This is the time of year* that a lot of political conferences take place in England. Just after the summer and before it gets too dark. The hotels and Bed & Breakfasts offer cheaper rates to accommodate those attending.
This year (I want to call it COVID 19 instead of 2020) many conferences have gone to zoom. I registered for my union’s conference later this week which will also take place by zoom. In a bid to facilitate online interaction amongst participants I was asked for a short bio. I assume to give another something about you that could begin a conversation.
I feel the places I have lived say most about me so it went something like this,
“Born in Belfast, made in Portadown, County Armagh, matured in Galway, Banbridge and mid-Hertfordshire with a measure of Luton.”
I wanted to say something about how Napo, the union, changed my life but I didn’t. I did say my greatest failure has been not to always see the unity of all things. I think most of my mistakes have been when I have not seen that I and the other are interconnected. My greatest success, I wrote, is (an ongoing work) my daughter making me a father.
Jesus certainly changed my life but so did Social Work training and Napo has been an ongoing change. I have been saying thank yous in this 50th year (actually I am now in 51st year) and perhaps it is time not just to give a bio but a thank you to Napo.
I joined Napo in 1994. I was in the second year of my degree and my first social work placement. I was encouraged to join by my supervisor. I believe it was free for trainees. We were offered access to the internationally read, Napo produced ‘Probation Journal’ which was quite a gift for a trainee on a degree course.
In 1994, the Probation Service was under threat from the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard. It was believed he would attempt to privatise it. The first stage was to remove it from Social Work training. Napo organised a rally and lobby of Parliament to oppose this move. I was invited to be a part of it. I remember thinking as I often have over my life,
“It is not for me to leave this for others for if this is part of my future it is for me to do something about it.”
I attended the rally at Westminster Central Hall. I had attended a few political rallies as a student but I remained cautious of getting too involved due to my experience with politics in Northern Ireland(NI).
I timidly entered Westminster Central Hall and found myself amongst what seemed like a 1000 people. These were not only people these were in the main Probation Officers. I guess you tend to be in deference when you are in training to those who are in the profession.
I sat at the back and observed (my default position when in new territory). It was a new world to me as speaker after speaker rose at the lectern and gave their reasons for opposing the removal of Probation from social work. I recognised the names of authors from textbooks that I was reading as part of my course. That was my introduction to Napo. I was impressed but I still felt like an invited guest.
I qualified in the summer of 1996 and it wasn’t long after that I was invited to my first branch meeting. The branch was then Chiltern Counties made up of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. It happened to be the Annual General Meeting (AGM) and that being the meeting where the branch officers were elected for the year they decided to make it a more social event by ordering in pizzas. Again like the rally in Westminister, it was Probation Officers and although now I qualified I was aware of how much I was yet to learn.
There is a craft to being anything I suppose and certainly being a Probation Officer and a Trade Unionist, I was at the beginning of learning both.
I think it was a year later that I felt I understood I knew a bit more and volunteered to be the membership secretary which was in effect recruiting people to the union.
Within that year I discovered a body called the Joint Negotiation and Consultation Committee (JNCC). At that time, 1998, Probation in England and Wales was organised by Trusts usually on county lines. Actually, in 1998 I believe they were called Probation Committees. Each Probation Committee was the employer of the staff in their area. The JNCC’s purpose was to facilitate negotiation and consultation between the employers and the staffs’ unions. I decided to offer my services to the JNCC as a Napo representative. That lasted for nine years. I could see how important it was to have front line workers perspective at the table yet it always seemed difficult to convey this to my colleagues. Ensuring a particular clause was included made all the difference to a worker. A simple yet practical one that comes to mind was time off work with pay to attend a medical appointment.
For a time I took on individual cases and saw on at least one occasion a member benefit by thousands of pounds. If we had not represented I doubt this would have happened. I found individual casework much more difficult than collective work as I could see the vulnerability often of the member and found it difficult to know when to stop.
As someone who sees the world largely through faith Napo was my church in the workplace. It provided a community to be real with about the pressures of professional life. It always seemed to be the place where I could be most authentic. Amongst the politics, we always found time to eat, drink and be merry.
Like faith, it also demanded that I grow and through debate and the consideration of issues that I did not always find easy it happened. Not overnight but over years. Somewhere along the way, I learned that in respecting others rights to make choices about their lives did not mean I always understood or they would be choices I would make nonetheless if I wanted my rights and choices to be respected we needed a framework that respected all.
Not everyone believes in unions just like not everyone believes in God but as with a belief in God makes life a much more interesting experience so too has my belief and participation in Napo. Thank you, Napo.
*This story was started in early October but only finished now.