The government plans to privatise 70% of the entire national probation service by 2015, leaving just “high-risk offender management” to public probation trusts.
The proposals are not evidence-based; there is not a single shred of evidence to suggest the service will be more effective with a privatised, payment-by-results system. The probation service has in fact been successful in reducing re-offending rates year on year, so there is simply no reasonable argument to privatise. It’s purely ideological.
In my office, many workers of all grades are no longer content with their position within the service, and many people are talking about leaving because they are sick of the constant threat of redundancy. I’ve spoken to plenty of workers over the last few years, and the same themes keep coming up: “We’re getting sold to Serco aren't we?” “I might just take redundancy and get another job somewhere else.”
It's plainly obvious that people are angry and fed up, but these emotions are not resulting in greater organisation or the desire to stand up and fight for jobs and conditions. There’s a growing sense of despair, and many people seem almost ready to pack up and find somewhere else to work.
The National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) and Unison are the two main unions within the service, both officially recognised by all probation trusts.
At London Probation there isn’t a lot of unity between the unions and they often have very separate agendas. For example, NAPO are still very much a craft union, openly priding themselves on being a “professional association”. NAPO runs a national “Public protection not private profit” campaign, which has seen an Early Day Motion (essentially a petition of MPs) against privatisation and monthly campaign bulletins distributed to members. NAPO has demonstrated and lobbied at Parliament in support of its EDM.
The Unison probation branch in London has a better general approach to trade unionism, and opposes compulsory redundancies, but the branch leadership seems preoccupied with picking bizarre fights with management on side-issues that most members couldn’t care less about. I remember the two branch secretaries of Unison spending an entire morning disputing the title of a single advertised job and communicating this to members, while NAPO were preparing placards for a demo outside Parliament! I wish the Unison branch could see the bigger picture sometimes.
Unison nationally is opposed to the privatisation, but there’s not a lot coming from head office regarding an effective fightback. There’s talk of a national NAPO strike — for any action to be effective, Unison and NAPO need to link forces and ensure workers of all grades take part.
Community Payback was privatised last year and one unit privatised is one unit too many. The key here is turning workers’ despair into something bolder.
A public probation service is an integral part of both the welfare state and the justice system, and we cannot sit back and allow this disgrace of a government to take that away.