By Fergus McNeill
Lesley's post on 'Scottish localism' raises some important questions and, if I'm honest about it, leaves me in something of a muddle. Here's why:
From a research point of view -- specifically thinking here about desistance research (on which see:http://blogs.iriss.org.uk/discoveringdesistance/) -- there's little debate that we have to tackle the challenges of reducing reoffending locally. One key strand of that developing evidence base -- initially promoted in the work of Steve Farrall at Sheffield University -- is that social capital is vital in the desistance process. For people to leave crime behind, they need not just new capacities and skills (the recent focus of much 'what works' inspired developments in probation), they also need new relationships, connections and opportunities; there needs to be a new social space, a new social life to move into -- one that confirms, etablishes and supports a new non-criminal identity. Putting it more simply -- the whole concept of resettlement or reintegration makes no sense without community connectedness. People can't reintegrate by themselves; someone need to receive them back and let them in.
Though that raises some pretty big and difficult issues about social or community acceptance of ex-offenders and about the wider legal and economic structures that often impede acceptance and integration, it also raises much more prosaic issues around service strategies, structures and commissioning. Some recent work in Northern Ireland (too long and complictated a story to tell here) has convinced me that to make reintegration real, we need statutory, voluntary and community organisations all playing their part in building local and national networks of professional, formal and informal support.
So far, so obvious; where's the muddle you might ask? Here it is: Scotland's history of locality-based (rather the court-based) organisation of probation actually predates the establishment of the generic social work departments in the early 1970s -- fans of penal history might want to read Councillor John Mains' dissenting note at the end of the 1962 Morison Report on Probation Services, where he rejects the main committee's conclusion that probation needs a court-facing structure. Mains argued that the strengths of the service depended on its effectiveness as acommunity service linked to its localities.
And yet, though I'd love to say we've been getting this right in Scotland, I'm not so sure that our structures have ever made good on such a promise. Instead, I'd suggest (again based on recent research experience, and my own practice experience) that criminal justice social work has been left doubly-marginalised -- marginal to social work and marginal to criminal justice. Rather than being an active player in the establishment of local partnerships and joined-up service provision (within and beyond the local authorities), CJSW too often has been the dumping ground for the 'clients' no-one else wanted to deal with. Certainly, as a criminal justice social worker in the 1990s, on the phone to my local authority colleagues in housing or education or employment or leisure, it didn't often feel as if I was pushing at an open door on behalf of my clients. Rather, reintegrating them was (somehow) 'my business' and not a corporate collective responsibility of the local authority.
There are two other problems with the Scottish structure -- one practical and one political. The practical issue is that with our local structures has come more fragmented and less consistent provision across the country. While responsiveness to local need is a good thing, inequitable delivery of what are, after all, justice services is damaging to the credibility of the CJSW as a whole (the latest evidence and critiism in this regard has been provided in a report published just yesterday by Audit Scotland: see: http://www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/media/article.php?id=175).
The political problem is related to the practical one: the Scottish Prison Commission argued that CJSW lacks national level leadership, representation and direction (see http://www.scotland.gov.uk/About/spc). The significance of this becomes especially clear today of all days, when the First Minister looks set to announce plans to legislate for a single Scottish police service. So imagine this; the Justice Minister decides to convene a high level committee on 'transforming justice' and is pondering who to invite. Well, the Chief Constable of Scotland obviously; the Lord Advocate (i.e. chief prosecutor) would have to be there; the Heads of the Prison Service and the Courts Service definitely, and, for CJSW... well, who exactly? One of the 32 Directors of Social Work who happens to have an interest in CJSW, or one of the 32 principal officers (middle-senior managers) leading on CJSW in their local areas? One of the 8 Chief Officers of the Community Justice Authorities? Or maybe just the head of the Community Justice Division in the Government itself?
The Prison Commission suggested we needed a Scottish Community Justice Council -- one that would be a sister body to the new Scottish Sentencing Council (i.e. equal in status) and that would sit at the national level alongside the Prison Service, representing and leading those involved in administering the sentences of the court. That was a proposal that got lost somewhere along the way.
If I'm honest, I'm not sure what structure I think makes best sense, but I am clear that while we do need local commissioning of those services that can best support desistance and reintegration, we also need those services to be set within some kind of national framework that ensures that probation work and probation leaders have a seat at the big table when 'joined-up justice' is being discussed. The Scottish experience, in my assessment at least, is that while local may be good, marginal certainly is not.