Reflections on Probation and New Labour: Modernisation, Managerialism and Markets

The election of a New Labour government in 1997 was seen by many within the probation service as marking a potential upturn in its fortunes with the prospect of a more enlightened approach to law and order issues replacing the moral paucity that had marked the ‘prison works’ dogma of the previous Conservative administration. Lifting New Labour’s election slogan, myself and George Mair put it thus, ‘For many and certainly in the probation service, there was an expectation that things could only get better’ (Mair and Burke 2012, p. 159). From the outset, the New Labour government set about an ambitious project of public sector reforms. For the probation service this meant a closer alignment with other criminal justice agencies and the government’s public protection credentials. The creation of a National Probation Service (NPS), as myself and George Mair pointed out in Redemption, Rehabilitation and Risk Management, could be seen as ‘the culmination of 15 years of fragmented initiatives and changes that had tended to point in the same overall direction of centralised control’ (Mair and Burke 2012, p. 164). This was a profoundly important development because probation had been, since its beginnings, a local service with a great deal of local autonomy. Admittedly, this had been reduced slowly and indirectly at first and rather more rapidly since the 1980s. Centralisation did have some advantages in terms of potentially providing a higher political profile for probation but it also brought into sharp focus the tensions between local areas and central government.

By 2001, the NPS was building a new organisation, heavily involved in the development of pathfinder programmes that were being evaluated, getting up to speed with new initiatives such as DTTOs and MAPPPs. It was also faced with targets that were designed to be demanding with the threat of cuts in budget and the loss of government support if successful delivery was not achieved. This combination of demands was asking a lot of an organisation that had been under real pressure for almost a decade and perhaps inevitably the NPS struggled. Two contradictory features of the new environment were apparent. First, of all the criminal justice agencies, the probation service had the largest real terms increase in spending (Solomon 2007). Second, Probation was still facing an overwhelming demand for its services to the extent that the Chief Inspector of Probation talked of the system of community punishments silting up probation and suggested that consideration should be given to private contractors taking over the supervision of low-risk individuals and those subject to community service because the probation service was stretched to capacity (HM Inspectorate of Probation 2003).

The strategy document A New Choreography (NPS 2001) outlined a vision for the probation service which emphasised the concepts of ‘justice’ and ‘protection of the public’ and recognised ‘preventing victimisation’ as an essential probation task. More specifically, there was a commitment to the development of the ‘What Works’ or the ‘Evidence- Based Practice’ initiative (Underdown 1998), but this in turn became caught up in the pursuit of creating local enthusiasm for more effective ways of working whilst dealing with a treasury that would only provide resources for clearly identified outputs. The central drive from the National Probation Division reflected the burgeoning target culture of New Labour and in combination with the control of local governance arrangements, probation practitioners became increasing directed in terms of their practice, senior managers constrained by fear of withdrawal of budget and heavy handed interventions from a highly critical centre.

Having undergone a wide-ranging, rapid and complex reorganisation in its first 3 years, the probation service was again faced with further transformation as Patrick Carter, at the behest of the Number 10 Policy Unit, began undertaking a review of correctional services. This culminated in Managing Offenders, Reducing Crime: A New Approach (Carter 2003). Carter argued that both prison and probation were dealing with far too many low-level cases. Sentencing had to be targeted more effectively so that probation would deal with more of those who were currently being sentenced to short terms of imprisonment, and fines would deal with those who currently were receiving community penalties. None of the recommendations were particularly novel, but the report’s insistence upon effective end-to-end management and the inefficiencies of having two different organisations, led to, ‘the establishment of a National Offender Management Service (NOMS) - replacing the Prison and Probation Services, with a single Chief Executive, accountable to Ministers for punishing offenders and reducing re-offending’ (Carter 2003, p. 43). The introduction of NOMS came just 3 years after the creation of the NPS - under the provisions of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act - with little time for the new organisation to bed in and ‘propelling change weary staff through yet another high speed restructuring’ (Singh Bhui 2004, p. 99). In From Probation to the National Probation Service: Issues of Contestability, Culture and Community Involvement (Burke 2005a) I questioned the timing of the change given the considerable costs in terms of public expenditure that had been invested in the re-structuring of the probation service and the roll-out of accredited programmes. With hindsight, it is clear that this had been on the cards for some time but it was still surprising that it had happened so soon after the restructuring of probation into a national service only a couple of years earlier and before the NPS had been given little chance to settle down and be fully evaluated.

It is not difficult to understand the logic of incorporating the probation service into the NOMS as prisons and probation work together effectively as a single organisation in other countries (see Ploeg and Sandlie 2011 for a discussion of the arrangements in Sweden and Norway). However, Patrick Carter’s (2003) report proposing the introduction of NOMS was somewhat vague on detail, and was accepted, and acted upon, remarkably quickly by government. In From Probation to the National probation Service: Issues of Contestability, Culture and Community Involvement (Burke 2005a), I warned that there had been ‘scant recognition that the introduction of NOMS brings together two complex organisations with their own traditions and cultures, which will not easily (or for that matter should be) subsumed by organisational change alone’ (p. 17). Since then NOMS has gone through various structural changes which have weakened the position of probation. Given the much larger size of the prison service, probation was always going to have to struggle to make sure its voice was heard in NOMS and with the overwhelming dominance of prison staff at senior management levels it looks as if the struggle may have been lost.

Carter also believed that the quality of interventions would be improved by introducing an element of commercial competition - what he called ‘contestability’ - which would allow other public sector, private or voluntary agencies to bid against prisons and probation for contracts to replace them. Contestability was seen as having the potential to bring both positive outcomes in terms of increased innovation and diversity in service delivery. In this respect the proposals contained within the Carter Report can be seen as the incisive application of New Public Sector Management into the world of probation. In From Probation to the National probation Service: Issues of Contestability, Culture and Community Involvement (Burke 2005a) I argued that contestability was problematic on a number of levels. First, there was the potential tension between the statutory responsibilities of enforcement and compliance for Third Sector organisations that had developed within a framework of voluntarism and consensual engagement. Second, the commissioning and purchasing of services might add layers of bureaucracy and expense and lead to more diffuse systems of accountability at the local level. Third, unless care was taken contestability might lead to fragmentation of service delivery and the skills that underpin it in the community.

As Fitzgibbon and Lea (2014) note, two somewhat contradictory strands can be observed in these developments. On the one hand there was a form of ‘re-privatisation’ through the promotion of probation partnerships with the voluntary sector and on the other a ‘de-privatisation’ through aligning it with the other statutory criminal justice organisations such as the police and prison services. This latter trend (with an emphasis on achieving the organisational goals of delivering effective criminal justice interventions, risk assessment and public protection) was perhaps most symbolised by the break with social work training. In my article, published in a Romanian social work journal (Burke 2010a), I argued that this radical shift in the training of probation officers was significant in both its ‘intentions’ (to move the probation service from its traditional social work ethos) and its ‘structure’ (an integrated award combining an undergraduate degree with a practice-based NVQ delivered over 2 years). The changes were, certainly in policy terms, also driven by a perceived need to toughen up the probation service in order to enhance its credibility with the general public and were based on a notion that the service had somehow been contaminated by radical forms of social work in the 1970s and 1980s (Millar and Burke 2012). However as I pointed out ‘in truth, such notions were based on a false dichotomy that characterised the social work role as one of caring and helping and probation of one of control — thereby ignoring the co-existence of humanitarianism and disciplinary concerns of both’ (Burke 2010a, p. 40).

In 2005, following the publication of Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-offending (Home Office 2005), I published a response piece in Prison Service Journal entitled ‘Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-Offending: Modernisation through Marketisation?’ (Burke 2005b) in which I contended that the government’s plans could potentially lead to a less cohesive system of offender management and supervision. In this short paper I began to explore a number of tensions that I believed were particularly pertinent to this development; themes which I have subsequently returned to and developed in my more recent writing. These were, the tension between ‘increased central control or devolution?’, ‘What Works or what is politically expedient?’ and ‘authoritarian management as opposed to professional responsibility?’ In this respect, I believed that the government’s plans to restructure the NPS had to be understood within a wider policy context of economic rationalism and the market- isation of public sector services. A theme which I subsequently developed more fully with Steve Collett in ‘Delivering Rehabilitation: the politics, governance and culture of probation (Burke and Collett 2015).

In December 2007, Patrick (by then Lord) Carter published his second review of criminal justice on behalf of the government — Securing the Future: Proposals for the Efficient and Sustainable Use of Custody in England and Wales (Carter 2007). In my editorial ‘Can we build our way out of the prison crisis’ (Burke 2008) I questioned the wisdom of expanding the prison estate, through the building of three ‘Titan’ prisons, and criticised the review for prioritising economies of scale over the operational difficulties inherent in managing such large institutions and ignoring the underlying social, economic and political factors which have led to record levels of imprisonment during New Labour’s first two terms of office. I also warned that ‘NOMS had become an unwieldy bureaucracy that has added considerable costs to the overall supervision and management of offenders’ (p. 6).

Following a series of organisational restructuring involving the Ministry of Justice, NOMS was split between ‘delivery’ and ‘strategy’ with responsibility for the former being assumed by the Director general of HMPS. In our piece ‘Doing with or doing to — what now for the probation service?’ (Burke and Collett 2008), Steve Collett and myself warned that the probation service as a distinctive voice within the criminal justice system was being lost in the name of greater harmonisation with a much bigger and politically more powerful prison service. We considered what the future held for probation following the departmental restructuring and identified three key policy drivers, ‘moving centre stage’, ‘correctional drift’ and ‘modernisation’ which we believed were shaping contemporary probation practice and delivery. Whilst we acknowledged that there had been some significant improvements in performance by the probation service under New Labour, we argued that this had been at a considerable cost to the organisation. For us the way forward for probation lay in it being able to deliver those aspects of criminal justice policy that quite rightly should remain centrally shaped and determined - such as broad sentencing, offender management, and enforcement, for example — with local responses to local crime that are sensitive to local needs and public engagement.

During the first decade of this century, the relationship between New Labour and probation turned up close and personal. Our contention in Delivering Rehabilitation: The politics, governance and control of probation (Burke and Collett 2015) was that specific events during the height of New Labour’s period in office helped to advance the onslaught on probation as a public sector agency and played into the attritional approach to defining rehabilitative services within the ideology precepts of New Public Management. Probation services felt let down and unsupported, particularly when perceived mistakes in their supervision of dangerous cases were, quite rightly, subjected to intimate scrutiny and review. During early months of 2006, the probation service was subjected to ongoing negative media attention following several alleged failings. The attacks followed the criticism by the Chief Inspector of the Probation Service following the murder of the Chelsea banker, John

Monckton, by Damien Hanson and Elliot White, both of whom were under statutory supervision at the time of the offences (HM Inspectorate of Probation 2006a). This led to the subsequent suspension and reinstatement of four members of the London Probation Area and subsequently an approach to David Scott, then chief officer of Hampshire Probation Area, to take over the London service, which he did in 2005. In May 2006 another HM Inspectorate of Probation (2006b) was published, investigating the circumstances surrounding the murder of Naomi Bryant by Anthony Rice - a discretionary lifer released after 16 years in prison. With the murder of two French students, Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez in June, 2008, London Probation Service (and the wider probation community) braced itself, as one of the accused murderers was Dano Sonnex, subject to post release probation supervision. There were significant failings in the overall management of Sonnex (Hill 2009) but what became clear very quickly was that the fallout would be far-reaching and that political opportunism would determine how the circumstances of the case would be dealt with at the highest level. The events which lead to the resignation of the chief officer of London Probation Service, David Scott, are outlined in chapter 3 of Delivering Rehabilitation: The politics, governance and control of probation (Burke and Collett 2015). This, we contended, was indicative ofhow political duplicity and a wider blame culture had not only undermined the probation service’s work with high-risk cases but also underlined the individual personal costs borne by those professionals in positions of authority when things go wrong. In my editorial ‘A collective failure?’ (Burke 2009), I argued that although the Sonnex case was apparently marked by individual errors of judgement (albeit probably in good faith and based on available evidence), poor communication, and practice that in parts fell short of the required standards, I also drew attention to what I saw as ‘the obstinate refusal by the Secretary of State for Justice to accept responsibility for the wider funding issues and an environment of continual change and uncertainty faced by probation for the past five years has been neither helpful nor provided the principled leadership required’ (Burke 2009, p. 219).

The triumphalism of the Labour Party victory at the 1997 election was in marked contrast to the somewhat dejected figure of Gordon Brown, leaving Downing Street, having failed to reach an agreement with the Liberal Democrats that would have secured a fourth term of office. In the 13 years between these two events the impact of ‘New Labour’ upon the Criminal Justice System had been profound. During this period New Labour’s approach to law and order often vacillated between paternalistic care and greater control and surveillance. For the probation service it has meant unprecedented levels of change which had in some respects resulted in a greater sense of organisational purpose and operational efficiency but with its ‘humanistic sensibilities’ (Nellis 2007) severely undermined and its future in a continuing state of uncertainty. The crime control policies of New Labour in its first term were certainly far more ambitious than those of the previous Conservative government and initially appeared to offer a more enlightened approach to tackling the social and economic causes of crime. In this respect, the early optimism felt by the probation service was perhaps justified in that it appeared to occupy a central place in the government’s crime control policy - a role matched by increased investment and an enshrined separate identity after the rejection of the prison/probation review. On the other hand, the ideological and political nostrums for probation and the constant requirement to find new structures to deliver neoliberal approaches to public sector management made little sense to those who thought probation had delivered everything asked of it by successive administrations.

Whilst it is possible to identify a particular emphasis in each of New Labour’s three terms in office (see Burke and Collett 2010), its overall approach to probation was perhaps best captured in James Treadwell’s observation that ‘The creation of the NOMS can be regarded as the culmination of a move toward meticulous regulation of both those within the probation service and the offenders with whom they work’ (Treadwell 2006, p. 3). Under this ‘meticulous regulation’ the probation service increasingly became a law enforcement agency to which those on supervision reported in order for their court-imposed punishment to be administered.

Ultimately, New Labour could not square its desire to control probation from the centre through increasingly bureaucratic and perverse performance management ideology with its apparent commitment to localism, the development of civil society and the role of the local state in tackling both crime and antisocial behaviour. It underestimated the complexity of the criminal justice environment which requires a legislative framework of clear and intelligible criminal justice provisions to deliver individual justice within an integrated environment of local state resources and expertise (Burke and Collett 2015). The initial push to tackle the causes of crime was lost within an environment where reducing the use of imprisonment for less serious offending was sacrificed on the high alter of media-driven political expediency and the price for this was an ever increasing prison population driven by a myriad of poorly reasoned sentencing and enforcement initiatives. Reflecting on new Labour’s record in government in my editorial ‘For better or worse’ (Burke 2010b), I argued that it had; ‘failed to take advantage of a falling crime rate and resorted to populist policies, fuelled by an “out of control” performance culture, which have in turn undermined the work of the probation service and led to record levels of imprisonment’ (p. 228).

People Are Not Things: What New Labour Has Done to Probation (Burke and Collett 2010), written following the defeat of the Labour government in the 2010 General Election, was an attempt to evaluate the changing relationship between probation and New Labour, placing it within the context of wider approaches to crime control adopted by the government in each of its three terms in office. In our consideration of the previous 13 years we came to the conclusion that despite the negative impact on probation of an unrelenting reductionist focus on managerialist and technical policy fixes, there were still some grounds for optimism based on the emerging insights provided by the literature on desistance (see Annison et al. 2014 for a further discussion of these developments). Taking a lead from Lord Ramsbotham’s statement in the House of Lords that ‘people are not things’ we reasserted the notion of probation as a moral enterprise:

working with people, developing their personal capacity and enhancing their social capital - the resources they can utilize in their own rehabilitation - supported by evidence-based interventions is ultimately a human and moral enterprise. Returning offenders to the status of responsible citizens accepted and integrated within their own communities ultimately offers the public much greater safety than the expensive incarceration in a burgeoning prison population that has been a key motif and consequence of New Labour policies. (Burke and Collett 2010)

 
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