bin . In the background torvill and dean doing a slip slip slide and sharp left hard right a skip a jump a lift a swerve and somersault. A full reverse a fast reverse then slow then stop. A crouch down a slither a weave and a jump. A high spin a double twist a back lift back pedal underpass over pass shimmy shammy. I then flipped the channel to vennells who's own choreography was identical. Also the same as most merger chief officers.

    1. The Venal vennells is still protecting her handlers after receiving a timely early warning about self-incrimination in her evidence. Her crocdile tears have resulted in amber weather warnings

  4. Media alert! BBC 2 Newsnight tonight is about sex offenders and Programmes and Panorama tomorrow is risk and Approved Premises. It would seem an undercover reporter may have got a job in one.

  5. Media alert! Newsnight cancelled due to you know what. May never see light of day. Such is life.

  6. Seriously, can someone please explain why?

    uk taxpayer funding hmpps staff flying the equivalent of 42 times around the world + hmpps staff flying the equivalent of 185 times the length of the uk?

    In a single year. Why???

    Also... give this a listen:

    This is the story of a man who learnt early on in life that he couldn’t trust the police, and that his group of older friends could protect him from harm. It happened that those friends were into committing crime.
    Between the ages of 15 and 21, Marc only spent one Christmas out of prison. He graduated from stealing hubcaps to committing armed robberies.
    During his last sentence, he ended up in HMP Grendon – a prison run on the principles of a ‘therapeutic community’ – where, for the first time, Marc was forced to confront his own actions and account for them not to the authorities, but to his peers.
    HMP Grendon was ‘the hardest prison’ Marc had ever done. He cried for the first time inside Grendon.
    And then, in an extraordinary twist, Marc was forced to use some of the ‘skills’ he had learned during his criminal career to save the lives of others – and he was labelled a hero.
    Is it possible to prevent crime by understanding the root causes of offending behaviour?

    Sally Tilt and Dr Kerensa Hocken are forensic psychologists who work in prisons.

    They help people in prison to look at the harm they’ve caused to other people, understand why it happened and work out how to make changes to prevent further harm after they’ve been released.

    In Behind the Crime, they take the time to understand the life of someone whose crimes have led to harm and, in some cases, imprisonment.

    The job of the forensic psychologists is to dig deep into Marc’s story, to understand the sequence of events that got Marc to the point where he committed a crime.

    PPS - it was entertaining watching the 'optics' of a drowning sunak having to raise his self-serving voice over some wag playing DReam's' "Things Can Only Get Better"