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Community Service: an interview with John Harding

In this video, John Harding discusses the history of Community Service and reflects on its uncertain future.
About 42 years ago, England and Wales launched a novel penalty for the courts. It was called community service by offenders. And we were the first countries in the world - not just in England and Wales - to develop this particular measure. But the origin of community service goes back a little bit before. There was the Advisory Council on the Penal System, which was chaired by a wonderful lady called Baroness Wootton, who was a criminologist and a juvenile court judge as well. And she had alongside her a think tank of criminologists and lawyers, and some people leading people from voluntary organisations.
And they were asked by the Home Secretary of the day, who was Roy Jenkins, to develop new non-custodial and semi-custodial penalties. They came up with the idea of community service. Wootton always said that community service by offenders appealed to a number of different factions in relation to criminal justice. First of all, it was a form of punishment in the sense that if you carried out the offence, you would lose your own leisure time. In other words, some smart guy called it “a fine on time”, your time. Secondly, there was an element of retribution. In other words, you’d be paying back the community in general for the damage you had occasioned.
And thirdly, it was reparative in the sense that the offender might gain some respect and admiration for what he did in carrying out an act for the community. The Home Secretary, Robert Carr, and the senior officials in the Home Office also thought that it might form a viable alternative to a shorter custodial sentence. I was helped by the Nottingham Council of Social Service by a particular Assistant Director whose name was Alan Simpson, who later on became MP for Nottingham South.
And Alan and I, together with one other colleague, went around community associations, tenants’ associations, social services departments, education departments, hospital accidents and emergency, youth clubs, community care groups, associations for the handicapped and disabled, canal preservation associations - you name it, we did it. And we were doing something like 20 interviews a week. And by the end of December - we were starting on the 1st of January 1973 - we had something like 300 tasks available for offenders, not quite knowing what to expect. The second thing apart from finding tasks for offenders is that we had to convince magistrates and judges that this was a viable proposition.
To some magistrates who were particularly retributive, they thought that community service would be some kind of punishment maybe involving heavy work, whatever it was, so that somebody sweated on a daily basis, and that was the punishment they sought - physical exertion. Others, perhaps the more farseeing of the magistrates, said “Yeah, it might be important for an offender to work alongside somebody who is handicapped or disabled, because he will have to use his intelligence and will have to use a note of empathy in terms of what he does.” In fact, I think the word “empathy” is extremely important in community service. Because for the first time in criminal justice, there’s an expression about concern for other people.
And offenders had never been asked to do this kind of thing before. So it was absolutely key. So we spent a great deal of time talking to magistrates and judges. And although some of them were very guarded about their enthusiasm, most thought it would be a very worthwhile idea. Thirdly, we had to talk to our own probation colleagues. And some of them, believe it or not, were very sceptical. Because they say, “Well, this is Hobson’s choice.” If, for example, a guy is expecting to go to prison for six months and he’s offered community service, it’s Hobson’s choice. He’s bound to say yes. Others say, “Well, how can you work in a community if you’re forced to do so?”
It’s all right if you’re a volunteer, but if you’re forced, how can you call that community service? We were, in the main, wanting to place offenders in Nottinghamshire, where their contribution might make a tangible difference, not only in terms of other people’s lives but in terms of their lives. Secondly, we wanted to keep it locality-based. In other words, what was the point of having somebody from Nottingham and sending him away on a community service task which was going to be 15-20 miles away to which he had no association or identification?
And the other thing which we felt was important was that those people on community service who enjoyed some success and some acknowledgement from other participants, or from volunteer organisations, be given the chance to continue after he or she had finished community service. And you might ask the question, “Well, how many people managed to survive community service - the order - whether it was 120 hours or whether it was 240 hours?” Well, 75% completed the orders. Some, of course, fell by the wayside. A few committed further offences whilst on community service, and some had bad timekeeping or absenteeism and their order had to be cancelled. But for the most part, people actually got through.
So in that sense, it was a success. And some - I mentioned before the words “new careers” - even made a career in probation, or social work, or community work. Community service continued as it was, growing in strength, copied all around the world in terms of legislation. But at some point, I think a Conservative government came in and felt that community service should lose this echo of relationship with the community, which Baroness Wootton and her committee had tried very hard to establish. And they would call it something which might resonate more with the public, in other words, community punishment. It made no sense to us, because it lost that tangible link with the community in terms of community service.
Community punishment now became an order, the same terms - 20 hours to 240 hours. But then was replaced by something more catchy called community payback, et cetera. In other words, the offender is paying back for the damage that he has done. In practice though, little changed. We had this rebranding of titles, but the essence of community service in terms of finding a location of tasks, undertaking critical assessment work of the offender about whether he was suitable, negotiations with the agencies and with the criminal justice authorities, be they courts, magistrates or crown court, this was just the same.
But in 2003, we had a major change in legislation in which we forgot the word “community” and replaced it with “unpaid work”, so that unpaid work was now part of a generic sentence which could be used by magistrates or judges. I think unpaid work is an unfortunate title, because those people who, for example, are unemployed can do an internship with a company and it’s known as unpaid work. And what it does is to lose the link with the community. These days on unpaid work, they encourage people doing work in the community to complete it as fast as possible, four days a week. Now, Baroness Wootton would have said, that’s nonsense.
We want people to carry on searching for work and maybe giving up eight hours a week towards community service. But the primary indicator for an offender is to get back into work. And what we’ve seen now is privatisation. The government, under Chris Grayling when he was the coalition Minister of Justice, they changed the rules in that they introduced privatisation. So the probation service, or probation trusts, as they latterly were called, were replaced by private companies like Serco and Group 4, who were responsible for community service. And you might ask yourself the question - what evidence is there that private organisations would run community service by offenders or unpaid work better than the public sector? The answer is none whatsoever.
I think it was the playwright Alan Bennett who said recently that profit is now the most trustworthy thing. And if you can get a private company to farm out probation as we knew it and make it paid, so be it. So that’s become the leitmotif - that privatisation is there. I question it, because A, the lack of evidential base, and B, because what happens is that qualified probation officers are sometimes made redundant. This is happening right now under our eyes. And we get other people to run community service who are inexperienced and unqualified. But it means that the private companies can pay them less on the road to making profit from this particular enterprise.
Well, you might say has the experience of community service changed with all this rebranding? Well, probably not. Whether it’s as well run as it was in the past is debatable. But only time will tell.
Community Service by offenders, now called unpaid work, was an international first for England & Wales and was imitated by countries around the world. John Harding was the first senior probation/community service officer in Nottinghamshire; one of five areas charged with introducing community service legislation in 1972. In this video, he talks about the history of Community Service and reflects on its uncertain future.
The idea for the legislation came from the Wootton Committee, presided over by Baroness Wootton. The policies were adopted by the government on the condition that community service was piloted in five areas. John and his team in Nottinghamshire had just three months preparation time to locate tasks for offenders. The pilot scheme began on the 1st of January 1973 and ran for two years. The first order in the world was made in Nottingham Crown Court for an offender supplying cannabis.
The pilots were successful and research outcomes were positive; by 1975, Community Service was introduced throughout England and Wales as a viable alternative to prison. Over the last eight years, John has worked for the European Union as an expert on alternative sanctions in Russia, Turkey and Serbia.
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