Periods of political uncertainty, unclear direction and incoherent leadership are rarely positive for organisations.
When we’re talking about important public services that impact on their clients lives and reach across the sense of safety and security for whole communities, anxieties grow.
When these operating environments have already been hit by earthquakes, increased uncertainty and instability can seem outright dangerous. So as the shock of the surprise election result sinks in, Napo members across probation and family courts could be forgiven for being particularly anxious about what happens now.
Anyone who says they can predict what happens next shouldn’t be trusted. As Billy Bragg sang: “A poet with all the answers has never yet been built.” Napo, like anyone aiming to clean up a toxic environment must tread carefully.
However, we cannot afford to stand back completely. Unions must see periods when others fail to lead as opportunities. Therefore, our first task is to make sure we identify and ask the right questions of the power brokers.
LATEST ENVIRONMENTAL SURVEY
Increased workloads unevenly spread across the country and out of Cafcass control arising from changing local authority and social work approaches to child protection risks, has brought Cafcass to a crisis point prior to the election.
Napo surveys showed dangerous levels of presenteeism. Recruitment and retention levels in some areas, especially London, are identified as a shared priority for unions and senior managers.
Joint approaches to ministers were being discussed. Then there were no ministers to talk with. We will now be looking to use the additional time to have cases for more investment and professional support to be put before the new minister as soon as is possible, whilst also using our wider parliamentary routes to highlight risks and professional issues – looking to work as broadly as possible with other interested and sympathetic stakeholders, such as magistrates and Women’s Aid etc.
Probation – CRCs
In the build-up to the election, a lot of the post-TR structural cracks were evident and subject to ongoing discussion. The CRC contracts were evidently unstable. At least three CRCs were audibly complaining about the financial viability of the contracts, with case weightings that fix payments not producing the promised profits – leading to operational cuts that were amplifying and increasing the risks identified by HMI reports, rather than addressing them.
Through the Gate hadn’t got past the wishful thinking stage in some areas. The promised innovation had been stifled. The probability of total contract failure was evidently high. The likelihood of a CRC contract collapse seems high but the MoJ privately at least, are recognising that the NPS isn’t stable enough itself to absorb a failing contract area, even temporarily.
Napo is therefore pressing for national discussions across stakeholders to seriously assess possible options for managing contract failures before such an eventuality hits.
Probation – NPS and HMPPS
Things were hardly any more stable or credible in the nationalised NPS. The rushed TR process has undermined the stability of the NPS as much as the CRCs.
Staffing shortages are intense. On top of this people management is catastrophic. Civil service engagement is critically low and probation has been sucked into this toxic, bureaucratic, almost Kafka-esque soul-sapping misery.
Finding someone to take responsibility is difficult, with line managers stuck in the middle – being forced to use processes around sickness absence and performance that they know are demotivating and counter-productive.
But even when the correct process is identified the shared service centre fails, further undermining morale. In the month before the election, Napo was forced to write to the minster about multiple pension failures; hundreds of pay and tax errors; and over 250 new starters not being paid at all! If the NPS can’t even pay its staff how can it be expected to take on a failing CRC contract should that come about?
Against all of that was the Government’s plan to bring probation and prisons more closely together. It would be wrong if Napo didn’t see the potential for professional gains from this idea, something we’d been arguing for throughout our existence, but also worrying to see the same arrogance and haste potentially undermining a good idea in the making. It was evident that in focussing on how probation may work differently in a custodial setting there was a danger that community based work in the NPS could be cast adrift.
Allied to these three strands was the open wounds infecting each of the now three probation strands (CRC, NPS in the community and HMPPS in custody) – namely the broken and uncompetitive probation pay system; and the lack of any coherent, national professional structure for practitioners.
Each strand desperately needs the broken pay system to be fixed – for example, probation pay in custodial settings needed to go up to be fair and competitive against equivalent prison roles and the civil service; manager numbers needed to increase across the board in probation; and if the going rate in the NPS / HMPPS goes up CRC contracts would need to be adjusted so they can compete. Likewise, professional standards needs to be integrated with pay reform to help sustain a new model and bring staff across all the strands closer together, at least professionally.
WHERE WE HAD GOT TO:
Napo was making good progress in identifying and highlighting these challenges. Harmonisation of maternity and key terms in the NPS was agreed and set to ease the number of chances of systems failure with SSCL; pay reform was progressing well; dialogue about professional frameworks, workload measurement and standards were also progressing; our pay claim highlighted the need for CRCs to be included; NPS were being more honest about their processing failures.
But the sheer number of areas of system failure continued to drain Napo’s resources and undermine our capacity to re-engage with potential members across the range of new employers. With no easing up in sight we’d been across all parties for a full parliamentary enquiry into the TR shambles and move power-brokers towards looking at resolving these. The opposition front benches were strongly indicating support for many of our core priorities and were lining up to say so when the election was called. Good progress was being made but there was still much work to do.
Therefore, whilst the untimely election halted a lot of positive momentum it also gave us some breathing space to take stock, gather and secure evidence, and get ready to push on in as targeted and focussed a way as possible.
Any further additional delay helps us to develop these ideas and continue to build alliances with others who share our concerns and aims. The political uncertainty is also likely to make most politicians more nervous and hesitant and open the floor for us to assert ourselves by presenting coherent ideas, questions and options.
The election also puts more time and political space between TR and the new minister. It is easier to acknowledge policy failure from the last-but-one government – especially given it was a coalition and that is what the left could now be asking for again. This makes it emotionally easier for even a Tory minister to say they need to look at TR again.
Equally, it is plausible that the political insecurity from the hung parliament means government struggles to do as much, so focusses on areas where there is emerging consensus (like TR having gone wrong) – thus opening opportunities for us to build on the cross-bench work we’ve done already.
Further, the hung parliament could just slow the politicians down and allow us to wedge in more professional and political reflection around HMPPS and around what happens next in probation. This can’t wait too long – further crisis for the employers could be prompted at any moment by HMI reports or contract failures. But if the prolonged political uncertainty makes the politicians less gung-ho and more nervous (as is likely) then we’re ready to step in and lead the agenda and discussion, having already been preparing for the case.
Finally, the hung parliament will make looking for and pushing through quick and lazy solutions more difficult for all sides. Seeing the damage of acting in haste means we should welcome and look to capitalise on this nervousness. Our members’ problems at work are numerous and complicated – there will be no easy answer. Slogans won’t be enough. Anything that rams this home and provides some restraint can’t be bad. But members can also be assured that Napo will not be letting politicians hide from the problems as we aim to work with them to develop solutions.
Assistant General Secretary