Once upon a time a Conservative Minister for Justice decided he wanted to change the way that Probation Services were provided. He was unhappy that the 35 Probation Trusts across England and Wales, which were performing well and reducing reoffending, seemed to be operating too independently and the staff working for them were very professional but also fiercely independent and outspoken about the work they did. He was particularly unhappy about the fact that the workforce was highly unionised and the Probation Trusts seemed to listen to the unions carefully.
In January 2013 the Minister issued a consultation on plans to split Probation in two and privatise up to 70% of the work. Many, many people responded including Probation Trusts, bodies representing Chief Probation Officers and those pesky Unions. Almost everyone who knew anything about the Probation system in England and Wales told the Minister not to do it. They said the split of the work on the basis of risk wouldn’t work. They warned that it would be impossible for private companies to make a profit and that the public would be in danger. The Minister didn’t listen. He knew better than all of the experts and he just did it anyway. In May 2013 he published the “Strategy for Reform” which detailed how he was going to abolish the Probation Trusts and sell off most of their work. Then in September 2013 the Minister launched the “competition” for private companies to bid for Probation contracts. All the experts couldn’t believe he had really done it.
A tiny trade union and professional association called Napo represented many of the workers in Probation Trusts. Napo had told the Minister his plans wouldn’t work, they had warned it wasn’t safe and no one would listen. After months of trying to reason with the Minister Napo members went on strike in November 2013. The members felt so strongly about the plans they gave up pay and stood in the freezing cold on picket lines and at demonstrations across England and Wales to try to convince the public and the Government to stop the Minister. Staying away from work was really difficult for Napo members who saw their jobs as vocations and did not want to let anyone down. They felt they had to do something though.
Still the Minister didn’t listen, he carried on with his plans to abolish the Probation Trusts and split the staff. Napo members carried on trying to get their voice heard. They planned more strikes, this time over two days to coincide with the Minister’s birthday on 1st April 2014. Once again Napo members stayed away from work, gave up pay and stood in the cold on picket lines and at demonstrations to make their point. Again the Minister ignored Napo members, and the Probation Trusts were abolished at he end of May 2014 and the new National Probation Service (NPS) and the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) were formed at the start of June. The NPS was now part of the civil service and the 21 CRCs were publicly owned companies and contracts to run them were being parcelled up to be sold.
In September 2014 Napo organised a Lobby of Parliament and around 300 people attended a rally in the House of Commons to hear members of Napo speaking about their experience of the split into the new organisations and their fears for the sale of the contracts. MPs from all parties attending the event all agreed with Napo members that this should stop but the Minister ignored them all and carried on.
In a final attempt to save Probation Napo members launched a legal challenge to the plans to sell off the contracts. They told the High Court in a Judicial Review application that it was too dangerous and must be stopped. The union members were certain the courts would see sense and step in. The Minister used all of the resources of the state to defend his position and paid for many legal experts and rallied all of the people working on the project. They all told the Court that Napo were wrong, it was all perfectly safe. The Court told Napo that unless they had evidence they would lose the case and end up bankrupt when they had to pay all of the costs for the Minister’s defence. The tiny union had exhausted their resources and realised they were stuck – if they continued they would face ruin and would not be able to continue to fight for their members. They took the heartbreaking decision to end the case so that they could continue the fight.
On 1st February 2015 the new owners took over the CRCs. Their contracts were for seven years with an option to extend to ten. Napo carried on the fight, using everything they could to highlight the risks and dangers. When some of the new owners of CRCs stripped out staff and introduced unsafe operating models Napo called them out, got stories in the media, got questions asked in parliament, got roundtable events discussing the issues and forced them to answer for the impact of their decisions and actions. Time went on and the evidence showed that what Napo had warned was real. Serious further offences committed by people under probation supervision increased and some tragic cases emerged where faults in the system caused failings in the supervision of people who went on to murder others.
The tiny union worked with anyone who could have influence, especially with Her Majesty’s Inspector of Probation. At the time Dame Glenys Stacey used her considerable influence to expose real failings in the Probation system and was unafraid to say exactly where the blame should lie – in the dangerous reforms known as TR. Even the best of the CRCs began to struggle, those who shed staff early on were forced to recruit them back again as they couldn’t meet the required standards. Those who had not shed staff early found themselves with a workforce that didn’t fit their proposed operating model.
Napo worked hard to expose the weaknesses, risks and failings in the system, using all the influence at their disposal to press the case. They launched a campaign to Reunify Probation, demanding that the CRC contracts be ended and not only that the system be brought back together but that it was removed from the Civil Service. Napo started to paint a different picture, of a system that was locally rooted and accountable with strong links to community organisations and resources, using all of the specialist third sector providers to deliver a quality service that fit the location as well as the need.
In 2018 Napo and the other Probation Trade Unions secured a significant pay deal for members working in the National Probation Service (NPS). This rectified the problems caused by very long pay scales that meant it would take up to 23 years to get to the proper rate for the job you were doing. Although everyone accepts that those joining as new recruits may take a little while to become fully competent and confident in their role 23 years is ridiculous. This change, meaning it would take only two to five years to reach the top of the pay scale, only applied to the NPS however. In the outsourced services it meant more pressure to retain staff as the NPS recruited in most areas. Slowly the CRC owners realised they must do better and many of them worked with trade unions to find a way to improve their own pay offers to staff. The so called “market” in Probation was proving to be more costly, less efficient and more dangerous – if only someone had warned the Government!
Some of the CRC contract owners were better than others, but some were really struggling. At the end of 2108 and the beginning of 2019 the pressure on one of the owners in the South West and Wales was really starting to show. Napo continued to hold them to account and use every scrap of influence to expose the danger to the public from the failings. At the same time it became clear that the contracts just weren’t viable financially. For a variety of reasons there simply wasn’t enough profit in it for the contract owners. In February 2019 came the shock announcement that the contract owner for the South West and Wales had given up. They walked away leaving behind a dangerous mess for someone else to sort out.
Napo worked hard to make sure that members were protected and made it clear that the Government should now act to end contracts and reunify Probation to make the system safe again. Instead the Government allowed another contract owner to take over in the South West on the understanding that they would restore the services. This would cost dearly but finally there was recognition that you can’t keep people safe on the cheap. In Wales however the intensive lobbying work that Napo did produced an alternative solution. The Government announced that they would move the work associated with managing sentences to the public sector and leave a smaller (but still crucial) part of the work, delivering interventions and unpaid work, in private contractor hands.
In May 2019 there was muted celebration at the announcement that CRC contracts were going to be ended early the following year. Muted because although it was a huge success in terms of getting rid of the model that created division in the system the plan now was to introduce the “Wales model” in England too. This meant that all CRC contracts would end and new contracts would be let just for the delivery of interventions and unpaid work. All of the work (and the staff performing the work) around sentence management would move into the National Probation Service.
So the Napo campaign changed from a demand for reunification to a demand for full reunification. It was clear that the system would remain carved up, just with a different dividing line between public and outsourced work. This would change, but not remove, the risks and challenges so the fight continued. Napo continued to press their influence, with Government and Parliament, with stakeholders such as the Inspectorate, Police and Crime Commissioners and Sentencers. Stalwart friend of Probation Lord Ramsbotham lead a review of the system that Napo contributed to. At every step the tiny union stuck to their line – it was not safe or sensible to continue this.
But while they campaigned and fought to change the system Napo had to stand up for members and continue to fight for the best possible deal for those who would be moving to a new employer or whose job might be at risk as a result of the changes announced.
Then a global pandemic turned the world upside down. The Probation system had to change overnight to protect staff, service users and the public from a virus. The tiny union was already fighting a campaign for full reunification and working hard to represent members caught up in changes to the system and now they had to react to the real and immediate risk to everyone. It would have been easy to quietly drop the campaign for full reunification but Napo carried on. Pointing out the difficulties in managing safety in a fragmented system they pounced on hints that the “market” for the new outsourcing contracts wasn’t as buoyant as it could be.
So the campaign continued, and behind the scenes the conversations with Government Ministers and others in positions of power took a different turn. The Union were being asked about their vision for a different system of Probation, and were being engaged in discussions about the risks and dangers they were predicting instead of being ignored. Then in June 2020 it happened. The tiny union were told, just before the public announcement, that the outsourcing would be scrapped and all of the core work of Probation would me moved to the National Probation Service, with a “Dynamic Framework” of specialist voluntary sector providers able to deliver their services in small local contracting arrangements. There was a less muted celebration at this announcement but the tiny union realised they could not stop. Because you see there will still be problems in the Probation system. It will take years and huge investment to repair the damage done. And because the National Probation Service is a Civil Service Department run top-down with little opportunity for the innovation, agility and responsiveness that made Probation Trusts so special.
We demand a Probation Service:
- With fully unified service provision
- In the public sector and never for profit but out of the civil service and released from prison
- Built on evidence based practice
- Rooted in the local community and partnering with local specialist providers
And we won’t stop until we achieve it.