Saturday, 30 July 2011

Good and Bad News

Wednesday was a good day for probation. From early morning to late evening it was all over the news. Friends outside the Service noticed. Even my mother said she heard something about 'probation officers not seeing people long enough.'  For a Service that normally has such a low profile it was good to hear blanket media coverage of the Justice Affairs Commitee report earlier that day. Ok there are 46 recommendations and the figure of only 24% of our time being spent seeing people is old news from a NAPO survey, but at least we had the public's attention for a day and the message about form-filling got through. 

I'm all too aware of the danger in repeating myself, but the blame for all this time being spent doing other stuff was not placed firmly at the door of OASys, the Offender Management System that makes grown men and women weep and drives them to drink, or worse. It's not just me that thinks this. Take a look at this article from the Guardian yesterday by a colleague with 10 years experience and their thoughts on it. The Justice Affairs Committee really don't understand what OASys is in reality and the damage it is doing to the Service. The trouble is that words are really insufficient to adequately describe the futility of the whole damned thing. Not only does it take hours and hours to fill in, it really doesn't deliver what it is supposed to: -  

"It's remarkable that the justice committee largely confines discussion of eOASys to a single section, bizarrely entitled "the management of risk". eOASys do not provide a statistical calculation of the risk of a person causing serious harm to others, merely a "rubber stamp" of reliability for an officer's own comments, entered repeatedly under pages of headings. Seeing eOASys and risk assessment as synonymous does practitioners a disservice: it's a demoralising sign of how little trust is placed in our judgment and experience, and can rob us of confidence in our own abilities by institutionalising reliance on a limited tool."

On occasion I have been accused of being an old stick-in-the-mud, a dinosaur unwilling to move with the times and embrace change. The other day I had reason to read a file on a case that I was unfamiliar with. This happens all the time and it can be important to get up to speed quickly. The age-old method is to pick up a PSR. On this occasion I forced myself to resist and read the OASys instead which helpfully, if in unfriendly environmental fashion, had been printed out in it's unumbered entirety, including full risk assessment. I'd estimate over 60 pages in total, not of narrative - if only - but confusingly laid out pro-forma question boxes with associated text boxes varying in position, size and length. At every stage it's not always clear what is pre-printed text and what is a response.

This OASys had been prepared by a very experienced and capable officer of many years standing, initially for the purpose of preparing a PSR for court. It had subsequently been updated as the person progressed through their prison sentence, thus adding further layers of text to the original. One of the things that hits you is the sheer repitition. Every entry beginning with 'Mr X this or Mr X that'. It has to be like this because each answer to a question is written in such a way that it can be stitched seamlessly into the finished Pre Sentence Report when the 'create report'  button is pressed. Now if you believe in fairies, this might be a reasonable view to hold.

The author later confirmed to me what I know to be true. That in reality the computer-generated text is not fit for purpose and has to be redone. But I digress. In essence, was it possible to understand a case effectively from reading the OASys? Answer 'No!'  Not in any reasonable time frame and not without taking notes as part of a forensic search of the document for key information. So, can someone please explain why we are all wasting our time, silting up vast computer data-bases with almost meaningless crap that almost certainly will never be read from end to end, except by inspectors when the shit sometimes hits the fan? Until this elephant in the room is dealt with, until the Emperor is recognised as having no clothes, we will still be spending 76% of our time not seeing clients. 

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Some Observations 7

Regular readers will recall that I made mention of David Cameron's statement in the House of Commons last week about major reforms for the police in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. In particular he mentioned that 'progression' through the ranks from constable to the top would be swept aside, in favour of recruitment from outside for senior positions, including that of Chief Constable.

In drawing attention to the historical precedent of having men of military rank in charge of police forces up to the Second World War, I rather jumped to the conclusion that the Prime Minister did not have a return to such a state of affairs in mind. So, imagine my surprise to see 'Ministers want battle-hardened colnels to shake up police' as a headline on the front page of the Sunday Times. (I think it's ok to buy it again now that the Murdoch spell is broken).

Whitehall sources are quoted as saying 'army officers who had been axed as part of the spending cuts could become chief inspectors, superintendents and chief constables.' The funny thing is, much the same was said when the Berlin Wall came down and the resulting 'peace dividend' would allow unemployed officers to join probation. I guess it might actually happen this time though as there's probably a shade more synergy between the army and police, so far at least.

Talking of the future of probation, the Justice Affairs Commitee have just published their report into the current state of the probation service, and it is not very complimentary of NOMS. They blame the prison takeover of the probation service for a huge amount of micro-management and tick-box filling that results in 'staggeringly' only 24% of an officers time being available to see clients.

The committee calls for an urgent external review of NOMS to assertain if it is delivering value-for-money, or if it requires massive further reform. Pretty much everyone accepts it has been a very expensive mistake by the last government and could do with a decent burial. This report is certainly good news for us in returning attention on NOMS where it definitely belongs. The response from government is entirely predictable of course, coming out with that classic feeble line 'oh that was in the past - things are improving now'  but this simply won't stand up to detailed scrutiny. 

There is a lot in this report and it will require some careful reading. However, my concerns that members had simply not grasped the true effect of OASys have sadly been borne out. The topic does not get much of a mention and it's obvious that they have no idea just how time-consuming the thing is. It is the single most relevant reason why officers have so little time to see clients and it doesn't even deliver the robust and accurate risk assessment that it was designed for.    

Finally, I can't help thinking that the Norwegian serial killer is going to be found unfit to plead. I'm no psychiatrist, but he must have a personality disorder surely, if not some mental illness as well? My hunch is that all the warning signs were present many years ago and it just needs teachers, family, colleagues and friends to fill in the gaps. 

Friday, 22 July 2011

The View from the Top

To say these are worrying times for probation staff would be putting it mildly. Since the Michael Spurr letter to Probation Chiefs, NAPO have responded angrily and there is understandably talk amongst some members of balloting for industrial action. The theme of this years AGM is somewhat ominously 'resistance.' Not all members feel this approach is sensible and there are signs of old tensions between moderates and radicals coming to the fore once more. But what do the bosses think about it all? More importantly, what do they intend doing about the mess we seem to be moving inexorably towards?

A key person in all this is Sue Hall, Chief of West Yorks and current Chair of the Probation Chiefs Association. Back in May she wrote an article for the in-house magazine giving her thoughts on what the future was looking like, and to be frank it makes for pretty depressing reading.

"For me this is one of the most important but unanswered questions at the moment. You will search in vain in the Green Paper to find a vision for trusts - and the word 'probation' does not feature once in the MoJ Business Plan, even in the section on rehabilitation revolution. We know it is likely we  will retain responsibility for advice to courts and for supervising the most dangerous offenders. Everything else is potentially up for grabs, to be sorted out by competition or Payment by Results. In theory we could end up with probation trusts having a residual role, just one of a range of providers. Nothing reflects this better than the title of our new Director - the Director of Probation and Contracted Services! In the current arena probation trusts have to make their own future. If we believe that the public sector should have a core role in providing probation, we will have to fight for it."  

Sue goes on to say that she feels trusts will begin to look very different from each other and she would be surprised if there were still 35 in three years time as cuts and competition 'dig in'. She predicts that if probation is to remain a profession, there will have to be a fight to keep proper training arrangements and that there will have to be registration for probation officers, as with doctors, nurses and social workers. Interestingly the issue of 'registration' is shortly going to become an issue for the police as well. So, a whole new set of QANGO's then! I seem to remember this government started out having a bonfire of those, but that seems an awful long time ago now. Sue ends up saying that she's not pessimistic about the future of probation - Really?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Police in Trouble - Shock!

Even before the whole phone-hacking firestorm errupted, the Police were in trouble. They appeared to be firmly in the sights of the Conservatives well before the General Election, which always was surprising given that they were said to be the party of 'law and order.' But there have been long-standing concerns about working practices and post election there is the need for urgent cuts in all public services.

However, supposedly with a 63% satisfaction rating with the public, serious reforms that didn't meet with Police Federation approval were still far from assured. Add to that many, including myself, who felt that the whole elected police commissioner thing didn't sound like a good idea at all and had all the hallmarks of a political gimmick, meant getting 'reforms' through was far from assured. But I still say insulting Theresa May the Home Secretary when a guest at the Federation conference was a big mistake.  

Speaking as part of a Service that has regularly been 'done over' numerous times by successive governments for purely political ends, I have a great deal of sympathy with the Police, especially front-line officers. As I have previously posted, they alone have been left to deal with all the well-documented social problems of our neglected and disadvantaged communities, because agencies such as Probation have retreated ever-further into edge of town bunkers, now somewhat mis-termed 'Local Delivery Units,' FFS! 

But politics is a strange, mystical dark art. With his back to the wall, the Prime Minister, at long-last released from the iron-grip of the tabloid press and keen to seek revenge from any appropriate quarter, announced yet more massive changes for the Police yesterday in Parliament. It sounded like he intended to settle some very long-standing scores with a Service that up till now he had felt needed to be approached with care for obvious reasons. It's almost certainly unfair, but the deepening horror stories emerging from New Scotland Yard seem to have provided the perfect excuse to introduce even more sweeping 'reforms' to the whole Police Service. 

Not just changes to working practices, employment terms and conditions, but now the spotlight turns to recruitment, training and management. It looks like the age-old principle of progression through the ranks will be swept aside in favour of non-police appointments to senior ranks, including the office of Chief Constable. I think it's unwise, but it's now impossible to argue against, due to emerging evidence of nepotism and possibly other very worrying information yet to be made public fully.

In a sense it's turning the clock back to the days before the Second World War when it was quite common for the office of Chief Constable to be filled from the ranks of the military. I don't think that is on David Camerons agenda - 'if only' some might say - it's much more likely that such posts will be filled by captains of industry, foreigners or even worse, bureaucrats. I was struck by a comment from the BBC political editor Nick Robinson who said afterwards that he felt the Prime Minister had announced the 'smashing' of the Police. That is very strong and serious stuff indeed.

When the time comes to write the history of this whole extra-ordinary phone-hacking saga, I'm sure there will be a very large chapter devoted to the Police. In particular there will need to be an explanation as to how things got to the point they did, necessitating major reforms. To me it serves to confirm the importance of how every individual in any organisation must take personal responsibility for their actions, lest it bring that body into disrepute, but also how important it is that any organisation has a healthy collective culture within it. 

There is no doubt in my mind that there was the distinctive sound of chickens coming home to roost in the Prime Ministers announcement on the need for Police reform. Since I started blogging nearly a year ago, I have been genuinely shocked and dismayed by some of the 'canteen culture' displayed in the comment section of a certain very popular police blog. I hasten to add that I find the entertaining and informative blog itself compelling reading for anyone who wants to understand the constraints and travails of modern policing in Britain today - but the tone and substance of some of the comments are truly shocking. Being the huge success that it is, I'm sure it is read in high places.

By a very strange co-incidence, there has been a recent echo from the past. Over on the jailhouselawyers blog, John Hirst has written about the disgraceful case of David Oluwale. I well remember this scandal being reported in Private Eye at the time and of course the subsequent findings of serious misdeeds, attitudes and behaviour ultimately led to radical changes to policing during the 1970's. It seems history may be about to repeat itself. 


Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Parole Board Getting a Grip

My attention has been drawn to the annual report of the Parole Board and by any measure it seems to be good news. Following a significant increase in Board members last year, the number of Oral Hearings has increased significantly and at last some real progress is being achieved in reducing the backlog, especially in IPP cases. Interestingly, the release rate for lifers has increased from 11% to 15% and for IPP cases from 5% to 6%. 

Of course decisions regarding whether to release a prisoner or not are determined by making a judgement call based on an assessment of risk. I have written previously about the fact that the Parole Board has become increasingly risk-averse in recent time and the possible reasons for this. One area of concern has been connected to the introduction of OASys, the Offender Assessment System that was foisted upon the Probation Service during the forced marriage with the Prison Service under NOMS. Because of it's design, there is evidence to suggest that it has resulted in an increase in the number of negative recommendations to the Parole Board by Probation Officers.

Assessing risk has and never will be an exact science and regular readers will be aware of my contempt for OASys and it's ability to inform decision-making in this area - precisely the reason it was introduced I might add. I notice that it does not get a mention in the Parole Board annual report which I think speaks volumes in itself. Something has changed though as the release rate has improved. Possibly the Parole Board are getting more adept at casting a rather more sceptical eye over the often misleading, confusing and contradictory OASys assessments?

In discussing this whole subject it's interesting to hear a viewpoint from the 'other' side as it were. I notice that John Hirst on his very well-read blog jailhouselawyerblog advocates the abolition of the Parole Board and pours scorn on the whole notion of assessing risk at all:-

"Instead of hiding behind hazy concepts such as public protection and risk assessment, surely a better system would be where a judge hands down a sentence, that is, time for the crime, and when the prisoner serves his time he is simply released?

Basically, in making a risk assessment, the Parole Board, in effect, gazes into a crystal ball and makes a prediction for future offending and passes down a sentence for a crime which has not yet been committed. This not only gives the Parole Board too much power, it is an abuse of power which leads to an injustice for the prisoner."

It's an interesting concept, but one I would not subscribe to. In this country, following abolition of the death penalty, we have adopted the use of indeterminate sentences for the most serious offences. We do not have the farce of 'determinate' sentences of say 99 years common in the United States. The key to both approaches though is the separation of an appropriate period of custody in relation to punishment, from the opportunity of release for either good behaviour or a reduction in risk. This seems humane and appropriate to the alternative of many more prisoners languishing in custody with no hope of ever being released.

But it all comes back to the assessment of risk. John distills the issue succinctly:-

"Basically, in making a risk assessment, the Parole Board, in effect, gazes into a crystal ball and makes a prediction for future offending and passes down a sentence for a crime which has not yet been committed."

But what's the alternative? It is possible for a sentencing Judge to impose a 'whole life' tariff in respect of the most heinous crimes, but it's quite rare. I believe there are only about 50 such cases in total. So in respect of all other serious offences of murder, manslaughter, rape, arson etc are we really going to arrive at an appropriate determinate sentence that reflects the seriousness of the offence and just leave to chance the possibility of repitition upon automatic release? We all know re-offending rates are too high as it is in relation to prisoners being released generally. Would it really be sensible for any society to move towards the universal doctrine of 'do the crime : do the time' whatever that crime and merely hope for the best? I don't think so.   

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Public Bad : Private Good?

It's unfortunate, but probably inevitable, that the debate about privatising further areas of the public sector generally and probation in particular, will be distilled essentially to arguing the toss over a shorthand mantra that says 'public bad : private good.' Some comments on here have already started to be expressed in this vein - to essentially polarise what is in reality quite a complex issue. The truth is that in a mixed economy and democratic state, we need both in order to function properly. There are some things that can only be undertaken or done better by the state and others that can be done better by private enterprise. It's a question of degree, balance and philosophy. Not political dogma.

Actually it can also be about compromise and coming to a mutually agreed accommodation, as in the the case of doctors in the NHS. When plans for a National Health Service were being thrashed out by a Labour government after the Second World War, a compromise had to be reached with a very suspicious British Medical Association. As a result to this day, most GP's are in fact part of businesses called 'practices' and are only contractors to the NHS. After the passage of so much time, I'm not at all sure how much this is widely understood by the general public, but it's a model that seems to have served us well. Of course the same is true of dentists, and hospital consultants only continue with 'private' patients because of the historic settlement with the Labour government that was famously designed to 'stuff their mouths with gold.'  

In deciding to enter the world of probation, I made a conscious decision to become a public servant and follow a vocation. At no time did it ever occur to me that probation, or prisons come to think of it, might be areas of human endeavour that would lend themselves appropriately to being run by private enterprise and in order to turn a profit. Surely they are public services, delivered for the benefit of all citizens and that only have to contend with issues such as quality, fairness and integrity, not profit for shareholders? Our 'shareholders' are all of us and we are accountable by democratic processes.

However, we have all had to accept the notion of privately-run prisons. I've never been happy with the concept of the state incarcerating people by operation of the profit motive and I'm still not. But upon reflection many would argue, including the prisoners themselves, that limited privatisation has brought about improvement in conditions. There remains a debate to be had as to whether they have delivered real cost-savings and some would say that up to now the type of establishment has not posed undue problems. Pragmatically though, for me it's now a question of degree and appropriate balance. I suppose it could be said, reflecting the balance in provision of private education.

It's clear that the political consensus that pretty much held sway concerning the boundaries between the public and private sector has shifted considerably over recent years. Both Labour and Conservative governments have each responded to powerful lobbying by the likes of the CBI and tabloid press in the hope of gaining political favour. Complex issues and the subtleties of debate have regularly been lost in the headlong urge to 'spin' and create political soundbites on a whole range of issues. 

The Probation Service has a significant history of working in partnership with other agencies, but now finds itself having to respond to the headlong ideological drive for privatisation. The danger is that we are considerably hampered in being able to adequately respond because we have lost our independent voice. NOMS clearly do not understand us because of domination by the Prison Service. We give every impression of being like the proverbial rabbit caught in the car head lights. We desperately need a voice and quickly. In the mean time, it is to be hoped that the Probation Association's plea for Trusts to become responsible for the commissioning of services will be heeded as a way of trying to retain a coherent Service.    

It was whilst thinking about the predicament Probation finds itself in that I stumbled across an article written by David Scott, the former Chief Officer of London Probation and written specially for the Probation Journal in October 2010. It's well worth reading in full. Remember, he was the Chief who decided to take responsibility and resign in the wake of the infamous Sonnex case. Amongst other things, he highlights the fact that:-

"Arguably no other agency has been as affected as Probation by the political short-termism and opportunism which have prevailed in a period of heightened public anxiety and frustration about law and order failings."  

Given the incredibly cursory way in which Michael Spurr of NOMS chose to inform Probation Chiefs that they were to spend the summer preparing for the privatisation of possibly every area of probation work, it's interesting to see what David Scott goes on to say somewhat presciently less than a year ago:-

"How can Probation continue to exist, let alone flourish, without its own national leadership? Who represents Probation in the corridors of power and argues its corner when crucial decisions about resourcing and public profile are made? Is Probation best placed in the Ministry of Justice when many would argue it belongs more with the Police in the Home Office? What model best enables Chief Officers to deliver high quality local services? Why is probation practice so desk-bound, and why is there no real time inter-agency training simulation to build confidence and share learning across cultures?" 

He ends with what could well be regarded as good a rallying cry as any:-

"Probation staff have a remarkable history of adaptation and courage against the odds. These qualities and a willingness to speak up for the Service will be crucial to its imperilled future."

Before it's too late, I think the government needs to be encouraged to look rather more closely at Mr Spurr and the whole NOMS management structure before they set about engineering our demise. Members of the House of Commons Justice Select Committee particularly, please take note! 

Monday, 18 July 2011

We're All in This Together

With all the excitement focussed on the Murdoch empire, I've neglected to mention the Criminal Justice in Meltdown lobby of Parliament on 6th July. This was in effect the launch of a joint campaign by NAPO, PCS, POA and Police Federation against cuts and further privatisation within the Justice sector. The full joint briefing document can be downloaded from a link to be found here.

Things are speeding up somewhat because Ken Clarke has announced two further prison closures, HMP Latchmere House in West London and HMP Brockhill in Redditch. Latchmere is a 'Cat D' establishment with an interesting history. It was initially used in the First World War as a hospital for soldiers suffering from 'shell shock' and in the Second World War by MI5 for the interrogation of enemy agents when known as Camp 020. Brockhill is a relatively modern but run down 'Cat C' establishment.

Along with this annoucement, a further nine prisons are to be the subject of 'market testing'. These are HMP's Lindholme, Moorland, Hatfield in Yorkshire, Wolds in East Yorkshire, Acklington, Castington in Northumberland, Onley near Rugby, Coldingly in Surrey and Durham. If the private sector win these contracts it will mean 15% of the total will move out of public control. It should be noted that following the HMP Birmingham contract being awarded to G4S, they have announced 130 redundancies. It remains to be seen what the POA response will be to all this, but they are between a rock and a hard place in having to try and win these contracts against private sector competition.

Following Michael Spurr's disgraceful letter from NOMS HQ, in addition to a robust response from NAPO, it's gratifying to see a joint statement from one employer, the London Probation Trust signed by NAPO and UNISON:-

"As highlighted in today's LPT Direct message, Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of NOMS, has written to the Chairs of Probation Trusts outlining NOMS' intention to review the future shape of probation services.  The review will include considering the possibility of putting "core probation services" out for competition.

This announcement is in line with the government's agenda to increase competition for public services and introduce payment by results.  This is a challenging time for probation staff and the letter, which was copied to Chief Executives and the recognised trade unions, has caused considerable anxiety about the future of our service.

The continued delivery of probation work by highly skilled and trained probation practitioners in the public sector is a shared aim of the Trust Board, Senior Management Team and trade unions alike.  The realisation of this in a commercial and competitive environment will rely on mounting strong bids to retain our work.  It means that some aspects of service delivery may need to change and we will have to look at new ways of engaging partners.

A joint approach to these challenges will be underpinned by our shared values:

Delivery of probation work requires highly skilled and trained probation practitioners.

Advice to Courts and the Parole Board must be based on a sound and impartial professional assessment.

Rehabilitation is based on a positive working relationship between practitioner and offender.

Broad consultation and inclusive decision making is key to the future success of London Probation Trust.

We want London Probation Trust to influence the discussions and to help shape our future so that the voice of frontline staff is heard.  We are jointly committed to keeping you informed about developments."

In addition to significant closures of courts and cuts in legal aid, the Police have their own problems in relation to cost saving measures and wider reforms. At the same time they find themselves engulfed in a public confidence row as part of the widespread collateral damage from the phone-hacking scandal. They shouldn't worry too much though as I think I heard their confidence rating is currently running at 63%, compared with MP's and journalists in the low teens. I'd love to know where probation stands?     

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The 5 Minute Interview

I've heard a lot recently about the '5 minute interview', otherwise known as the 'tick box interview' over on the Prisoners Families Voices website. I know exactly what they mean because I've seen it myself. A car pulls up outside the probation office, a guy gets out and he heads for reception and the friend keeps the engine running while he 'reports.' There is clearly no need to bother stopping the engine because just as quickly the guy reappears and is driven off.

A pointless exercise many would say and I have to agree. There's no wonder significant numbers of clients think it's a waste of time and don't turn up, thus triggering either breach or recall action. So, what's been going on, especially as it's long been known that it's the relationship between probation officer and client that is fundamental in effecting change in behaviour? Well by a handy coincidence, the explanation is contained in the latest edition of the newsletter for sentencers produced by the London Probation Trust and I'm grateful to a reader for passing it on to me. It's basically about one of the latest buz issues within the Service generally at the present time, and called 'engagement.'  

"London Probation Trust is committed to improving the quality and effectiveness of service delivery, which also means improving our engagement with offenders. Over the past decade, there has been a national emphasis on achieving performance targets. Although it has been essential for probation to demonstrate our effectiveness against performance targets, this approach has resulted in some unintended consequences, in particular a lack of focus on how we engage and motivate offenders.

The renewed emphasis on offender engagement has been driven by a recognition by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), that although we may be "hitting the targets", we may also be "missing the point" - the point being that "the relationship between offenders and probation practitioners can be a powerful vehicle for changing behaviour and reducing reoffending." The NOMS Offender Engagement Programme (OEP) is a three year initiative working in collaboration with Probation Trusts to improve offender engagement. This fits seamlessly with the journey which we have already begun in London to rebalance our work and refocus on the quality of practice.

London Probation Trust is listening to the staff who deliver our frontline services and to the offenders who receive these services to ensure we understand how best to maximise our influence with offenders in order to reduce reoffending. We are delivering four pilot projects, two in conjunction with NOMS, which are aimed at improving the way in which we engage with offenders."  

It's stuff like this that alternately makes me very angry and want to weep. Don't you just love the bit about there being some 'unintended consequences' of an approach that was based on targets'in particular a lack of focus on how we engage and motivate offenders.'  If it wasn't so serious it would be funny I guess. A casual admission that an absolutely fundamental aspect of probation work was overlooked for the 'essential' business of measuring the effectiveness of probation against targets. The tragedy is that in undertaking this 'essential' business at the behest of NOMS, we lost the bloody plot.

"Hitting the target and missing the point." Oh dear! Of course some of us remained unimpressed by all the target-driven nonsense and have continued to operate according to well-tried and tested methods that include seeing people as-and-when-required and for as long as it feels necessary in order to try and achieve something. I've even been known to indulge in the heinous activity of seeing a client 'voluntarily.' In my experience, effort put into making interviews worthwhile often pay off in the form of clients repaying the courtesy by turning up.

It's quite a sobering thought to come to realise that what at one time was quite a dissident and reactionary activity, is now at the cutting edge of probation practice. Sadly I think it might all be too late though as the damage has been done. Just as we could do with some public support, websites like Prisoners Families Voices are full of very negative stuff. Anyway, the London Probation Trust goes on to trumpet some of their new initiatives:-

Skills for Effective Engagement and Development (SEED)

"This project is a 12-month pilot sponsored by NOMS currently on trial in Barking, Dagenham & Havering, and Merton & Sutton. The SEED programme focuses on training practitioners and their line managers in effective  engagement skills and techniques. Practice is embedded through continuous professional development including quarterly follow up training, observation and feedback from line managers and monthly practitioner-led action learning sets. 

SEED draws upon the Strategic Training Initiative in Community Supervision (STICS) research from Canada which demonstrated a statistically significant reduction in reoffending by offenders whose supervising officers had been specifically trained in engagement skills. SEED is providing a real opportunity for the Trust to refocus on "what happens in the room" in terms of the offender-practitioner relationship and practice skills, including a unique professional development experience. It will be externally evaluated by Sheffield University."

How about that?! Training probation officers in engagement skills AND wanting 'to know what goes on in the room?!!'

I can feel one of my heads coming on and need to lie down.  

Saturday, 16 July 2011

What Are We to Do?

It's a wet Saturday morning and I have no idea what to say. I should be happy but I'm depressed. Rupert Murdoch accepts his well-earned invitation to an arse-kicking party at the House of Commons and the end of the Probation Service is casually announced in a letter

Over on the Prisoners Families Voices website probation is regularly getting a kicking and you know instinctively much of the criticisms ring true. You can try and explain that our role sometimes means public protection has to take priority over the niceties of informing either the client or their family, but that only gets you so far. I hope the author of this recent contribution to the NAPO discussion forum won't mind me quoting it:-

"...what crap has been dumped on us over the years,I dislike all this messing with words and sticking on straplines and logos but whats worse is how some of us have helped not only spread this rubbish around but been busy composting it and increasing its foul potency and idiotic ideology -eg as Boateng said "Law enforcement it's who we are and what we do" so reductionist in the worst way and we still have colleagues who strut around boasting of how many clients they breach/recall or those who are fearful/impatient with angry/aggressive clients and will not see them to try and find out what's going on if they kick off but want a manager to call the Police instead so they can be "cleared off."

I have posted many times on the subject of the structural changes within the Service over recent years and how unhelpful they've been. I've been highly critical of the change in ethos from 'advise, assist and befriend' to 'punish, enforce etc' and the consequent change in methodology and attitude to the job by many colleagues. I'm absolutely clear in saying it's all been a mistake and not assisted the cause of rehabilitation at all and to add insult to injury our 'failure' has placed us in the position where we are to be rewarded by wholesale privatisation. Our arses are being kicked by clients, their families and now by the government. But what can we do about it? 

Of course there will quite rightly be calls for industrial action and some skillful lobbying of decision-makers in Parliament. But there has to be more than that. We have to try and win some public support and explain to people where we've been, what we're about and why we're worth saving. I would contend that in order to do that we need some constructive self-analysis. The sad irony is that many newer colleagues were already beginning to question the direction of travel in the Service and ask older colleagues about how things used to be. National Standards have been seriously relaxed, discretion and judgement are no longer terms of abuse and there is much talk of 'offender engagement.' By extension I take that to mean family engagement also, so the landscape is already changing for the better within probation.  

Since starting this blogsite I've always been conscious that the readership is varied and diverse, from clients to Judges and from colleagues to police officers. In order to save the Probation Service from the disaster that privatisation will bring, we really do have to try and win friends and influence people. To my mind one of the absolute key groups in all this are families who are indeed 'experts' and as many say, are often doing much of the work of a Probation Officer 24/7. All Probation Officers know full well that there is nothing quite like a young male offender who, having gained a girlfriend, finds their activities and liberty considerably scrutinised and curtailed as a result. I think we really do have to try and engage with partners and families more and take the time and trouble to explain why we are embarking on a particular course of action.  

Before closing, I want to end by again quoting the same author from the NAPO discussion forum site. It's written from the heart, says it all and I think represents what many officers feel about what is essentially a vocation, not just 'a job':-     

"I began work in the 80's and loved the creativity around then but could never understand this diagnosis that "nothing" was working so we had to accept the "what works" medicine of worksheets from Targets for change and Programme manuals. It was like making the client fit the book or treating them like broken jack-in-the- boxes where we had the tools (such nonsense. Despite all the talk about evidence and effectiveness I suspect much of it was spurious and scraping the bottom of the barrel to tick a(nother!)box). I'm not convinced buying into all the pseudo-scientific Oaysology (who said everyone's got to have an ology) was so clever and doubt promoting ourselves as risk-masters or rate of re-offending reductionistas was so smart either).- I think our best practice is more simple yet subtle than this sort of thing and requires a great deal more focus on the client to work out what the issues are and what room for manoeuvre/growth there may be rather than pinning us down to being 1984 type people-stampers of a "tier"/status/label or tag with the ready prescription of that wretched "what works" stuff again as if we had all whats needed even if we could be assured we knew in every case just what they need. Its hardly surprising the clients get resentful. I prefer to look at where do you want to be, where do I want you to be and how can we make these potentially divergent goals merge, become jointly respected and achieved and how cope with /handle the bad baggage/circumstances that may or may not get in the way... "

"The best thing about this letter is that it reveals all areas of our work are at threat so no-one with any sense or soul should be left unperturbed. If we all get angry and organised and can focus on responding in the ways that reveal what is best about us-values/principles and practice skills we should be able to save what it is proposed they endanger but it will take focussing on what we do best, organising and replicating best practice values in this broader arena where the clients become a wider audience and include MPs/public/media etc-listening/reflecting back honestly/having faith in change/accepting others as they are but broadening vision and respecting autonomy and individual rights including those of others outside the family."


Thursday, 14 July 2011

A Cruel Irony

Life has a habit of throwing up the strangest and cruelest of ironies and yesterday 13th July 2011 provided just such an example. As many of us found ourselves gripped by the momentous developments being played out in Parliament and Rupert Murdoch for the first time ever having to bow to the inevitable and concede defeat, some of us became aware that the end of the Probation Service as we know it had been announced.

In a disgraceful letter from Michael Spurr at NOMS headquarters and addressed to all 35 Probation Trust Chairs and Chief Executives, it was announced that every Service must begin preparing for core tasks such as PSR writing and offender supervision to be outsourced in a bid to save money. Without doubt this signals the beginning of the end of the Probation Service as we know it and as a distinct and unified public service. In my view it pretty much makes a nonsense of the work that has been on-going into the role of the probation service at the Justice Affairs Committee since last year, particularly as they have now completed taking evidence. 

The letter states that only a limited amount of consultation is intended at this stage, but that the Government intends to announce its preferred options in the Autumn. So, as we enter the summer holiday period and Parliament prepares for recess, those at NOMS headquarters are clearly going to be busy over the next few months preparing plans for our demise. Once again we find ourselves in the invidious position of having to call upon our many friends in the Judiciary, other professions, academia and Parliament to come to our aid in order to save an honourable and vital public service. If anyone has anything positive to say about what is still sadly a much-misunderstood service, now is the time to do it. 

In a recent lecture by criminologist Prof Peter Raynor at Cambridge University and entitled provocatively 'Is Probation Still Possible?' he explained that 'Probation in the post war reconstruction period was seen as important, progressive and part of the development of the Welfare State.' He quoted fellow criminologist Leon Radzinowicz who said in 1958 "If I were asked what was the most significant contribution made by this country to the new penological theory and practice which struck root in the twentieth answer would be probation." 

But of course that was another era when much of social and criminal justice policy was developed by means of careful consideration and deliberation and not reduced to sound bites traded in tawdry fashion as a way of gaining some short-term party-political advantage. There was a degree of consensus about such matters and politicians broadly were content to be informed by academics and learned committees. Oh for the good old days! My temporary euphoria has faded and I just know it's going to be a very grumpy few months ahead.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A Day is a Long Time......

Who would have thought it possible that consensus would break out amongst our politicians, and on a subject other than their own terms and conditions? But such has been the sudden shift in the power balance between Parliamentarians and the press that almost incredibly we will see them all troupe through the same division lobby later today in order to 'put the boot' into the previously feared Rupert Murdoch.

Ok the cynical might say that the politicians might only be doing it in order to seek revenge for their mauling over the expenses scandal, but it doesn't really matter what the motive might be. I think this re-balancing of power within our democracy can only be good news for politics and ultimately for future social policy. If you think about it, successive governments have been heavily influenced by the power of the press in being able to whip up very unhelpful public opinion on issues ranging from drug policy to treatment of paedophiles.

Tony Blair felt driven to embark on his whole 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' agenda in order to pander to the tabloid press. Serious discussions about many aspects of social policy and criminal justice policy have become mired over recent years because of constant consideration not to be perceived as being 'soft' on crime. It was happening right up until very recently with the tabloid press always keen to whip up bogus outrage of some sort or another. Politicians felt obliged to take notice because basically they were scared witless of being branded or worse, 'outed' in some way or another. 

Well things are never going to be the same again and I believe one result is going to be a more healthy and reasoned debate on a whole range of things. If consensus can break out between political parties on this issue it can happen on other issues. There has long been evidence that the public dislikes the often manufactured charade in the House of Commons that supposedly passes for debate and that they would prefer some consensus. This has never been in newspapers interests of course as it probably wouldn't sell many papers, but it just might be in the country's interest.

I think in the coming weeks we can look forward to hearing politicians talking sense on a whole range of topics from drug policy to treatment of offenders. They've started speaking out on the evils of a corrupt press and just might find it becomes a habit to speak their mind on other issues too.   

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

It's All in the Timing

The timing was exquisite. Just as prime minister David Cameron was on his feet and extolling the virtues of privatising further swathes of public services, the nation was absorbing the news that the largest private provider of care homes in the UK was packing up. Southern Cross serves as an absolutely perfect example of what can happen if public services end up being treated as businesses or 'investment' opportunities. 

I absolutely loved it when a spokesperson for the private care home sector had the audacity to say on the radio that "the problem was that fees paid by Local Authorities for looking after the elderly had not gone up." Err no, the problem is that 751 care homes that used to be owned by Southern Cross were sold off to asset strippers who pocketed the £1billion pounds and saddled the management with rent bills instead! According to him, the public sector should be paying the inflated rents due to property speculators.

We all know that publication of the Public Services White Paper has been delayed for months due to spirited opposition from Lib Dems inside the coalition government. It's a really confusing mix of trying to encourage 'localism', which many feel is no bad thing, with doctrinaire insistence on breaking up public services such as probation. This, despite Cameron saying that public services "are the backbone of the nation."

Well I think the public are going to take some persuading that the Southern Cross debacle is anything other than a stark warning of further disasters to come and that would be inherent in this sort of public service 'reform' plan. Pictures of the elderly and frail being moved out of their care homes as they inevitably close over the next few weeks will quite rightly further embarrass the government and should serve to nicely highlight the differences between public and private service.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

A Week is a Long Time......

I've been wracking my brain over the last couple of days trying to think how I could justify a post about recent momentous political developments on a blog with such a restricted remit? What on earth might the connection be between Rupert Murdoch and probation? But then it came to me in a flash whilst in the bath.

Only a week ago prime minister David Cameron had been scared witless of the tabloid press in general, and Murdoch's media empire in particular. In this regard he was no different to all  party leaders including Ed Miliband, and predecessors Gordon Brown and Tony Blair who each spent much time paying humiliating homage at Murdoch's court. Of course it was precisely because of this unedifying power relationship that key aspects of Ken Clarke's carefully-prepared sentencing proposals were unceremoniously scuppered by a rattled prime minister. The tabloid press were able to trumpet the u-turn as yet another of 'their' successes.  

But that was last week. Everything changed this week and the print media know it. It's payback time and suddenly the list of individuals and institutions wanting revenge has grown considerably. You could almost sense the hint of glee as hourly BBC news announced yet more advertisers pulling out of the News of the World. Of course the BBC has had to suffer years of being lectured to by the Murdoch family as representing 'unfair' competition. The power balance has shifted and things will never be the same again for newspapers in this country. The death knell was sounded for the ineffectual Press Complaints Commission and the all-too-cosy relationship between the Metropolitan Police and the print media will finally be the subject of a proper enquiry.

Up until Monday it was astonishing how little the press had to say about the whole thing and one of their own. After all, 'dog never eats dog.' The story had no legs as they say over in the US. There seemed no way to stop Murdoch claiming 100% of BSkyB and the government was resigned to just quietly caving in to him saying 'there was nothing they could do.' Well suddenly the story is everywhere, including the US where people are now asking 'maybe we need to know what's going on over here.'

Internet power proved it's potency with 'Mumsnet' orchestrating an advertising boycott of the NoW and astonishingly 'Avaaz' drumming up 100,000 e-mails from an outraged public to Jeremy Hunt, media minister, in just 24 hours. News International share price started sliding and all of a sudden the world began to look very different from No 10. The BSkyB deal is no longer a foregone conclusion with dark mutterings about whether the licence owner was 'fit and proper' emanating from the media regulator Ofcom.

So first it was the banks, then MP's expenses and now the tabloid press. Those who know say there is far worse to come and speculation is rife as exactly what that might mean? The term 'Watergate' has already been mentioned as suspicion grows that a million archived e-mails at News Corp have been deleted. But you can bet some of the juicier ones exist on other computers - I always keep interesting stuff - so where will the proverbial brown stuff be landing next? Well I'm going to suggest that the next few months are going to be exceptionally difficult for the police and I don't believe it will be confined to the Met.

Once the whole can of worms gets opened to the air I believe it will shed light on some very long-standing, endemic and highly illegal activity between journalists and police officers all over the country. Now that we have an insight into how Met officers were able to hide their activities by setting up scam 'informant' identities, it may well broaden out into uncovering much more sinister illegal activity. 

As a probation officer for many years, I've always been mystified as to why the police never seem able to apprehend any 'Mr Big' drug dealers? Only ever the minnows in their pathetic hundreds. As a probation officer one hears things. Unsubstantiated gossip and rumour possibly. But I've always had my concerns and if truth be known doubts about just how effective internal police Standards and Compliance really are? And then there's the Independent Police Complaints Commission. I think they are treated with derision by the police and not feared at all. I wonder why?

Of course all this is coming at a very bad time for the police with Home Secretary Theresa May at last showing signs of having the bottle to tackle some of the long-standing employment issues ducked by previous governments. The Police Federation may yet come to regret humiliating her at their last conference if public opinion moves as fast as it has done in relation to banks, MP's and more recently tabloid journalists. It's astonishing. Only last Sunday 2.7 million copies of the News of the World were sold. In less than a week the brand became so toxic that ditching it became a reasonable idea, rather than the humiliation of facing a boycott by readers and advertisers alike.    

PS One happy consequence of this fast-moving story was to knock the dreadful Louise Casey off the news agenda on Tuesday when the Victim Commissioner launched her ill-thought-out ideas for victim legislation. That's the thing about politics - it's all about luck and timing. Hopefully it will go the same way as her last big idea on limiting jury-trials.   

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Silly Season Starts Early

Back in April I drew attention to the negative publicity Heather Munro attracted when as newly-appointed Chief Executive of the London Probation Trust she was taken to task for talking about the Service having 'customers' rather than 'offenders.' There was some serious backtracking as a result, but the issue of just how to refer to people that the Probation Service have a statutory responsibility for has been a thorny one for years. The subject regularly crops up at NAPO AGM's and invariably induces some lively debate.

For many years following the birth of the Service proper under the terms of the 1907 Act the term 'probationer' sufficed, but eventually gave way to the more neutral term 'client', no doubt as a way of acknowledging our civil work as Divorce Court Welfare Officers. When this work was hived off to CAFCAS and the government of the day re-branded us as a Law Enforcement Agency, the term 'offender' became more widely adopted. Of course some of us were deeply unhappy with such a change and resisted this particular nomenclature, sticking resolutely with the neutral term 'client'. At least it's less cynical than the Department of Work and Pensions insisting on claimants being called 'customers'.

Basically, as with many aspects of the Criminal Justice System, there has never been universal acceptance with regard to terminology and recent interest being shown by some probation trusts in desistance theories have raised the whole issue again. I note that over in West Yorks staff are scrambling to win a £20 gift voucher for coming up with a new name, but only for internal use. Presumably the politically-correct external term 'offender' will remain? A classic piece of paternalistic window dressing nonsense as I've ever come across. It's a shame that it coincides with an unfortunate term used by their Trust Chairman at a recent lunchtime speaking engagement. He called them 'scrotes.' Oh dear.