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Probation workers feeling strain of reform

Professor Gill Kirton and researcher Cecile Guillaume examined conditions in new, fractured landscape

Privatisation of parts of the probation service has led to an anxious and insecure workforce, with highly skilled public sector workers now talking of a loss of professional identity, two academics specialising in employment relations say.

Professor Gill Kirton, an expert in employment relations, and Cécile Guillaume, both of Queen Mary University of London, examined the impact on probation workers and workplaces of the government’s controversial Transforming Rehabilitation reforms.

They have now published a paper cataloguing the impact these changes have had on staff on both sides of the complex new landscape of probation, part of which was outsourced last year by then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.

Under his reforms, responsibility for tens of thousands of offenders judged low to medium risk has was handed over to 21 new Community Rehabilitation Companies across England and Wales.

These are run by private firms including corporate giant Sodexo as well as charities and public organisations.

However, probation staff in courts, those that manage high risk offenders and the National Probation Service remain within the public sector.

Professor Kirton and Ms Guillaume’s report documents the strain that personnel in this split workforce now say they are feeling.

Noting that research generally shows a deterioration in working conditions following outsourcing, the report states that there remains “great risk of emergence of two-tier workforces where newly hired workers get worse terms and conditions or they are hired via agencies on a casualised basis”.

Interviews with staff in the outsourced part of the profession revealed that many believe their roles have been undervalued, the authors found.

“The deskilling and the deprofessionalisation for me were almost immediate,” one probation worker who is also a branch officer for probationers’ union Napo told the researchers.

“You need to hand your lifers over and I was really angry about that because one in particular I’d had for I think about 11 years.

“He’s in a special hospital and the only outside contact this man has is with his probation officer, and he had a relationship with his previous probation officer that was quite productive and he passed him on to me and then I spent quite a long time working on having a productive relationship with this man who’s got some fairly significant illnesses, and then just to have that removed.

“Oh, he’s got to go to somebody else now because you know, you’re no longer … And nobody actually said you’re no longer qualified but that’s how it feels.”

There has also been a negative impact on professional identity experienced by National Probation Service staff, the researchers found.

One worker and branch officer said: “The whole thing about professional identity I feel has gone and you can’t measure that, can you? You can’t quantify what that means to you as a practitioner, what you see going on around you.

“But it just feels like a series of tasks, every day you have a to-do list and a set of targets to meet.”

The researchers are particularly concerned about the impact on women because changes have resulted in potentially fewer opportunities for flexible or part-time working and staff being relocated further away from their families.

And they point out that there have been job cuts, with several of the organisations running Community Rehabilitation Companies having announced redundancies.

Napo last year warned that outsourcing was "unsafe" and leads to less accountability.

At the time the Ministry of Justice said it was committed to helping "break the depressing cycle of crime, prison and re-offence that so many individuals are stuck in."

Photo credit: Chmee2 (Creative Commons)