Letters: 'Tinkering' with the Probation Service

The Probation Service is demoralised by constant 'tinkering'


Sir: Deborah Orr ("The fatal flaws in our probation system", 23 March) provided a very thoughtful commentary on some of the current problems facing the Probation Service. The present malaise is in fact of very long-standing. My experience of and close association with the service extends over a period of more than 50 years - having served as a "main-grade" officer, as a member of the Probation Inspectorate, as a member of the Parole Board, and, in more recent years, as an educator and facilitator of all grades of the service.

In my opinion the problems originated during the lifetimes of a series of Conservative governments. However they have been exacerbated considerably under present Labour administrations. Successive efforts by both political parties to "tinker" with the service have brought about entirely unproductive outcomes and resulted in a demoralised and confused service.

Governments seem obsessed with the need to bring about change for change's sake; an obsession evident not only in the field of criminal justice, but in both education and health care. Politicians do not seem very good at tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty as evidenced by their other obsession - public protection.

They make the erroneous assumption that professionals in criminal justice and in mental health can make infallible risk assessments - getting them right every time. This is never going to be possible, and it has to be recognised that errors of judgement will sometimes occur.

Of course when they do, lessons (often hard ones), must be learned. However, pillorying professionals serves no useful purpose and ignores totally the successful (and for the most part unheralded) work that is done on a daily basis. Maybe the Government is beginning to "listen" - as evidenced perhaps by the recent announcement that it is to withdraw its ill-starred Mental Health Bill.

The expenditure of time and resources on this most illiberal measure could have most usefully been directed to improving existing services in both criminal justice and mental health.



Snide dig at Norman Kember's return

Sir: General Sir Mike Jackson's "assumption" that Norman Kember appeared ungrateful to his military rescuers prior to him being interviewed upon his return to the UK was simply a snide political dig at the anti-war movement.

Within four months of his captivity the kidnappers had every opportunity to execute Mr Kember and whilst we are told his rescue was a highly complex and dangerous mission ("After four months, British peace activist held in Iraq is freed in rescue operation", 24 March), for all we know a deal could have been struck between the coalition forces and the kidnappers, and the military role was simply to preside over its safe execution.

Now that the initial jubilation over Mr Kember's release has subsided, what really irks pro-war apologists about his release is the fact that it was a peace campaigner's life that was spared, which somewhat indicates that the potential for some sort of political dialogue exists rather than their "gung ho" military option billed as a "war against terrorism", which clearly spawns more terrorists and violence.



Sir: How predictable and how British! It would seem that the official military line backed up by all the armchair generals and colonial civil servants can only ever see virtue in the use of military power. And how so many of us do revel in a good tale of "daring do" where our soldiers shoot up the bad guys.

Of course Mr Kember said thank you to his rescuers, but as he went to Iraq to try and bring some Christian charity and to oppose the use of force, it is a bit much that so many now wants to criticise him for sticking to his principles. What people should praise is the courage of a 74-year-old man who refuses to condemn those who kidnapped him, and who stuck to his principles.

I wonder how many of his critics would be that brave? I oppose this illegal invasion but I would not have the courage to put my life on the line as Mr Kember has done.



Sir: The instantly orchestrated attack on Norman Kember and his Christian Peacemaker Team colleagues, for failing to thank their rescuers, beggars belief.

Just when one thinks this administration and their hangers-on can sink no lower, they effortlessly plunge to new depths. They would do well to remember that whatever else about the Iraqi regime, Iraq used to be amongst the safest countries on earth for foreigners, and overwhelming hospitality was extended by strangers to visitors and travellers.

The illegal US/UK- led invasion and the foreign troops have brought about the distortion of the whole structure of Iraqi society. Kidnappings, summary executions, beheading were unheard of (as long, of course, the regime itself was not plotted against or targeted.)

The UK and US broke it, so it is up to them to fix it. Mr Kember and his colleagues would have been quite safe in Saddam's Iraq, but no one is in "liberated" Iraq.

The Christian Peacemaker Teams, whether foolhardy or not, went in courage, unprotected, to build bridges, not blow them up.

Welcome home Mr Kember.



Sir: Why rescue Norman Kember? He knew the risks, and Allied forces should not have been imperilled to free this ungrateful, ignorant man, whose only real contribution to Iraq was as a useful propaganda tool to his kidnappers. There must be no future negotiation with terrorists, or rescue bids of their foolish victims, who in most cases, were warned not to go, and also, surely knew the potential consequence of their folly.



Winter ports in the Baltic

Sir: Congratulations on a fascinating report ("Kaliningrad: from Russian relic to Baltic boom town", 23 March) on the amber capital of Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg, and its fascinating and turbulent history under the merciless Teutonic knights, followed by that of Prussia and after 1945, the Soviet Union. As a piece of diplomatic no man's land, surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, it remains potentially as troublesome a bone of political contention as it was in the inter-wars as a German province surrounded by the same countries.

However it is not true to say that Kaliningrad is "the Baltic's only ice-free winter port". That excludes Riga, the Lithuanian port of Klajpeda, the Polish ports of Gdynia and Szczecin, as well as Lubeck and Rostock and some harbours in southern Sweden.

It also ignores the fact that there is now a deep water terminal at Gdansk under construction by a British consortium which is likely to become the major Baltic port in the future. All these ports are ice-free all the year round.



Two types of terrorism

Sir: Howard Jacobson carried me along with his intriguing inquiry into effect and cause backwards through the history of Israel and Palestine ("A sentimental history of the Middle East usually means Israel is to blame for it all", 18 March), but I am afraid he lost me when he made the fatal slip of raising the question of the lack of parity between the killing of an elected minister and the killing of the head of a "terrorist" organisation.

Had he taken us back further through his intriguing history chase, he would have had to admit that the very minister to whom he referred was a direct successor of a terrorist organisation.

In the sense that all ministers are responsible for the actions of the government of which they form a part, that individual was also complicit in state terrorism against innocent people whose homes and lives have been disrupted and destroyed by the actions of a terrorist government.

Nobody, I hope, holds a brief for either state terrorism or subversive terrorism, but to argue that one is more respectable than the other is questionable at any level. And if being "elected" makes it all right, then I hope to see Mr Jacobson writing soon in praise of Hamas.



Spelling lessons

Sir: Further to Masha Bell's letter (25 March), I believe many Europeans (and others) learn and spell English in addition to their own more phonetically logical languages.

They are not all high-achieving, middle-class people with above average intelligence. They are just not English. But they put in some hard work and learn it. Sometimes they even have to pay for the tuition. Just because learning good English is a necessary skill, it doesn't have to be a fun-packed doddle. And I believe they have iPods, and computer games in other countries too.



Sir: Masha Bell identifies English spelling's irregularity as a barrier to literacy. Maybe. But there is little illiteracy in Japan, where you need to learn at least 2,000 complex ideograms, with only occasional tenuous indications of their two or more pronunciations.

Perhaps the problem has more to do with pupils' attitudes to learning.



Horse-free petfood

Sir: Just a word to the wise (Letters; "Racehorse cruelty", 20 March). Having worked in the petfood industry for more years than has probably been good for me, I can reassure readers who are worried about the destiny of racehorses that fail to make the grade, that horse meat is, and has not for the past 30 years, been an ingredient of petfoods either here or on the continent.

Your more sensitive readers can thus be comforted by the assurance that their faithful pets are not munching their way through the remains of a failed Shergar or Red Rum.



Lovely libraries

Sir: Terence Blacker's excellent piece about the public library's contribution to social inclusion (24 March) is a welcome addition to the debate currently taking place about the future of public libraries. I am concerned though, that his depiction of the Love Libraries campaign as a potential agent of exclusion is very wide of the mark.

The Love Libraries initiative seeks to make libraries vibrant, exciting and relevant to the many not the few. All public libraries should be places of opportunity, challenge and learning. Like Terence Blacker, I believe that Scott and Andrew in Northern Ireland deserve the best. Love Libraries might just help to deliver it.



Conservative bullies

Sir: Jemima Lewis's account (25 March) of the origin of conservatism in the hearts of the victims of playground bullying is touching but flawed. I myself was bullied when a fat little kid and have failed to grow up conservative, perhaps because I could not see any great distinction between the bully who wanted to stuff me head-first down one of the school lavatories, and the headmaster who (on a later occasion) told me to hold out my hand and receive several strokes of the cane.



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