Interview with Ian Lawrence

PUBLISHED December 30, 2013

Ian Lawrence is the general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO)

Q: What are the government's plans to reform the probation service, as set out in Transforming Rehabilitation?

A: The proposal is to effectively fragment the probation service into a new National Probation Service, dealing with high risk offenders, and then 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), dealing with medium and low risk offenders, which will be sold off. The CRCs will be created by merging the existing 35 probation trusts in England and Wales and they will be sold via a price competitive tender to bidders thought to include the likes of Serco and G4S. There will also be third sector bodies, such as charities, hoping to win these contracts.

Q: How will that work, in practice?

A: It's not quite clear how this will pan out. We think that any third sector provider that wins one of the contracts will not have the capital to run a CRC on their own. It's likely that the bigger players will snap the contracts up straightaway and then hive off some of that work to other people.

The other complication is that there may be a number of mutual bids going in from existing probation staff who again will need to find backing from providers, such as adventure capitalists. But we think that it's likely that Serco, G4S etc will be providing the capital for those mutuals as well.

Q: What will be the effect?

A: From our perspective, the threat presented by the privatisation means that, over time, about a third of the probation workforce will not be needed. Our evidence is that, when the London Community Payback project was let to Serco last year, one third of the workforce was allowed to leave on voluntary redundancy terms after just one day.

And London Community Payback has been an abject shambles, as was seen on Newsnight. We assisted the BBC in their exposé of the shoddy way in which that contract has been maintained; there are examples of poor supervision, non-existent  placements of people serving community orders and a general atmosphere of chaos.

Q: What is your reaction to the plans for supervision of people released from short prison sentences?

A: The Secretary of State, Chris Grayling, has posited this on the basis that it's some kind of revolution in terms of rehabilitation. NAPO shares the Secretary of State's desire to do something about the reoffending rates from those who serve custodial sentences of under 12 months - in the main, that's where the higher rates of reoffending come from - but we are concerned that he has conflated the issue of reoffending in general with reoffending by the under-12 months custodial community and that he is seeking to blame the probation service for the fact that reoffending rates are on the increase.

And now someone sentenced to two days in prison will come out with a licence for a statutory 12 months while, say, a second-time sex offender, who is sentenced to one year, will leave prison after six months and be on licence only for a further six. This is disproportionate sentencing of the highest order and has been the subject of some severe criticism from the parliamentary human rights committee.

The whole package adds up to a mess as far as we're concerned. Not only is it a potentially bureaucratic mess: we believe it represents a real and present danger to public safety - which is the genesis of our current trade dispute with the government.

Q: What stage has the reform now reached?

A: The key legislation to Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) is the Offender Rehabilitation Bill which was given just two days to go through the Commons committee stage. That is quite unprecedented for a bill of this nature. We had been led to believe that there would be around eight sittings of the committee.

The bill provides the legislative vehicle to engage with the under-12 month custodial community and open up the probation service to new providers. The government claims that it can already split up the probation service under the Offender Management Act  2007.

As far as the new bill is concerned, we have a lot of support in the House of Lords. There will be some amendments which can make a difference to this bill and make it less dangerous. We're arguing that, if the probation service was given the resources to work with the under-12-month custodial group, we could produce results almost instantaneously, at least within one or two years. Under the Grayling model, there would be a payment-by-results mechanism and, quite scandalously, what that seems to suggest is that providers, whether they be third sector or private sector, could actually see reoffending rise for the first four or five years of their contracts whilst still being paid a fee.

Now, our members are asking, "Why haven't we been given the opportunity to compete on any sort of level playing field?" We're pressing for amendments to pilot a scheme or two, working with this group of people, before the wholesale fragmentation of the service takes place.

Q: Has the government consulted you about these proposals?

A: We've had a regular series of consultative forums with the MoJ. We've also been negotiating on the potential implications for staff through the established National Negotiating Council, which is a body made up of probation employers and the three trade union -     NAPO (the largest), Unison and GMB. The negotiations with the probation employer have been relatively successful, given the testing agenda we have before us. The consultation with the MoJ has, however, been quite farcical.

It's the same with Grayling's proposals to cut the legal aid budget: he's not listening to people who know what it's like on the ground. He refuses to accept the advice of skilled professionals who have had a lifetime in the profession. He fails to understand the very real risk to public safety in pooling the management of offenders who, even though they are classed as low and medium risk, are often people whose risk changes quite dynamically. We need skilled professionals there to undertake that role and I think we're right to be concerned about public safety.

Q: Have you compromised on anything?

A: I think we at NAPO and the other trade unions have worked hard to try and secure the best possible protections for our members in the event that this becomes enacted. We've demanded protection in terms of continuity of service, membership of the local government pension scheme and pay protection. We've also demanded that any prospective bidder must have clean corporation tax and VAT records and a good employment track record.

There was a letter to the unions from the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, Michael Spurr, which would have formed the basis of maybe reaching a substantive agreement on staffing but, at the 11th hour, the Ministry of Justice introduced a whole range of demands and effectively pulled back from some agreements we had reached. This intervention by the MoJ was, in all of my professional career, spanning 40 years at national level, one of the most inept episodes I have ever witnessed.

Q: What message do you have for lawyers trying to deal with changes to legal aid?

A: There?s a need for the combined groups to work together. I spoke at the Justice Alliance?s rally in July. We?re pushing at the same doors, for example, with the Lib Dems, and we have had some promising signals from those meetings. We?d like to develop the situation, finding common cause with the Justice Alliance, the Criminal Bar Association and so on, to start targeting the marginal seats in the run-up to the election. I think a lot of politicians don?t know the full facts about legal aid cuts and the threat to probation.

Q: NAPO took strike action 6 November. Why?

A: NAPO has only
taken strike action four times in  its 101-year history but we felt we had no alternative but to register a trade dispute with the government. Yes, it?s about terms and conditions but that is not the prime objective, which is to protect the public and the taxpayer from the risk of further harm and the mismanagement of offenders.

Q: How did it go?

A: We?re quite encouraged by the response. At least 60% did not turn up for work and that is no mean feat when you consider that we were asked to ballot within a very short period of time. The press coverage was first-rate. Nationally, they covered the announcement of the strike and then, on the day, we got superb local coverage in all areas. The message resonated with the public and came through in all the media interviews.

Q: Would you recommend direct action to lawyers?

A: Absolutely. We?ve already had contact from the Criminal Bar Association who have tipped us off that they are looking to take action early in January. I?ve committed to speak to them at the earliest opportunity and explore whether there is scope for co-ordinated action.

Q: Tell me something about NAPO.

A: We represent about 8,000 members in the probation service in England and Wales and about 6,500 members in the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. We currently have 35 NAPO branches allied to the existing probation trusts so we would certainly need to review that if the CRCs are created. We are quite advanced in our planning and confident we can continue to represent our members in any scenario. Indeed, we have secured an additional  240  members  since  last  month.

The probation service was founded, 106 years ago, as "Christian missionaries to the courts? and probation officers still are the servants of the courts. I would be interested to know what LCCSA members feel about the impact there will be on the courts when our service is pretty much decimated. Think about the number of times that magistrates call on probation officers ? who are expected to be available at very short notice. Now, that won?t be possible when there is a National Probation Service because it will be too thinly spread. What about the availability of sentencing options? Will those options be as safe as they once were?

Q: Is there any point in young people wanting to go into this field in the future?

A: We have seen an advert by G4S for "experienced probation officers? to be paid salaries of £22,000 and one for new entrants at £14,000 to £16,000.

In Grayling?s brave new world, anyone coming in would need to know that they will not have the same quality of training or the same security of employment; they will probably be paid an average of 50% less than they are now and any new starter in the service had better make sure they are a member of a decent pension scheme.

Q: Is the UK?s role as world-leader in criminal justice at an end?

A: We have seen an unprecedented and systemic attack on the justice system. All governments make changes; but this, I have no doubt, is a deliberate attempt to undermine the forces of organised labour within those sectors. It?s a cynical political trick to suggest that everybody who is in receipt of legal aid is somehow sponging off society and it?s cynical to suggest that reoffending rates are increasing because  of the failure of the probation service when in fact the opposite is true.

We need a more transparent public debate about reoffending and the causes of reoffending and we would aim to convince the public that proper investment in what works would result in the reoffending reductions we all want to see, be it from the under-12 month custodial group or anyone else.

But Grayling?s agenda is reckless, ill-conceived, and, if enacted, will destroy a precious, gold-standard public service in a way that can never be repaired.