Sir: In the next few weeks the Probation Service will face an unprecedented barrage of criticism from the Home Office, followed by drastic proposals for changes in its practice, recruitment and training. These will amount to the destruction of the service's constantly evolving traditions, rather than a conscious and clear-headed attempt to build on its manifest strengths.
Worldwide, there is ample evidence that a combination of offence confrontation and the provision of care and support to serious offenders is effective in reducing reoffending. Many probation centres practise in this way. There is also a climate of continuous improvement in the Probation Service nationally, engineered, to an extent, by the Government's own policies, which ensures that new and better forms of practice are constantly being sought.
Community penalties are already harsher than they were five years ago; we now need to evaluate them. There is no evidence that toughness for its own sake is of any value in rehabilitating offenders and much evidence that it is counter-productive.
It is because of the complexity of so many of the situations which probation officers repeatedly handle that there has been, in this country, a long tradition of professional training in universities. This too, is now in jeopardy. The readiness of the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to remove such training from universities flies in the face of of evidence from his own scrutineers of the efficiency of the system and that very significant improvements have taken place in recent years. There is no way that training, if removed from social work education in our universities, could build on this, nor, crucially, would it continue to attract the same high calibre of entrants as at present.
We are forced to ask whether Mr Howard cares about the calibre of entrants to the Probation Service. His belief that ex-soldiers could, and should, do the job without benefit of retraining speaks volumes about his perception of crime, and the kind of solution he thinks it needs. Where is the evidence for this?
Crime is, and will remain, a serious social problem for reasons many of which the Government could alter if it wished to do so. This grim situation will not be helped by the casual dismissal of the energy, imagination and commitment of probation staff - manager, practitioners and trainers alike - who have done more hard thinking about what is needed to control crime than - on the evidence - the Home Secretary has ever done.
Chair, Joint University Council
Work with Offenders
De Montford University