Good afternoon to you all, whether you are in glorious 3D here in Newcastle or joining virtually from the comfort of your home or the relative discomfort of your office. I am so pleased that we are, yet again, trying a new way of delivering our AGM to make it as accessible as possible. The decision to run a fully virtual event last year was brave and while it wasn’t a complete success it certainly taught us something about how our AGM could become more inclusive. As you know it has been our practice for some time to move the AGM venue each year to share the burden of lengthy and costly travel around. This does mean that some people only attend an AGM when it is close by and some don’t attend at all, those with school age children or adult care responsibilities can particularly struggle. One of the things that struck me most after last year’s event was that some members said they were attending because the event was virtual and therefore accessible in a way AGM had not been before but another member said they felt more confident to speak at AGM when it was virtual. This told me something about the barriers to AGM attendance not being solely about the distance and staying away from home.
This year the threat of COVID has not disappeared and there will be members who aren’t advised to travel or mix with others, especially as we go into the winter season when many experts predict other viruses will delight in the depletion of our immune response due to lockdowns. So we decided to try something new – a hybrid AGM that would be more accessible and inclusive, that would allow more and different members to attend. Luckily our chosen venue for 2021 is pretty big and that allowed us to remove the restrictions on in person attendance allowing as many people as wished to attend in person. There are bound to be some hiccups with the hybrid format but we are absolutely determined to do as we did last year and learn all of the lessons we can to make future hybrid AGMs ever better.
For me personally nothing can beat the feeling of solidarity, camaraderie and joy that an in person event brings but I am not naïve and I know that this experience and viewpoint is not universal, for some being face to face is far more challenging, or the price that they pay for those good feelings is too high. So we will continue to try to make our events hybrid, and therefore more inclusive. As ever please give as much feedback as possible to help us develop and improve, we really value it. You may notice that we have focussed this year more on participation than fanci-ness and that is deliberate and as a direct result of feedback from last year.
It falls to me to open our AGM and conference and in doing so reflect on the forgoing year. I genuinely feel that each year I say “what a year it has been” and this year will be no different. I stood here last year and spoke about the unification process and how tough it would be. How foolish I was, how naïve! I thought it would be tough but in fact it has been far worse. The confusion and frustration around assignment and alignment processes were awful for members who faced uncertainty in the transfer process. That was bad enough but the weeks after transfer have shown just how bad things were in CRCs and the NPS. The coming together has exposed the weaknesses across all employers. Workloads have sky-rocketed to ever more dangerous levels and staff struggling to adapt to a new employer and new ways of working are bombarded with tick-box spreadsheets and demands to complete mandatory online training. Confusion and chaos reign in Probation right now, with pay problems that elicit at least 17 different responses depending who you ask, continuing confusion about the consultations on major changes involved in moving to the Target Operating Model and workloads so high that newly qualified officers leave rather than suffer the way they’ve seen their colleagues suffer during training. The whole system is in disarray but I just wanted to highlight a few areas that we are working on at present.
SPO Workloads are out of control. They have been a concern since 2014 but in the last year they have reached crisis point. SPOs managing a team of people with excessive workloads find themselves at the mercy of a resourcing model which says they can manage 10 people. That would be challenge enough but consider the number of staff working part time, the calculations use FTE (full time equivalent) so if the team has several people working part time in it the number climbs but the staff require managing whether they work full or part time. Then PQUIP trainees only count for a fraction of a full timer even though they arguably need more support and closer management than more experienced staff. So an SPO can have 15 or 20 staff to manage, all needing supervision, all needing input on their work around risk, all struggling with excessive workloads and all needing support to navigate massive organisational change. On top of this SPOs are the first port of call for pay problems which, we have discovered, can be so intractable that it takes teams of people months to resolve them. Every time a new process is introduced, every time an audit or case review suggests the need for practice improvement, more work is heaped onto SPOs. Our SPO Forum relaunched this year and Vice Chair Carole Doherty has created a space for SPO members to come together to offer and seek support and to make sur their concerns are raised. Sonia Flynn attended the last meeting to hear first hand the views of members and Carole is now working with the team who are carrying out the management review that we secured commitment for in our 2018 pay deal. It takes time to effect change but we are proudly making sure that the voices of our members are heard when decisions are being made.
ViSOR use and the police vetting required for it continues to be a huge concern. We now know that vetting failure rates are low but the impact on those who fail this vetting is huge. Movement to a different area of work has an impact on morale and potentially your career but more insidious is the impact on diversity of our workforce. Police vetting for ViSOR use is now part of the recruitment process and anyone who fails will not be employed in Probation. To understand why this impacts on diversity we must consider the known reasons for failure. You will automatically fail if you have live County Court Judgements against you, this is a situation that many people who have experienced financial hardship will face. If you are a Black or Asian man you are more likely to be stopped by Police, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged and at Court more likely to receive a custodial sentence than if you are a white man. Police vetting looks at any convictions you have but also convictions of your closest contacts and any intelligence about criminal networks. It surely follows therefore that people in our society who are more likely to be convicted and who have families also more likely to be convicted will be less likely to be able to work in Probation. Next we consider another reason for failure of vetting – those who have been a victim of domestic abuse but remain connected to their abuser in some way, perhaps because they have a child or children together. This can be considered an ongoing link by Police and vetting would fail.
So, those who have experienced financial hardship and had no cushion to help them – poor and working class people are less likely to be able to work in probation, black and Asian men face far higher likelihood of failing police vetting and therefore ever more barriers to employment in probation, and victims who struggle to fully disconnect from their abuser, either because of the nature of the abuse or because of some other link between them are also less likely to work in probation.
At a time when HMPPS are proudly announcing the employment of 1,000 people with lived experience of the criminal justice system in the Probation P of HMPPS people with lived experience who already work in the system are being sidelined and recruiting new staff with such experience will be ever harder. Make no mistake, there are now, and have been for decades, people working in Probation at all levels with lived experience of the justice system, and probation practice is all the richer for their presence. Now however we face people with this invaluable experience being recruited only to special roles separate from ordinary probation practice.
Napo’s position is that people with lived experience of the justice system should be able to work in any and all roles in Probation. We know that careful consideration must be given and assessments will need to be made to enable this but external vetting by the Police for the sole purpose of using a computer system should not be a barrier to creating a diverse workforce. We have consistently taken a solution focussed approach to this, first suggesting that ViSOR is not the best way to share information given the complexities of processes – instead we suggested allowing other agencies restricted access to Delius instead. This was not pursued, then we suggested that those who fail vetting could be given a protected caseload that didn’t require ViSOR use – this was seen as not possible for NPS. When unification was on the table we tried again, a mixed caseload in the PS would surely allow for staff without ViSOR vetting to have a caseload that didn’t need ViSOR. Again our reasonable suggestions were politely ignored. We will continue to raise this and to carefully monitor the impact of vetting on staff who transferred from CRCs. We have raised the issue with Justin Russell, after the HMiP report on race in probation and are now working hard to raise the issue more widely.
Another ongoing and very tricky issue is OMiC, the movement of the supervision of clients during the custodial part of their sentence into the prison where a team of Probation and Prison staff work together to carry out all of the tasks formerly performed by an Offender Manager in the community and an Offender Supervisor in custody. We are told this is being done because “end to end offender management” didn’t work. But it wasn’t really given much chance, with community staff not being resourced to travel to prisons, bans on travel claims due to cuts and excessive workloads meaning custody cases were deprioritised. Despite the obvious solution being to fix these issues OMiC was apparently the answer. So now instead of the community practitioner being the consistent thread throughout the sentence, from custody into the community someone serivng a custodial sentence will have a new offender manager every time they move prisons and only meet their community officer close to their release. OMiC moves the work formerly done in the community and adds it to the work formerly done in the prison. It therefore moves staff into prisons. There is at present no workload measurement tool for OMiC and so inevitably workloads are high, staffing too low and because the administrative support comes from the prison team it is taking a long time for them to adjust to tasks they have no experience of.
Most concerning is the plan to move prison based SPOs into the line management of the prison governor. This is due to happen soon. We are utterly opposed to this and have been since the start. Probation Service staff have different terms and conditions and different ways of working than prison staff, the experience of COVID showed us that these differences can cause tensions and we had to intervene in several regions where prison governors, even before line managing the SPOs were insisting that despite the PS policy being to work at home where possible they wanted all probation staff to be in the prison every day. SPO members working in prisons tell us they are looking to move roles to avoid the inevitable issues that will make their positions very tough indeed. We have yet to see the full guidance for the line management arrangements but we remain vigilant to the risks to our members.
Unification has meant that programmes work now all resides in the probation service. This is cause for celebration however there are many concerns about moves to alter programmes and delivery requirements and the potential for “dumbing down” skilled work. We await the promised consultation on the detailed plans for programmes, but we anticipate having to fight the move away from quality and towards economy as driver for the changes.
COVID has brought many challenges and it’s impact will resonate throughout the system for years. One of the challenges we face now is the backlogs of cases waiting to go through the Courts, we all know that the Court system was struggling anyway and closures of Courts, low staffing and lack of resources meant there were already delays but some now face a wait of years for their case to be heard, and members working in Courts face ever more pressure to produce their advice to the Court in the quickest way possible. Despite many reports reinforcing what we already knew – that a quality pre-sentence report cannot be produced quickly – the direction of travel is towards speedy justice, seemingly at any cost. Rather than reopening closed courts, or investing in the staff who make the system work, the focus now seems to be on extending Court sitting hours and pushing through cases, ignoring the warnings that speedy justice sometimes simply isn’t justice at all.
In Unpaid Work there are also backlogs due to the pandemic and Napo’s ‘safety first’ approach to recovery is being pushed past it’s limit by the fervour to ramp up delivery despite concerns about virus transmission. Alongside this we have the challenge of unification, with the chaos that has brought. Unpaid Work staff face uncertainty and the planned work with trade unions on the new operating model, which could have helped to deal with some of the backlog issues, have been forgotten about as senior leaders just try to deal with the immediate chaos facing them.
There are so many other problems in the system, too many to list – even though we have three days!
Does this all sound a little bleak? At a recent branch meeting we acknowledged it is all quite bleak and that much work is needed to get us to a point where practitioners feel that Probation is functioning again. The damage that has been done to the system is both broad and deep and will take many years to repair. Amidst this bleakness however there is a spark of hope. The hope is Napo, us, the members, the reps, the staff, working together not just to represent the interests of members in their employment rights but also to represent the profession, the idea and ideals of Probation.
Our reps, activists and members have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep themselves, their colleagues, their clients and the communities they serve as safe as possible. The haste to “recover” has been resisted at all levels and while we struggle to hold the line on this we must always remember that safety comes first. Keeping us safe in our work is a legal duty on our employer and whether the risk be COVID or work related stress the same duty of care is owed to us. If you feel unsafe at work, due to COVID or due to work related stress, please contact your branch reps, follow the advice we’ve issued, escalate concerns to the Link Officer and Official for your branch and make sure we all work together to fight these significant threats to our safety.
In many ways it may seem that we have lost some of our power since TR, the Civil Service approach is not always conducive to problem solving and the solution focussed approach we took when we were in smaller probation trusts. But we do have power – in our union. We have collective power, far greater than the sum of it’s parts. I am looking forward to spending these three days discussing and debating how we use that power, and how we channel and focus our efforts to effect real change.
If the situation for Probation members in England and Wales sounds a little bleak, our colleagues in Cafcass and Probation Northern Ireland aren’t faring much better. The organisational change issues aren’t there in the same way but workloads and pay are. In Cafcass our reps have been working tirelessly to protect members from the threats of COVID and work related stress. Dialogue with the employer has been established but there is much work to do and I know that will be discussed more tomorrow. There is, just like in Probation, no easy or quick solution to the workload issues. The work is there, and is increasing as a result of the pandemic. The funding provided to meet the need was a one off – so won’t continue and hasn’t appreciably made a difference. Cafcass needs serious investment, long term funding to increase staffing and reduce workloads to manageable levels.
In Northern Ireland workloads continue to be an issue and we are working hard to try to put in place processes to address workloads and to ensure that staff have a route to address them.
With all of this going on it can be difficult to take notice of what is happening around us, and to make space for things that we, as a professional association, should be involved in. That’s why I want to pay tribute to Emma Cluley as she steps down as Managing Editor of the Probation Journal. Emma has made an incredible contribution to Napo in this role and will be greatly missed. I know the recent Editorial Board meeting was her last, and the report to this AGM will also be her last, please show your appreciation for her dedication and commitment to Napo and to Probation.
Yesterday I was pleased to chair the women in napo fringe meeting where we launched a research partnership with long term member Becky Shepherd. Becky is looking at vicarious trauma in women who work with women and we hope that her findings will help us to secure better support for staff working with women on probation and women victims. This is a really important topic and I am looking forward to working with Becky on it. Women members will be receiving an invitation to participate and we hope you will share it with women colleagues who work with women to increase the responses.
I’ve been reflecting lots in recent weeks on the issues that women face in their daily lives. The sentencing of a Police Officer for the murder of Sarah Everard has sent a shockwave through society but the misogyny that enabled that heinous crime has always existed and we have always known about it. Even after the media was filled with people saying what must be done about the problem of institutionalised misogyny in my home area of North Yorkshire our Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, in interview, made comments that were textbook – worthy examples of victim blaming. He is still in post, for now, although widely criticised. He has apologised but the problem is not that he said the comments in public, where we could hear them, the problem is that he held those beliefs. The problem is that women are being told to use tracking apps, to avoid walking alone at night, to modify their clothing, to change their behaviour to keep safe. No one is telling the perpetrators to modify their behaviour. No one is intervening to remove people from positions of power and influence when they say or do things that demonstrate misogyny. We must - all of us - make ourselves free to do this, to call out misogyny, to demand better from those in positions of power.
Tomorrow at our AGM we will launch our race action plan, and dedicate ourselves to being anti-racist. Not just to say we will avoid being racist, but that we must ever strive to be anti-racist, actively and using all of the power and influence we have. We must do this collectively and individually, in our work, in our union and in whatever we do when we are not working or coming together in Napo. We must become the champions of anti-racism in our workplaces and our communities. I will be proudly signing my pledge and I hope each of you will too.
Together in Napo we can do great things, and there are great things to do. I hope you will leave here, after 3 days of being inspired by other activists, and spread the word to workmates who aren’t members. That they can and should join Napo, and share in the joy, the antidote to despair that is our solidarity. As I enter my last year as Chair I will hold those feelings close and use them as fuel – to fight the good fight and share as much of the antidote to despair as I can with others.
As I now finish I would like to read the message of solidarity from Unison, who are holding their own conference this week:
UNISON sends this message of solidarity to our sisters and brothers in Napo with best wishes for a successful AGM. We look forward to working with you on the many challenges which lie ahead. Together we can prevail.