Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

NEWSPOINTS: Probation & Scotland

In A.Graham on August 8, 2016 at 11:44 am


It’s likely that few people noticed a recent report by the National Audit Office. Even if they knew where to look they’d probably regard the whole as a switch-off. Suffice to say, the report received little attention.

Yet the National Audit Office’s “progress report” would appear to be concerned with the proposed privatisation of the Probation Service by the Government. In other words the whole framework of rehabilitation would be subjected to market forces. It doesn’t need a lot of thought to work out what this might mean.

We are talking here about the National Probation Service for England and Wales (both Scotland and Northern Ireland operate there service through different frameworks). Its remit is, roughly speaking, the supervision of offenders in the community through a number of different roles and activities with the aim of rehabilitating the offender and getting him back on his feet.


The Probation Service was first set up as early as 1907, but was re-formed through the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act in April 2001. And the Gloucestershire Probation Trust is just one of many county-based bodies responsible for its operation on the ground.

As most people will appreciate, those offenders affected both before and after conviction suffer from a variety of problems. Just suggesting that we should “make them see the error of their ways” doesn’t come anywhere near dealing with these problems in the wider community.

The Probation Service has a wide scope. To give some examples it‘s responsible for education and learning, including such areas as apprenticeships and work training. This can go right up to further and higher education, if appropriate.

There could also be issues of childcare, or mental problems to deal with, not to mention problems with housing.

As Andreas Whittam Smith wrote in a recent issue of the “i” newspaper, “the essence (of probation) is the establishment of a relationship between a probation officer and an offender.

“The idea that probation work should become a commercial activity began to surface in the early 2000s, In 2004, Tony Blair’s Government accepted a report that recommended… using ‘providers of probation from across the public, private or voluntary sectors.”

Then, in 2007, under Blair’s government, probation boards began to be changed into probation trusts – all ready for privatisation. Here the Government went a stage further by suggesting that the probation service could be paid to reduce re-offending, with any savings to the criminal justice system paying for this.

But how can we know how far a particular probation service was solely responsible for a reduction in re-offending? It could be due to a range of factors – such as rehabilitation in the prison itself, or personal factors affecting the offender.


But the Government seems to have brushed all this aside (along with the other duties that involve the service) and made it clear that the probation service would be opened up to competition. Perhaps such bodies as S4C would like a crack at it?

It was revealed by the National Audit Office that many successful bidders for contracts were “new to probation”. But, maybe for such companies experience isn’t the object of the exercise. It’s profit.


Scotland votes for a new assembly – ALISTAIR GRAHAM reports

A short holiday break, by air and coach early in May, from Bristol to the Outer Hebrides off the coast of mainland Scotland, fortuitously coincided with the elections for the Scottish Assembly.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, I took some time off from admiring dramatic scenery and soaking up the local colour to follow the electoral campaign as it unfolded. The SNP was, naturally enough, riding high in the polls, and most commentators expected Nicola Sturgeon to emerge as the next First Minister. There was more speculation over who would be runners up. Would Scottish Labour cling on to second place, or would it be overtaken by the Tories, who were feeling pretty chippy under a new leader?


A decade ago the very idea of the Tories coming second in the polls would have been unthinkable – though if we go further back, when the Conservatives campaigned under the name of the Unionist Party, they had a respectable core of support in middle class Scotland. Until, that is, they were swamped by the rising tide of Nationalism.

As for Labour, what happened to its support? Where did the “Red Clydeside” vanish to? The likes of Jimmy Maxton and John Wheatley? Scotland, the birthplace of Keir Hardie, was the cradle of the Labour Party. As for Maxton, they used to say that at election time they never bothered to count his votes – they simply weighed them. But Scotland as a whole never took to “New Labour”, or the concept of Blairism. And the Blairites merely took its votes for granted (Indeed, Blair himself once described Scotland as merely “a county”). I would say that this was the time when its roots really started to wither and die.

It would be unkind to blame the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale, for the collapse in Labour’s vote. She was fairly new to the leadership role, and her Party fought a vigorous campaign. Indeed, I saw more many more Labour posters displayed than I did Tory ones. But such visual evidence can be deceptive. Labour fought a left-wing campaign, but somehow the message failed to get through.

As for the Tories, their leader Ruth Davidson fought a personalised campaign that tended to promote her rather than the Party she was leading. She’s what might be called a “larger than life” personality (though not necessarily an attractive one!). She did promote herself as the one party leader capable of countering the philosophy of nationalism and the policies of the SNP.

Incidentally another party that did well in these elections was the Scottish Green Party. It registered an encouraging increase in its vote and a modest rise in the number of seats.


Our trip north took us on over to Skye and on to Lewis and Harris. The trek inevitably involved ferry trips. All the major ferry routes along the west coast are operated by the state-owned Caledonian MacBrayne company (“CalMac” as it’s affectionately known) – but now the SNP Government is intent on selling on this vital (and much loved) concern to a private company (Serco was at that time the favoured bidder).

There is strong opposition from the unions, who fear that not only jobs and conditions could be threatened but indeed the services themselves. These ferry routes are vital to the communities that they serve, and it goes without saying that CalMac is not an undertaking that is run for profit! Serco doesn’t exactly have a shining record when it comes to running its franchises successfully. Indeed Union leaders have dubbed it “Serco, Bound to Fail”.


The Western Isles are, of course, bilingual. The traditional language of the people is Gaelic, and road signs etc. tend to be in both languages. But since the 1970s the Gaelic has been on the decline, until in the last census the number speaking it had fallen to around 57,000.

But there is hope that there may be a re-vitalisation in the language. Not only had the decline levelled off but there’s been an encouraging increase in the number of young people speaking or learning it.

Of course the spread of Gaelic medium schools (those where subjects are taught in the language, and Gaelic becomes the language of the school) has helped the trend enormously. But there also seems to be a move towards taking it up because those involved see it as part of their roots. Young people see it representing who they are.

And long may it continue!


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