#NQ4 Gill Kirton: union resilience is essential

When professor Gill Kirton first heard about TR, she knew that splitting the probation service and privatising half of it was wrong. Not only would it have implications for public
safety and rehabilitation, the professor’s industrial relations experience meant she could also foresee the impact it would have on the workforce.

Redundancies, deteriorating working conditions and an increase in temporary and casual staff were all to be expected. The public sector had always provided good working conditions and well paid jobs – particularly for highly qualified women. Since the probation workforce was disproportionately female, the effects of TR had the potential to impact disproportionately on women.

On top of this, Napo’s capacity to sustain, mobilise and represent members effectively through these challenging times would also be threatened.

Having worked with Napo previously on a Women in Napo research paper, professor Kirton was already “deeply in awe” of probation staff and “impressed” with their dedication to clients. Embarking on a new research paper to assess the effects of TR would allow the professor to see if any of this had changed.

“When I do my research, one of the principles I always adopt is that people are experts in their own working lives,” professor Kirton told members. “My job as a researcher is to listen to the subject and then tell their story so others beyond the immediate context will understand its meaning and significance.”

Professor Kirton said there was a “homogenous” response amongst those surveyed for the research: probation workers were no longer experiencing a positive and enabling workplace climate.

“This isn’t simply about whether a workplace is friendly. It speaks to the purpose and values of probation,” the professor said. “Draconian” approaches to sickness absences, failure to make adjustments for disabilities, removal of flexible working, job cuts and mounting health and safety issues were all contributing factors to the low morale seen in both the CRCs and NPS.

The professor also pointed out that the allocation of work also had its pressures. Those in the CRCs were dealing with excessive workloads, while those in the NPS were feeling the strain of dealing with intense cases. It’s no wonder that only a fifth of those surveyed in the CRCs and a third of those from the NPS were planning to remain in probation.

The issues revealed in the research throw up a major problem for Napo as a trade union. Demands from members for representation grow, but restrictions on branch reps being able to assist members from another employer have made this difficult.

“Like other unions, Napo struggles to get people active and take on roles. It’s vital that people step up and do so,” the professor said.

Looking to the future professor Kirton said: “There are challenges for probation staff and Napo but even in this turbulent context, union resilience is possible and it is essential for the health of probation that Napo maintains a presence.”

Taytula Burke

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