The Mercia branch once tweeted that I was “truly a friend of #Napo”.
This was in September 2014 when I was working for the political section at The Independent on Sunday and the business desk of the daily.
I had written a comment piece arguing that the chief executives of Capita, Sodexo UK, Amey, Interserve and Carillion would be crazy to continue their bids to run community rehabilitation companies.
My argument was that the reputational risks of taking on probation services where staff morale was so low, where case files were missing because of “chaotic IT systems”, and where there was a growing risk to public safety could not be worth the estimated £5bn revenue they stood to reap over 10 years.
My belief was these firms would end up criticised and financially penalised for messes that were not of their own making. Even if they somehow sorted out the problems that the Government’s insistence on such ill-prepared part-privatisation had created, they would not be thanked for their successes.
Having written extensively on the issue for months, Napo general secretary Ian Lawrence tweeted that I was “all over” the then justice secretary, Chris Grayling, and his botched reforms, yet again.
Mercia’s reply to Lawrence was meant kindly, but it was wrong.
I’m no more a friend of Napo than I am of Government or its opposition, of the union movement or of the arch libertarian union-buster.
Unions have been incredibly angry with me in the past. For example, I’ve highlighted a number of the issues that the Public & Commercial Services Union has campaigned over on privatisation creep in Whitehall.
Yet I’ve rarely experienced the bile from an organisation or membership as I did when I obtained documents showing that actuarial changes to the PCS’ own staff pension scheme would be far more punitive than those the union was campaigning against in the civil service.
I was leaked the figures in black and white, wrote about it, but was accused of being an example of “declining standards of journalism”. Such personal, unnecessary and inaccurate attacks were all over my Twitter feed, yet not a single person disputed the figures I had quoted from their union’s own documents.
Re-reading those exchanges as I write this, I wish I had not had the few too many drinks that prompted me to respond and call these attacks “pathetic”, but that word was accurate.
The reason I highlight this is because my overriding role is as a news journalist, a scoop-getter.
If Napo has major problems, I will write about it provided I get those details first. That’s the job and, as much as people hate the press since the phone hacking scandal, it is a vital role in our democracy.
Sadiq Khan, the then shadow justice secretary, was the person who told me that I needed to look at the probation privatisation. While it is impossible to be completely objective, you can get very, very close.
My natural inclination is that I have nothing against privatisation as a concept, but I don’t understand how the profit motive can be introduced in areas such as justice. That’s a bias, so, for news [not comment], I concentrated on other aspects, such as the lack of a pilot programme that every major policy change requires.
Crispin Blunt, the former prisons minister, went on-the-record with me to say that this was vital because it allows you to “make mistakes, but then show that you’ve learnt”. And he was in favour of the privatisation.
I discovered myriad problems over time, all of which were factual. That revamped computer systems were wiping offenders’ data, that probation bosses were quitting in anger over the reforms, or that the Ministry of Justice threatened to renationalise the South Yorkshire region’s CRC were reported by me didn’t mean I was against the reforms; these stories just mean I was digging into what was actually happening.
But, like senior figures in the PCS, Grayling and his team thought it was personal. I have no familial or friendship links to the probation service, I knew no-one in the profession until a little over two years ago.
Yet there was genuine anger at my reporting when I revealed that Sarah Kane, a probation services officer who took her own life aged just 49, had accused Grayling of having “murdered the probation service” in her self-written eulogy. Colleagues and friends said they felt this was “a contributing factor” to her fatal decision, though it was clear that this was far from the only, or even main, reason.
I won’t go into the Ministry of Justice’s attempts to dissuade editors from allowing the article to run, but while at times they were well-argued, they were also ridiculous.
More importantly, they too were wrong.
The story was in the public interest. I’m not a friend of Napo, but I will report the facts. The fact is that probation reform has led to a huge number of disasters in the service.
*Mark Leftly is a freelance journalist and is the former deputy political editor at The Independent on Sunday and associate business editor at The Independent. He left when the print editions of these titles shut this year.