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Probation service HR managers facing 'unusual' challenge, says expert

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Probation service HR mangers dealing with hundreds of staff appeals against reassignment face an unusual but not unprecedented situation over which they can have little say, an employee relations expert has said.

CIPD employee relations advisor Mike Emmott warned that “management doesn’t have to win”, after the probation and family courts staff union Napo revealed 553 staff had appealed against Government-led changes at the service.

The Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) Transforming Rehabilitation programme aims to reform the delivery of offender services, reduce reoffending rates and save money by awarding probation service contracts to private, voluntary and public sector providers.

Some providers will also be paid through a payment-by-results mechanism.

Napo has argued the changes will result in a substantially smaller probation service to deal with high risk cases, with staff unhappy about being transferred to new providers.

Napo said a total of 119 of the appeals have been upheld. However, it expects up to 2,000 more employees to appeal as the assignment process is rolled-out across all probation trusts.

Emmott said the case was similar to one in early 2012, when up to 300 NHS Direct staff appealed against proposed changes to their working patterns.

He said the case differed because some appeals were made by staff classed as disabled, which “tied employers’ hands”.

However, he said the case suggested that if probation staff had legal arguments against the proposed changes, the Government might have to back down.

"HR isn't in charge" 

Commenting generally on the case, with which he is not involved, Emmott said that when dealing with large-scale change, HR managers needed to ensure they consulted with staff at an early stage.

He also recommended they train line managers to handle objections, problems and complaints.

“I don’t know if they’ve tried to give their line managers training and support,” he said of the probation service. “But HR isn’t in charge here – decisions are being driven by ministerial requirements.

“Whatever consultations took place would have been on an understanding that this is where ministers want it to go. So it wouldn’t have encouraged the workforce to believe there were any other choices.

“Similarly with the line manger training – some of those managers are presumably affected by the moves as everybody else.”

The MOJ held a public consultation on the changes from January to February 2013. At the time, Napo said the plans represented “a threat to community safety, will see the destruction of the probation service and will cost the British taxpayer untold millions of pounds”.

Commenting on the appeals, Napo general secretary Ian Lawrence said: "This is a clear indication of how probation staff feel in this very difficult and uncertain time.

“Members have no idea who their future employers will be or how their jobs will change. The transforming rehabilitation agenda has been flawed from the start and our members are bearing the brunt of these ill thought out and dangerous plans.”

Earlier this month, unions Napo, UNISON, and the GMB, refered the Government to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), claiming the Transforming Rehabilitation proposals would breach the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention by handing over the supervision of community payback to the private sector.