Focus: Finance and Governance - Trustee talk - John Walters, chair, Prisoners Abroad

I have been a trustee of Prisoners Abroad for five years. I am retired, but I was in the probation service during my working life. For 16 years I was the chief probation officer for a part of London, and for some years I took the lead for chief probation officers on trans-national issues.

It was through this work that I became aware of Prisoners Abroad. It had always struck me that UK nationals in prison abroad had to rely on a charity to look after their needs. There isn't a statutory body that takes responsibility for them, despite the fact that the effects of being in prison are greatly magnified when you're in prison abroad.

I was already an admirer of Prisoners Abroad because it's a voluntary organisation that fills a real gap in provision. I didn't know the sector well before I joined the board, even though I took an interest in the relationship between the probation service and voluntary groups during my working life. This interest was sparked at a time when the probation service was introducing contracting with the sector, and I took a lead in making sure that was done in a responsible way.

What I hadn't taken on board before I joined Prisoners Abroad was the huge range of issues to do with governance. There's a lot said about charity governance and there's often concern about trustees not paying enough attention to governance issues. I think we do a lot better than we are given credit for.

Governance works well when an organisation recognises the importance and legitimacy of its trustees. I work with the chief executive of Prisoners Abroad to find ways in which trustees can play an effective role. There can sometimes be a tussle for ownership in charities between trustees and staff, but that can be handled with good communication and mutual respect.

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