Practice and Practitioners in 2020?

Published 15/03/2016
Type Article
Author(s) John Deering
Corresponding Authors John Deering, Reader in Criminology & Criminal Justice, University of South Wales

Quite apart from the organisational and governance impact of Transforming Rehabilitation (TR), which has, of course seen the destruction of the unified public sector probation service, the TR changes have called into question something even more fundamental to probation practice. Who will be probation practitioners in this uncertain future and what will they see as the purpose of that practice? What will be their value base , why will they join; will they see the job as akin to a vocation aimed at providing ‘help’ in the broad sense, or as something altogether more basic, managerial and concerned with law enforcement?

Addressing such questions requires crystal-ball gazing, but there have perhaps been some features of the past 25 years or so that might provide a few pointers. It seems to me that successive governments have, since the 1991 Criminal Justice Act made the probation order ‘punishment in the community’, wished to change the ethos and practices of the service, a process that has fallen into a recognisable trajectory that culminated in TR. Quite apart from governance, the attempt to change practice included the intention to do this via changing practitioners, which began with the abolition of social work training in the mid-1990s by Home Secretary Michael Howard. Howard’s intention was to ‘toughen up’ probation by recruiting largely ex-forces personnel who were not to be professionally trained. This was presumably based on a stereotypical assumption that such recruits would necessarily bring toughness, whatever that meant, to the job. This effort failed, as probation services refused to recruit non-social work trained personnel in the period before the incoming Labour government created the Diploma in Probation Studies (DiPS). The DiPS itself was controversial in some quarters due to its non-social work base, but there is evidence that these new recruits came into the job and training with the same underlying value base as had probably been the case for their social work predecessors (Annison, 2006; Deering, 2010).

Various theoretical and empirical studies have investigated and debated ‘probation values’ in recent decades (e.g. Annison, 2006; Annison et al., 2008; Deering, 2011; Farrow, 2004; Nellis & Gelsthorpe, 2003; Robinson & McNeill, 2004; Williams, 1995) whilst a few others have looked at trainees specifically in terms of their values and why they joined the probation service (Annison, 2006; Deering, 2010). In brief, these values coalesced around a belief in people’s ability to change and the legitimate and potentially effective role of probation practice in facilitating that change. Trainees and experienced practitioners alike shared these values, which were to be operationalised via the professional relationship that was seen to be the basis of good practice. The relationship should be empathic, prosocial, make proper use of legitimate authority, be encouraging and aim to assist with the reduction of an individual’s problems and difficulties, all within a non-judgemental and anti-discriminatory approach which clearly eschewed rational choice theories of crime for more determinist ideas, whilst acknowledging at the individual level a measure of choice. Alongside this, the debate about effectiveness, from ‘Nothing Works’ to ‘What Works’ evolved, to be joined more latterly by desistance which called into question more ‘treatment’ based models of practice and developed a model for probation that was more about the collaborative removal of barriers to desistance (Farrall, 2002; McNeill, 2006; Weaver & McNeill, 2010). However, as removed from each other as desistance and cognitive-behaviourist approaches might be, the professional relationship, its nature and importance has perhaps been the element common to these and indeed any other approach and seems to have remained central to practitioners’ ideas about
professionalism and effectiveness throughout various government-imposed changes.

Although it can be argued that the value base of people recruited to and working within the service has been resilient and retains many elements of what might be called ‘traditional’ (i.e. aligned to social work) values, practice itself has had to adapt to changing priorities represented by the rise of risk, punishment, enforcement and compliance and the rest of the managerialist, late modern paraphernalia. However, it also seems to have been the case that practitioners, based upon their values have adapted to and adapted government changes to the purpose and focus of practice. For example, whilst practitioners accepted government moves towards risk management and  accountability to the courts, it seems likely that they interpreted these moves in ways not completely aligned to that intended by government (Deering, 2011; Mawby & Worrall, 2013). The risk agenda was accepted in the main, but was interpreted about being concerned as much with the risk of re-offending as the risk of harm; whilst the latter was more directly linked to public protection, the former was seen as equally important in that those of lower risk of harm represented the clear majority of probationers and were often at higher risk of reoffending and it is in trying to reduce that risk by engaging with individuals that much or most of probation practice was seen as lying; practitioners did not see their role as simply ‘offender management’. Similarly, the law enforcement and punishment agendas were addressed by practitioners creatively, with a rejection of administrative or ‘knee jerk’ enforcement and breach in preference for a more nuanced approach that took individual needs and degrees of engagement into account (Deering, 2011; Mawby & Worrall, 2013). Practitioners also seem to have rejected managerialism, with its professional emptiness which measured processes not outcomes and seemed lacking in concern for the quality of practice, but rather that targets were simply achieved. Practice and practitioners in 2020?

Into this situation of continuous top-down change and practitioner adaptation came the threat to the integrity of probation as a unified public sector organisation. This was initiated by the creation of the National Offender Management Service and realised by TR. Whilst changes prior to TR had arguably not seen a complete undermining of probation principles and values, at least not at practitioner level, TR threatens their very existence. It seems to me that the abolition of any requirement for a professional qualification for anyone working within the Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) has changed the game in a way that will be difficult to resist. Whilst there would of course be no reason why CRCs could not appoint qualified staff, there is no obvious reason why they might have any interest in doing so, for two reasons at least. Firstly, the expense will prove prohibitive for organisations that have already shown they are intending to cut costs wherever possible (Lawrence, 2016) and, secondly, there is no indication that they are interested in the quality of practice per se, as recent announcements about reducing staff levels in CRCs is linked to the coming of biometric technologies that can allow for a ‘reporting only’ supervision for ‘probationers’, many of whom will be of high risk of reoffending, with considerable personal and social needs (Travis, 2015).

On the other hand, there may be a residual commitment to rehabilitative approaches and it is perhaps here that there might be more hope for the future. Although probation being a public sector enterprise has been of fundamental importance to practitioners to date (Deering & Feilzer, 2015) this may well become less of a factor over time and ‘the job’ will continue to attract to it individuals committed to working empathically and offering ‘help’ in an attempt to promote desistance and rehabilitation. However, it does seem more than likely that such individuals will be working in an environment that may not formally value their professionalism and skills.

Within the National Probation Service (NPS), the situation may be very different. The government has announced new arrangement for professional training (National Probation Service, 2015) and TR commits the NPS to a professional workforce. In such a situation, individuals that hold similar underlying values to those that have gone before will have an organisation prepared to train and qualify them professionally and to require them to work at a level beyond that of the ‘reporting only’ CRCs. However, the NPS’s sole focus on higher risk of harm individuals will perhaps play up the law enforcement, public protection element of the job and this may itself reduce its attractiveness to some potential applicants. In a study conducted online before the split of the service in June 2014, Martina Feilzer from Bangor University and I considered the views of probation staff about the possible impact of TR (Deering & Feilzer, 2015). Unsurprisingly, those who replied to our survey (over 1300 individuals) were unequivocally opposed to the split and particularly the selling off of part of the service. They were pessimistic about the future,both in employment and professional terms and saw the division into the NPS and CRCs as inevitably leading to a two-tier service, with the CRCs, despite supervising some 70% of the previous caseload seen as very much second-class, due to them being deprofessionalised. More surprising was the relatively negative view of the prospects of working in the NPS. Whilst this was seen as positive as it would remain in the public sector, the sole focus on higher risk of harm was seen as narrowing the job professionally and risking burn-out. Moreover, the civil service was seen as likely to be more top-down, rule-driven and less amenable to professional discretion and creativity.

Since the split, the news has been largely negative: staff shortages, stress and high workloads in the NPS and, as mentioned, cuts and job losses in the CRCs. In a study conducted for Napo that primarily looked at employment relations post TR, Kirton and Guillame (2015) have argued that staff feel that TR has de-professionalised the service and that stress levels are high, due to higher workloads, job insecurity, less autonomy and reduced opportunities for training and progression. Many respondents in their study were considering leaving the service, something that was also recorded in our pre-TR survey in 2014 (Deering & Feilzer, 2015).

It seems difficult to be optimistic at this stage about who might be practitioners in 2020. Many existing staff may have left, via retirement or seeking alternative employment. Whilst there will likely be a professional training, if it is limited to the employment needs of the NPS, it will involve a relatively small number of people, leaving the majority of ‘probation supervisees’ within the CRCs potentially supervised by unqualified staff utilising biometric reporting technology. More optimistically, even TR may fail to dissuade the ‘usual suspects’, people wishing to engage in ‘probation work’ for those reasons outlined above, from applying to work within the CRCs as well as the NPS. If this is the case, there remains hope that humanistic, empathic and curious practice can survive, breaking out from the TR confines of managerialism, offender management and punishment.


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