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Written by Paul Hayes   
Monday, 01 December 2008 22:50



by Paul Hayes.

Judith Rumgay's review of her research raises a number of interesting and challenging perspectives about the probation service's response work with drug misusing offenders. Most of the areas of concern she highlights would be recognised by probation officers and drug service providers. Work with drug misusers does cause particular concerns for criminal justice agencies - probation officers' practice can be characterised on the one hand as tending towards excessive protectiveness of 'my client' whilst, on the other hand, resulting in a stampede to 'refer on, to get rid', and it is clear that a number of partnership initiatives entered into with service providers have struggled because of inadequate or insufficient planning.

Whilst I have no difficulty agreeing with these and other specific points in Dr Rumgay's article, I find the overall negative and critical tone difficult to reconcile with my own experience of the development of increasing levels of expertise and confidence in the probation service's work with drug misusers over the past ten years. The following comments are intended therefore not to rebut Dr Rumgay's specific points, but to place her views in context and thereby hopefully to demonstrate that the tenor of her article is unnecessarily gloomy.

Practice and Policy

Dr Rumgay's article portrays probation service policy with regard to work with drug misusers as largely irrelevant to practice. As evidence of this she suggests that staff are either ignorant of their own service's policy or do not find it particularly helpful to their practice. It is debatable if the level of recognition of a policy amongst practitioners is the best yardstick to judge its effectiveness. Few successful applicants for jobs ascribe their success to the Chancellor's macro-economic policy, and even fewer citizens ascribe the absence of nightly bombing raids to the successful prosecution of foreign policy. Similarly probation officers tend to be aware of those policies which chafe and which they see as inhibiting good practice, not those which facilitate it.

The development of harm reduction practice in the probation service pre-dates the adoption of harm reduction policies by some years. During the mid-1980s probation officers working alongside drug services in cities such as Liverpool and Manchester began to adjust their practice goals and interventions to respond to the new practice initiatives which would become known as harm reduction.

In another political era harm reduction practice, with its pragmatic response to continuing drug use and the offending associated with it, would have flourished within a probation service culture which emphasised discretion and practitioner autonomy. By the late 1980s, however, the probation service, along with the rest of the public sector, was locked into a continuing process of increased centralisation, transparency and accountability, which necessitated decisions which had previously been taken by individual probation officers in private, now having to be taken in public and being owned by the service as a whole. If effective practice was to continue, and staff were not to be left isolated and vulnerable, the service had to specifically condone current practice as policy. The adoption of explicit harm reduction policy statements beginning in Northumbria and London in 1989 is therefore best seen not as an attempt to promote best practice, but rather to justify support and protect existing practice and those staff engaged in it.

Subsequently, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation endorsed these approaches and called for explicit approval at Home Office level. After lengthy deliberations, in which the Home Secretary had to balance advice that effective harm reduction practice offered the best vehicle for impacting on drug misuse itself and the offending associated with it, against the potential political fall-out of being seen to endorse continuing drug use by offenders, the Home Office eventually issued guidance to services in June 1995 endorsing current harm reduction practice.

Dr Rumgay conveys the impression of a probation service slow to adapt to the needs of drug misusers, eventually responding uncertainly to external pressures. As detailed above my perspective is rather different. The probation service became associated very quickly with harm reduction practice in the areas in which it was pioneered. This new approach was adapted into probation practice, adopted by services around the country, and continues to be refined. Practice has been endorsed as policy at a local and national level despite the potential political costs of this for the service and the Home Office, enabling coherent practice and policy guidance to be issued to services in the name of the Home Secretary.

Projects or Core Business

Numerous studies of the probation service's workload demonstrate a high prevalence of drug misusing offenders usually running around 25 per cent. This suggests that the probation service is in contact with 40 - 50,000 serious drug misusers at any one time, only a minority of whom are in contact with any other specialist drug service. Sheer volume therefore precludes the probation service from dealing with drug misusers either by specialist internal provision, or by contracting out to partner agencies. Research, such as Dr Rumgay's which concentrates on the effectiveness of the probation service's work with a relatively small group of voluntary sector agencies, and specialist in-house provision, inevitably fails to reflect the scale and diversity of the remainder of the service's work undertaken by individual probation officers and in partnership with statutory sector services. However, even if it were feasible to deal with the probation service's drug misusing workload by specialist provision, it is doubtful if this would be the most appropriate way of responding to drug-related offending.

The relationship between drug use and offending is now recognised as being more complex that the simple 'drug misusers have to steal to feed their habit' model. For many drug misusing offenders, drug use and offending are closely interwoven behaviours, difficult to deal with separately. Intervention which assumes offending will cease once an 'addict' has been 'cured' of his or her drug use it therefore unlikely to be effective.

Current understanding of the nature of drug misuse emphasise choice, self control and rationality. It is illogical to maintain that drug misusers can care adequately for their children, or can hold down a full-time job, but to absolve the same person from seeking to maximise their sense of self-control and responsibility for their own behaviour. This emphasis on individuals' ability to choose, seeking to maximise their sense of self-control and responsibility for their own behaviour, echoes current probation service practice with offenders. The same techniques and skills deployed by probation officers to work effectively with other offenders can be used as appropriately with drug misusers. Given the close association between much drug misuse and its associated offending, it is entirely appropriate that probation officers' work with both aspects of drug misusing offenders' lives.

Probation officers skills and experience in working with offending are as relevant to work with drug misusing offenders as the skills of drug specialist in addressing drug misuse and its attendant health problems.

Partnership or Purchasing

'Partnership' is a Home Office preferred description for a process of purchasing of services from voluntary or private sector providers, currently being imposed on a sceptical probation service. The probation service has a long history of working in genuine partnership with other agencies, particularly in the drug field. Most of these genuine partnerships built up over many years do not constitute 'partnerships' as construed by the Home Office because the partner agencies concerned are statutory services. The majority of service providers in this field, whilst masquerading under names and addresses oozing with street credibility, are structurally part of NHS Trusts. Probation services are precluded by the Home Office's partnership rules from entering into formal partnership agreements with statutory services. Attempting to judge the effectiveness of the probations service's inter-agency work with drug misusers via an examination of partnerships, as Dr Rumgay does, is therefore of dubious value as only a minority of services with which the probation service is involved, and not necessarily those that are most important, will be included.

The Theory and Reality of Partnership Policy

In theory partnerships should be entered into following a process of needs assessments involving relevant sections of the community, after which probation areas should target the most appropriate and economic service provider via a process which is both objective and transparent.

For a number of the partnerships included in Dr Rumgay's sample, the reality was somewhat different. Each probation service is expected by the Home Office to spend five per cent of its revenue budget on 'partnership'. The bulk of this expenditure comes from existing funds, but a proportion of additional funding is made available by the Home Office from a budget previously used to centrally fund voluntary sector organisations and projects. Each probation service was allocated a proportion of this money in early May 1993, and instructed to submit plans on how to spend it by the end of June that year. It was made clear that unspent monies would be reclaimed by the Treasury, and lost to the probation service budgets in future years. Services were put under significant pressure to spent their entire allocation. Services therefore had seven weeks to develop partnerships, often from scratch, sometimes with agencies with which they had no history of joint working, and occasionally with services whose only credential was that they were from the voluntary sector. Throughout, the impetus from the Home Office was to spend money rather than ensure that it was well spent.

In this context it is not surprising that probation staff were under-prepared for the operation of these partnerships, that some of the partnerships were misconceived, that there were concerns about partner agencies replacing rather than supplementing probation service jobs, and the partner agencies had to devote so much time and effort to selling their service to probation staff, that they were diverted from more productive tasks.

Paul Hayes is an assistant chief probation officer at the South East London Probation Service, and a member of the ACMD.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 23 December 2010 23:55

Our valuable member Paul Hayes has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.