Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by William M. Watson



  1.  All the views expressed herein are entirely my own personal professional views, and do not intend to implicate any other persons or organisations.


  2.  I write as an experienced Probation Officer who has spent most of his life engaged in the business of helping offenders to change, so that they will cease to offend. I am still actively so engaged, and am still enthusiastic about what I do.


  3.  The intention of this part of the Bill seems to me laudable, in that it is trying to set up a system which will enable more offenders to address their problems, and thus cease offending.

  4.  It is important to point out, however, that as the Probation Service is currently operating, this bill, if enacted, would be a disaster. This is due to a number of factors:

    —  the drastic shortage of trained and experienced Probation Officers

    —  the total lack of training and experience of "officers" that have been recruited

    —  the excessive rigidity of the Home Office rules for supervision by Probation Officers [known as "National Standards"]

    —  the active discouragement by management of Probation Officers from becoming involved and committed to their cases

    —  the stress on questionnaires, prediction systems, and other forms of paperwork which prevent the officers from becoming involved with the real issues of the offender.

  5.  I understand that the Home Office accepts that there is a need of as many as 40% more staff for this Bill to work. I also understand that the Probation Service is trying to recruit more staff at all levels. What is very striking about the current way of working that management approves of is, that it is more and more mechanistic, and regarded as a purely administrative task: the idea seems to be to put more and more of our work onto computers, and soon anyone who can read a questionnaire to an offender, and type out the result, can write a pre-sentence report, and the computer system will come with the "correct" sentence to recommend to the court. It feels rather like diagnosing a fault in, say, a motorcar and I have no doubt that this works well with a motorcar.

  6.  Do human beings behave, and change their behaviour, like motorcars? Can we really pass a sentence on someone that they should be rehabilitated? Can we make people change? Can we lead a horse to water and make him drink?

  7.  No, we cannot. So what should we do?

  8.  We should get the offender round to our way of thinking, get them to realise that it will be in their best interests to work with us to reduce their problems and thus their offending, and get them to actively co-operate with the process and to give their consent to any order made.

  9.  I am pleased to see that the Requirement in an order in this Bill to take help with Alcohol or Drug problems requires the consent of the offender. But why does not also the supervision requirement, and the programme requirement, and the activity requirement, and the residence requirement, and even the unpaid work requirement? [And why not hugely increase the length and type of Community Work orders to include skilled tasks like teaching support, hospital work and others, as in America today?]

  10.  Let me explain, by way of contrast, how Probation Orders used to work. The Probation Officer would meet the offender after conviction and before sentence, and discuss possible outcomes. If the person understood what we were talking about, we would come to an agreement, almost a contract, that the person would agree to our suggested programme of rehabilitation, and we would persuade the court to go for this, rather than imprisonment.

  11.  Offenders would go along with this because they felt we had gone to the trouble of listening to them, and so we understood them, and that we cared about them, and that we knew how to help them, and they would not have to go to prison. A relationship built up in this oh so vital pre-sentence period, and the offender began to see that there could be hope for them, that they could change, that they could have a decent life, and that they could avoid going to prison for the rest of their lives.

  12.  This process always was, and still is, very demanding for Probation Officers: it demands a high degree of honesty, integrity, courage, and risk of being hurt and seeming like a right mug. When it works, however, you know you have changed a person's life for the better, for ever. And I won't deny it, that is a great feeling, and that is why we became Probation Officers.

  13.  Offenders under this scheme feel that they "have a Probation Officer", who they can turn to, and rely on, and ask for help from in time of need. Under the present system, they feel they are simply hounded to report in, and feel persecuted by us, not helped at all.

  14.  From the look of the "Community Orders" in this Bill, an offender will be "sentenced" to say, a "programme requirement", and [s]he will not be under supervision of a Probation Officer at all. [S]he will just go home, and wait for a letter summoning them to start the group, which could be anything up to six months later, such is the shortage of groups. Certainly the courts will not like this, and so they will probably in most cases make a "Supervision Requirement" in addition. Interestingly, the supervision requirement under a Community Order has the purpose of "promoting the offender's rehabilitation", which is good, but back to my question "how can you be sentenced to be rehabilitated?" Furthermore, due to lack of trained staff this section would be mechanistically supervised by untrained staff who will feel obliged to breach the order before the offender has even got started on their group.

  15.  This is not just a question of semantics: in its desire to make supervision in the community tough, the Home Office has decreed through "National Standards" that any offender under supervision, however well [s]he is doing in working on their problems, and ceasing to offend, must be breached and returned to court if they miss as few as 2 appointments, out of say 50 spread over two years.

  16.  So National Standards must be totally reviewed and reformed, so that the discretion and professional judgement of the Probation Officer is returned to its rightful, paramount, position. Our job is to reform offenders, not to make sure they turn up like robots at the required time at the office.

  17.  If you are with me so far, I hope you are saying "Well, Mr. Watson, supposing for a moment we agree with you, where are we going to get these paragons of virtue that you think are necessary to be Probation Officers?"

  18.  Actually, it needn't be that difficult. If you put across to people that the Probation Service is going back to its old idea of helping offenders [in such a way that they don't offend again] you will find plenty of recruits, just as we did in the 1960's and 70's.

  19.  You set up again a one-year Home Office Training Course for mature entrants: who have to be over the age of 27, say; have 5 GCSE's; and want to help offenders. Recruits would be trained in one probation office for four months, have four months at a training centre, and then a final placement in a probation office for four months: then they are appointed, subject to being approved by a head of service delivery grade Probation Officer after one year.

  20.  The beauty of this scheme is that it is cheap, and practical, and based largely on common sense and experience, not high-falutin' theories and undergraduate idealisation. Anyone on this course has committed themselves to becoming a Probation Officer, and so can be paid a decent salary from the beginning of training. And this is very important because so many worthwhile people I have met in the untrained ranks of the Probation Service, and elsewhere, do not want to train because it is simply so badly paid to be a Trainee P.O. these days [not to mention soul-destroying].

  21.  Incidentally, this course I am suggesting should not be confused with the rubbish that was spoken by the last government about ex-Sergeant-Majors being recruited straight in to the service to shout at offenders. It is this latter that the National Association Of Probation Officers turned its face against [quite rightly] in the 1990's.

  22.  I suggest that NAPO would support a one-year course of the sort I have described, if the National Probation Service and the Home Office were committed to the kind of radical change back to the old way of working that I have described, and which I suggest that nearly all Probation Officers long to see in action again.

  23.  From what I have read it really should not be that hard to find recruits to the New/Old Probation Service that I describe. People who 30 years ago became priests, or teachers at approved schools, or borstal housemasters, or social workers, or those who have made a fortune in the City already and want now to do some good in the world instead [there are more and more of these I read].

February 2003

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