Delegates pass key motions to protect probation workers

Several key motions were passed at UNISON’s police and justice conference on providing security and support to members working in probation

Police and justice conference

The second day of UNISON’s police and justice conference passed several key motions on the development pathways of police staff, as well as on improvements to the probation service.

Conference passed a key motion on securing development pathways for police staff within the context of ‘operation uplift’ – the government’s pledge to recruit 20,000 additional police officers by March 2023. As of March 2022, 13,576 officers had been recruited.

UNISON believes the increase in police officer numbers is having an adverse effect on police staff, given that many police officers are now taking up roles that have been previously held by police staff.

The motion called for UNISON to enter into discussion with the College of Policing to introduce, without delay, a career pathway for police staff, including guidance on why the police staff roles should be done by police staff, and tackling the ‘blue ceiling’ of manager roles taken by police officers.

Dave Bryant, speaking on behalf of UNISON West Mercia police branch, told delegates: “For too long, police officers have had the majority of opportunities within police services”.

Supporting the motion, Anne Marie Short, from Suffolk police branch said: “Police officers have a clear pathway, working their way up the rank structure and specialising in certain areas. Police staff don’t have such clear guidance. We need a standardised process for all forces to use for the development of their police staff”.

A delegate from Lancashire described how, after accepting her dream community engagement role in 2020, she has found her unit disestablished. She said: “I’m no longer able to do a role that I qualified for at masters level, at my own expense. I shouldn’t have to undervalue the skills and experience that I bring.

“Over a 12-month period, virtually all of our team drifted away, either to other roles internally, or chasing other positions elsewhere. The knock-on impact on my stress levels, on finding out our roles were essentially worthless, was not inconsequential”.

Probation service 

Several key motions were passed on providing security and support to UNISON members working in probation, after years of turmoil and instability due to the rapid restructuring of probation due to the failed ‘transforming rehabilitation’ agenda led by Chris Grayling.

Christine Grant, introducing a successful motion on probation service policies on behalf of the national probation committee, said: “Ever since the creation of the national probation service in 2014, UNISON has been fighting to defend our members’ terms and conditions.

“Members who have been transferred to the probation service from community rehabilitation centres (CRCs) have retained distinctive probation service terms and conditions.

“The Ministry of Justice fail to understand the pay and conditions of probation staff. We have had to enter disputes and legal action in order to safeguard our members’ interests.

“We’ve had to fight to retain the right to negotiate over subsistence allowances. We’ve had to fight to get back pay for members who have been upgraded through job evaluation because the civil service does not give back pay on job evaluation outcomes. It is a continual struggle and there is much work that lies ahead to secure our members’ terms and conditions.”

UNISON recognises that, while reunification of probation – after years of fragmentation and privatisation – is a triumph, members working in the service have absorbed huge amounts of turmoil and change. One of the motions passed unanimously demanded the union works to slow down the rate of change within the probation service, to provide consistency both for UNISON members and the people on probation who they support.

Frank Radcliffe from Eastern region probation branch, said: “What we are faced with now is an organisation led by a small army of civil servants, intent on introducing policy after policy, initiative after initiative, making the service more bureaucratic and less independent.”

Jill Harrison, speaking on behalf of the service group executive, commented: “Six years and half a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money poured into the ground, Grayling’s transforming rehabilitation experiments collapsed into disaster. In many respects, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire, because the probation service is now wholly in the control of the civil service, and probation is where the government always wanted it to be, under its thumb.” 

“Every week, there’s an avalanche of consultations on ways of working, new jobs and new ideas. Probation staff have not had the chance to settle into the new service. The so-called ‘One HMPPS’ is an attempt to merge the probation and prisons service, and UNISON is opposed to this. We’re working with a broad coalition to protect the future of probation and secure the future of an independent probation service.”

Resisting prison-related plans

Another motion was passed on resisting attempts by the government to impose policies designed for the prison service onto the probation service. Speaking in support of a motion to ‘protect probation’s identity’, one member working in HMP Chelmsford reminded delegates: “The probation ethos is to ‘advise, assist and befriend’. We may share the same service users as the prison service, but our ways of working are very different.”

Vice president of the service group Debi Potter said: “The profession of probation is under threat. The Ministry of Justice is gradually eroding its independence and ethos. First probation was split up, then privatised, then reunified after several years of mismanagement.

“Now, under centralised command under HMPPS, probation remains under threat because the public service ethos is being subsumed.”

Prior to the privatisation of probation in 2014, the probation service was run by 35 independent probation trusts, each run by a chief probation officer with authority equivalent to that of a chief police constable. 

Ms Potter said that the independence of the probation service was “always seen as a threat to the Ministry of Justice: too independent, too outspoken in defence of probation, so they had to go. Now there’s only one chief probation officer, who is a civil servant, and recently the justice secretary made a decision to prevent probation officers making recommendations to parole boards on the release of people from prison.

“We’re facing the threat of merging probation with prison services. We’ve already seen probation officers line-managed by prison governors. We need to maintain the independence and ethos of probation.”

Other motions passed included those on police health and safety, and removing job-related fitness tests for police staff, which do not make allowances for any person with disabilities, menopausal women or an ageing workforce.