Secretarial: Picking up the pieces

I Work For: Wendy Birch Works for Helen Edwards, Chief Executive of the National Association of Care and Resettlement of Offenders
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The Independent Culture
In 1993 I became assistant to the information and publications services in the youth crime section of NACRO. It opened my eyes to the real nature of young offenders who are usually very disadvantaged, lacking the benefit of a good upbringing or a happy and loving background rather than being simply amoral. Mind you, when Jack Straw's son got into trouble, it just showed that breaking the law isn't restricted to one group - everyone can make mistakes.

A year on, Helen - who was then assistant director - asked me if I would work for her. Initially I said no, because aged only 22 I thought I wouldn't be up to the job. But after further persuasion I decided to grab the opportunity, since Helen obviously believed in me and wanted to give me a chance, which I guess is what NACRO is all about.

All those who work here know that when people are provided with the right opportunities, care and support, they can usually achieve something worthwhile. Two years later, Helen became acting chief executive and took me with her as her PA.

It shocked me to discover that the public opinion regarding offenders tends to be one of "lock 'em up and throw away the key". NACRO tries to drum into people that almost all offenders are going to come back out into society at some point and need to be given assistance to prevent them from returning to the lifestyle they had before.

We do a lot of work encouraging people to give ex-offenders a job, hoping that we are living in a humane society, which understands that if people have made a mistake they should be given the opportunity to be rehabilitated. We have former prisoners working for us here, and in my experience they have always been polite and efficient workers - I would never ask them what crime they committed because it's their business as well as their past.

Sadly, no-one ever wants to hear the good news about people who have been rehabilitated, preferring stories of gruesome crimes. Nonetheless, it's important that the voice of ex-offenders is heard in the debate about penal reform and resettlement, because they've had direct experience of prison and the criminal justice system, hence the significance of Unlock, the new campaigning organisation of ex-offenders, headed by Stephen Fry and launched earlier this week. We are also involved in mediation between victims and offenders, and I always think of the victims of crime too and how to allay their fears.

The volume of my work is huge. I have to juggle 20 things at once while dealing with a lot of people - we have over 1,000 employees - but my capacity to deal with things has grown quickly, out of necessity.

We have a lot of contact with government departments, and the distinguished individuals on our various committees include professors, MPs, lords and ladies. At first, I used to be a bit frightened of speaking to people in high places but now I am the first port of call for many of these people and consequently I need to be well up on what's going on within NACRO.

Helen and I are both calm and work well together - we know that there is no point in getting flustered. I might be screaming inside, but I try to keep my cool and put in the hours until the work is done. I might work from 8am until 7pm, and then take my laptop home with me, which would make this a hard job to do if I had children.

Helen, however, has three children under 10, and has worked for NACRO for 15 years, having begun as a social worker. She is committed, dedicated and has a social conscience, while being caring, genuine and very down- to-earth. I don't socialise with her because I don't think that over-familiarity would suit this job, but I still feel that we both know each other well. If there is something on my mind I can explain it to her so that she knows why I am acting oddly.

It annoys me that people think that PAs are bimbos, particularly since I like to think that Helen can rely on me - although I know that she can get irritated by my perfectionism. Despite the highs of the job, including the satisfaction of organising something as important as our AGM, things do occasionally get on top of me, and I wonder why I am doing such a demanding job.

But I know that I would be bored as hell doing copy typing, and it's nice to know that I am contributing in my own small way to making society a better place. In fact, I have become so interested in the criminal justice system that I would like to move into criminal law one day.

Interview by Katie Sampson

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