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Probation identity matters

22 October 2018

Probation leaders reflect on the service's identity and what 'probation' now means.

What is the core of the probation service’s identity and how it is changing remain critical questions for a sector that sometimes struggles to be understood by the public and continues to grapple with reform and its relationship with the prison service.

Questions about the what ‘probation’ means now brought together figures from across the sector at a seminar on 12th October facilitated by ex-chief inspector of probation, Andrew Bridges.

In Andrew’s opening remarks, he reminded participants - from community rehabilitation companies (CRCs), the National Probation Service (NPS), the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), other statutory bodies, academics, retired colleagues and the third sector - that this is not the first time these questions have been pored over. In 2000, and only late on, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw reversed a decision to re-brand the new national service the ‘Community Punishment and Rehabilitation Service’ by opting for National Probation Service. Nevertheless, the word probation had almost disappeared by 2010. The probation label is returning now, but its meaning has continued to evolve – as the participants discussed.

What’s in a name?

The debate about the service’s name, it was argued by some in the room, is not simply an issue of convention. It affects what people – within the service but also the wider public – come to understand the meaning of what is delivered. In recent years, some organisations and practitioners have preferred titles such as ‘responsible officer’, which has a technical meaning about the role of the officer but does not necessarily mean anything to others outside the field. A contributor urged participants to “think about your intended audience” more often. One CRC chief executive remarked that it “doesn’t matter what we call each other, people who use the service will always come into an office looking for their ‘probation’ officer”.  

‘Probation’, many participants remarked, is a ‘plain language’ word. All attendees agreed that the renaming of the National Offender Management Service to become Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service was a welcome step. However, the point was raised that it is unhelpful for CRCs to be prohibited from using a name other than CRC because the jargon creates distance and remoteness between them, the service and the public. An academic in the room went further and drew a comparison with the National Health Service within which many individual agencies are responsible for delivering healthcare services. In this context, they argued that giving the name ‘National Probation Service’ to one element of the sector had proved “unhelpful” as it suggests to the public and other stakeholders that CRCs and other agencies are not involved with probation work. Another participant said that there is an opportunity through the current Ministry of Justice consultation for the word ‘probation’ to be put into or associated with the naming of CRCs.

A misunderstood service?

The word probation means a ‘period of testing’ and probation was originally ‘instead of a sentence’ but since 1991 has been a sentence of the court in its own right – its meaning has already evolved. Nevertheless, it is still not well understood by the public. If it is not custody or police work, neither social work nor healthcare, people are left with only a vague understanding in the middle of what is delivered. This is a problem probation has wrestled with over many years. Perhaps even more significantly from the perspective of policies and priorities, one participant said that “probation has never seemed to come to terms with its relationship with the prison service”.  While one academic reminded the seminar that probation services supervise and support many more people than colleagues in the prison system.

But identity is more than a name or a relationship to others. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is the “characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is”. But if there is confusion about the name and what it signifies, there were strong views around probation’s overall purpose, with several participants agreeing that there are three purposes: to implement the sentence; to reduce likelihood of reoffending; to minimise the risk of harm to others.

Whose identity?

This could be interpreted as placing preventative work outside the core remit of those who deliver probation services. Representatives from the voluntary sector examined which parts of their work ‘counted’ as ‘probation’ work. The answer they came to was that if they were paid by Probation (CRC) it was probation work – if they were assisting with all three purposes. Meanwhile other work they did might count as working ‘jointly’ with probation on some matter or other. All attendees remarked that the question of where probation work ‘started’ and ‘stopped’ will become more significant with the creation of professional registration for people working in the field. The expectation in the room was that certain voluntary sector staff, who may only be subcontracted in for a discrete amount of time, would be part of the register while they were delivering probation services.

But that left open the question as to what qualifications, capabilities and regulations would be needed to qualify with registration and what that would mean in practice. The role of research and building a body of probation evidence was also discussed as part of forging a stronger identity for the sector. In the context of these many competing components, the process of pulling together the register was described by some in the room as “mind-boggling”. As one attendee remarked, there are multiple questions for the register team at the Ministry of Justice to look at “what level do we have a regulatory framework for the whole service, including continuous professional development, compliance, standards and practice” and can that be “mandated” from the centre?

Looking outwards to reconnect with the public?

There was very clear recognition that alongside the many well-evidenced and publicised failings, there is also some excellent work in the field being done up and down the country. A retired probation officer made the point that despite the recent focus on structures, there are strong values that run deep in the service and which deliver tangible benefit – albeit very often hidden - to the public. But at the same time, there was broad agreement that changes to the structures had resulted in the service, which has often struggled to be understood, having an even weaker voice hindered by jargon. At times, it was acknowledged that there had been some disagreements and competition between different agencies and that overcoming differences relied on close personal relationships – particularly between local CRCs and NPS leaders.

In this situation the danger is of a service retreating inwards, fighting battles between its constituent parts instead of sharing best practice and developing the profession. One participant remarked that it is notable that the probation service does not have a strong national voice to represent the whole sector in the same way that the police or health services have. That role was performed by the ACOP (the Association of Chief Officers of Probation), which was disbanded nearly two decades ago. A key challenge – through the coming changes to CRCs and in the years beyond – may well be to re-engage with the public and public debate to strengthen probation’s identity so that its clear role, in public protection and supporting those it works with to turn away from crime, is more fully appreciated and understood. 

This is a write-up of the first of three events about probation in England and Wales held on Friday 12 October 2018 at Kent, Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company’s (KSS CRC) Gravesend hub. The event was open to all those who work in probation.

There will be two more events in the coming weeks. On 24 October, there will be a seminar to discuss probation values and in November the final event will discuss the role of probation in the criminal justice system.


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