Social work and offender supervision: local and/or national services?

Those of you that read yesterday’s post, and Lol and Wendy’s excellent report, will know about the proposed changes to probation in England and Wales. Rather fewer people may be aware that the Scottish Government has recently issued a consultation paper on the future of community justice in Scotland. There are three options, one of which is the development, for the first time, of a national social work community justice service. Currently we have 32 local authorities as the bodies responsible for offender supervision services and 8 Community Justice Authorities that form strategic plans to reduce reoffending and allocate resources. Last night, I contributed to a debate in Edinburgh organised by the Scottish Association for the Study of Offending on this topic. I argued somewhat controversially (me being an ex-local authority social worker) for a national service. The text of my speech follows below. Though it relates to a peculiarly Scottish situation, the issues that it raises will perhaps be familiar in many jurisdictions. I’d be delighted therefore to hear reactions from people in different systems…

For a national community justice service

I’m never sure how to approach debates. To be honest, I’m more suited to the inquisitorial that the adversarial approach. People may expect something combative tonight, but I think the stakes are too high, and my level of certainty about these questions is too low, to deliver a trenchant or confident position. So I’m going to try to offer a balanced but not uncritical argument in favour of a national community justice service, more in the spirit of opening up than closing down the question of the best future for community justice in Scotland.

Let me start by making clear two things for which I am NOT arguing. Firstly, I’m not in favour of a single correctional service, linking community justice and the prison service – and I’m extremely wary of anything that might be a staging post on the way to that outcome. Secondly, I’m not arguing against the centrality of social work knowledge, values and skills in delivering community justice; indeed, as you’ll see, I’m arguing precisely that we need to reform structures in order to enhance and preserve the best of social work in the criminal justice system.

Time is tight, so I’m going to confine myself to making a few remarks about 5 ‘P’s:

  • Social work practice
  • Social work priorities
  • Partnerships
  • Politics
  • Principles

Social work practice

Back in the 1960s, when generic social work within local authorities was being created, there were three main arguments for doing so.

The first (and best, in my view) was that the various professionals who worked to support a wide range of people to make positive changes in challenging social contexts shared and required a common body of knowledge, the same sorts of skills, and that their practice needed to be underwritten by the same values. But this argument has been progressively weakened both by the vast expansion in the range of knowledge relevant to social work practice in its different contexts, and by the dawning recognition that we also face quite different and distinctive ethical challenges in criminal justice, even if we share common values with our social work colleagues — values incidentally which others outside of social work also share.

The second argument was that it was inefficient and ineffective to have multiple different professionals going in and out of the same households, engaging with the same families. But this argument was based on the misconception that one multi-tasking general practitioner could sort out what we now rather unfortunately call ‘problem families’. They couldn’t, and they didn’t – the problems proved too complex and the needs too disparate. General practitioners are fine for minor ailments, managing chronic conditions and making referrals to specialists, but they aren’t what we need when our problems are acute and complex – and today’s criminal justice problems are acute and complex, perhaps more so than they were in the 60s.

The third argument was that generic practitioners needed to be structurally and organizationally linked to others providing a wide range of universal or targeted local services – in education, housing, leisure and recreation, and so on. A good aspiration, no doubt, but has history borne it out? As a criminal justice social worker in the 1980s, I don’t recollect much sense of common purpose or shared commitment with or from my colleagues in housing (who often seemed to want to keep my clients out) or those in education or leisure and recreation (who often seemed to want to get them out). There was some common cause with those welfare rights officers and community development practitioners working within social work departments, but little evidence otherwise of a genuinely corporate local authority-wide commitment to ex-offender reintegration; too often, that was seen as the job of social work rather than of the local authority as a whole.


This takes me on to my second ‘P’ – Priorities. The travails of criminal justice social work weren’t just about its relationships with other local authority services; they were about its position within social work. Put simply, it wasn’t a top priority in the new departments — and in a sense it was right that it wasn’t. The discovery of child abuse in the 1970s made childcare and protection the core professional concern of social work; the closure of long-stay hospitals for people with mental health problems or learning difficulties in the 1980s and 90s made adult social care its volume business. Yes it’s true that prisons riots and suicides, and the national standards and 100% funding that they produced, rescued criminal justice social work from its position as ‘the sick man of the criminal justice system’ (a position to which it had fallen, according to one eminent sheriff as early as the mid-1970s). But the net effect of all of these changes was that by the early 1990s, when I qualified as a social worker, there were no generic social work teams to join. And yet, eager as I was to do criminal justice work, I was told that I needed to get ‘generic’ experience. ‘Where?’, I asked naively? Well, in a childcare team of course.

This nonsense of course revealed the prevailing view about the core business and concerns of social work; and introduced me to the marginalization of criminal justice social work within social work. It took me a little longer to learn about the marginalization of criminal justice social work within criminal justice. But in due course I learned that lesson too – both in practice and from research – and have come to understand the kind of professional insecurity and defensiveness that this double marginalization produces.

Frankly, my view is that the marginalization to which CJSW practitioners are subject has stunted the development of a key professional group which needs an ambitious, expansive and assertive approach to their engagement with judges, prison staff, civil servants and even penal politics.


But before getting on to politics, a brief word on my third ‘P’: partnerships. Those elusive intra-local authority partnerships to which I have already referred still matter – even if the shrinking role of local authorities in providing public housing diminishes their value a little. But surely the lesson of the last 20 years or so – the lessons of Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements and of the Community Justice Authorities — is that in order to develop and deliver effective community justice we need a much broader series of partnerships far beyond the local authority – partnerships with police, with prisons, with third sector organisations, with health, with social landlords, with FE providers, and with many others.

Admittedly, criminal justice social work and community justice authorities have been making real progress in this respect, but do these wider partnerships require a local authority locus? Being in the local authority doesn’t seem to have assisted much in joining up criminal justice social work and community justice with community planning partnerships or community safety agendas. Maybe it’s time to recognize that partnerships are sometimes better negotiated from a more independent position where the roles and responsibilities of each contributor are more carefully and explicitly negotiated.


Moving on to my fourth ‘P’ — Politics – albeit by a slightly convoluted route — there is a serious practical problem, which has political consequences, that arises from generic local authority social work structures.  Hardly anyone can be promoted more than two or three times and stay a criminal justice specialist. The effect of this is that criminal justice social work since its inception has lacked a cadre of dedicated, expert leaders; leaders rooted in an appreciation of the frontline challenges of the job, but also with the skills and experience that would enable them to provide inspiring professional leadership; to represent the profession publically; and to sit down with, or when necessary stand up to, the Chief Executive of the Prison Service, the Chief Constable, the senior law officers, the Sentencing Commission (if we ever get one) – and even the Cabinet Secretary.

Though the Association of Directors of Social Work’s Criminal Justice Standing Committee has worked hard at trying to represent criminal justice social work in political and strategic conversations, the reality is that criminal justice social work lacks compelling leadership and convincing representation nationally – the Scottish Prison Commission recognized that; the Commission on Women Offenders confirmed it.

I admit there is a risk that a national service would be more exposed to political interference. What might seem attractive when we have a relatively liberal and progressive Cabinet Secretary may seem less so if and when he is replaced by another of a different ilk. But to hanker for the days when Scottish criminal justice could simply hide from politics is both wrong in principle and, in any case, a forlorn hope. Devolution has changed Scottish justice. Justice is a public issue – as it should be. Rather than hiding from politics, community justice needs to be much more proactively engaged with it; playing its part in raising the quality of public debate. A national structure and the right national leader should make that more possible.

There is one further political point – perhaps even a constitutional one. One of the arguments in favour of local authority service delivery is about local democratic accountability. But I think this is a weak argument in respect of community justice Justice services – though they need to be locally adapted and locally delivered – have distinctive relationships with legal processes and to the criminal justice system. In important ways, these services cannot and should not be subject to the will of local electorate or of their representatives in the same way as, for example, refuse collections or even school organization and educational priorities. 100% funding recognized that difference, but hasn’t resolved it; there can be no post-code lottery in criminal justice provision, if justice is to mean anything


And this conundrum – of local responsiveness without undue or unjust variation – takes me to my final ‘P’ – which concerns questions of principle. In 1961, the Morison Committee criticized Scottish probation for insisting on a local authority facing structure rather than the court-facing one that applied in England and Wales at the time. The erstwhile Scottish member of the Committee – Councilor John Mains – demurred; arguing that there was no evidence to support one structure over the other, and that the local connection to other forms of social work was critically important.

He was partly right and partly wrong. The connection to social work that matters most is not organizational; it is principled and professional. Social work is bigger than local authorities; it predates them and it has always expanded far beyond their ambit. Indeed, in most of the world there is no such uncritical association between local authorities and social work as sometimes seems to apply here; social work survives and thrives in health, in justice, in education, and in the public, voluntary and private sectors.

What matters most about social work is not where it is located but what it stands for. In criminal justice that means firstly, the insistence on the link between criminal and social justice; secondly, the commitment to the human rights of those most vulnerable to their neglect (meaning both victims and offenders); and thirdly, the enduring belief in the capacity of human beings to learn, develop and grow beyond their problems.

My honest assessment – based on evaluating the successes and limitations of criminal justice social work within the local authorities, and on looking at other systems elsewhere, is that the fulfillment of those principles is now better served by a social work led community justice service that is fully in criminal justice – on equal terms with other national criminal justice agencies, but which also faces and engages thoughtfully with the communities it serves in partnership with others. Only a national structure – in our very small but beautifully formed nation – can deliver the professional leadership and political voice that community justice urgently requires. Only a national structure can offer talented staff a proper career structure – one that truly develops, values and nurtures their distinctive expertise – and that frees up a skilled workforce, in collaboration with other partners, to deliver the kind of community justice that Scotland needs and deserves.

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