Sunday, 31 March 2013

A Very Cruel Game

A very cruel game begins in earnest on April Fool's day this year. I should have written about it sooner, but my excuse is a preoccupation with government plans for privatising us. In the process though I've completely neglected the impending plight for many of our charges.

If you didn't know better you might think the government had unknowingly or accidentally decided to declare war on a significant section of the population, but of course the welfare 'reforms' are entirely deliberate and ironically will do nothing but hinder any attempt at a 'rehabilitation revolution.' 

Many, if not most, clients of the probation service are in receipt of State Benefit of one kind or another and as a group have never been particularly good at managing their limited incomes, often due to chaotic lifestyles involving either drink or drugs. A significant number have either learning disabilities or mental health problems that means coping on very tight budgets is extra difficult and there is a danger that spending decisions will not always be prudent. Of course the politically-correct would say it was about 'choice' and helps to encourage 'responsibility'.  

As a consequence, much of a probation officer's time has always had to be devoted to helping clients manage crisis situations brought about by a severe lack of money. I can tell you it's draining and extremely depressing for us, let alone the poor client, and often forms an effective barrier to any work we might wish to undertake concerning offending behaviour. But it's going to get a whole lot worse from Monday and as Polly Toynbee of the Guardian says, it will be the day that defines this government. 

Interestingly, as I write this, Grant Shaps, the Conservative Party chairman cites the present system as being cruel and hence justification for 'reforms', thus flying in the face of the new Archbishop of Canterbury and other church leaders who are quite-rightly pointing out they will hit the vulnerable.

Even before the new measures take effect, we know through leaked internal memos from the Department of Work and Pensions that Job Centre staff are being required to 'sanction' as many claimants as possible and try and trip them up at 'botherability' interviews. As always, this despicable tactic will mostly catch the scared and vulnerable, rather than the undeserving malingerers. As one staff member puts it, suicides will result, indeed just as we've seen with the infamous Atos capability tests designed to throw as many people off Disability Living allowance as possible. 

The saddest bit of all in this new twist to a cruel game is that many, many claimants have no idea what's about to hit them. In effect the changes in Council Tax Benefit, which will now only be a 'contribution' towards the total, coupled with the so-called Bedroom Tax, is in many ways a reincarnation of the despised Thatcher Community Charge or Poll Tax of the 90's. In one fell swoop, hundreds of thousands of claimants will see their benefit reduce significantly over night due to 'under-occupancy' and with virtually no hope of being able to move easily to smaller accommodation and retain their rights as tenants of social landlords.

As if this wasn't bad enough, payments will be made monthly instead of fortnightly and in respect of Housing Benefit, direct to the claimant and not the landlord anymore. Everyone aware of the situation knows that arrears of rent are going to accumulate quickly as many clients find it difficult or impossible to make up the shortfall, together with the extra responsibility of managing finances on a monthly basis. This is a gift to the 'payday' and door-to-door loan sharks as many claimants will feel pushed into their arms as a misguided way of coping. 

There is no doubt that the number of evictions will increase and many clients of ours will simply be unable to cope. They will be pushed over the edge. The final twist in this cruel game of making the poorest and most vulnerable pay for the mess we've got into, is that all new claims for benefit will have to be made online FFS. Can someone tell me how homeless, vulnerable and often chaotic people trying to get back into mainstream life can get easy access to a secure e-mail account, especially with libraries closing?

I see a massive amount of extra welfare-type work for the probation service and other statutory agencies, especially as funding for Citizen Advice Bureau's and civil Legal Aid have been dramatically cut. I wonder if any of this is making those carpet baggers currently sizing up contracts for probation work think twice? These 'reforms' are hardly going to assist with their efforts at making money out of the 'rehabilitation revolution' under PbR are they?

Even after these punitive cuts and with benefit levels capped at 1% for three years, thus ensuring inflation does its bit to help make the poorest even poorer, and before the Universal Benefit changes come into effect, astonishingly I see that the government is saying that the total welfare budget is not expected to reduce, merely that any increase will be 'managed.'

It seems even more radical measures to cut 'welfare dependency' could be on the way with the government feeling increasingly confident that the public mood is behind the deliberate widening of the division between the deserving and undeserving poor. This cannot be good for the well-being of any civilised society and I see the potential for serious trouble and unrest ahead.    

Some are saying that April 1st 2013 marks the beginning of the end of the Welfare State as we know it. On this day massive changes also come into effect as to how NHS services are commissioned, thus opening the door not just to more privatisation, but appallingly plenty of scope for many of these new commissioners to feather their own nest, despite supposed conflict of interest policies. 

As expected, the No10 petition has topped 20,000. You can sign it here.            

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Being Candid

The Easter Bank Holiday is nearly upon us and I seem to have 'gate fever'. I just can't find the energy or enthusiasm to write much today. Something doesn't feel right about my internet writing experience of late and I think it's because things seem to have changed, and as most of my regular readers will know by now, I don't like change. 

The more I think about it, much of the stimulus for this blog has been sparked by the work of others, but it's drying up for a variety of reasons. I'm seriously missing Gadget. Apart from his often deliberately mischievous writing, his blog provided a vibrant platform for comment and discussion on many topical matters in the field of social and criminal justice policy. I find the silence both deafening and disturbing, knowing as we do that it must have been extinguished by order. 

I hope Bystander will forgive my saying that his blog is just not quite the same as it was in terms of range, frequency and content prior to heavy pressure being applied by Higher Judicial Authority. Many probation commentators and tweeters have been outrageously scared-off on the orders of Chris Grayling and even good old reliable Ben Gunn seems to be loosing interest in blogging since discovering the seductive delights of twitter. 

Even as I'm writing this, I can hear a voice saying that by it's very nature the internet will relentlessly throw up vibrant new talent with interesting things to say and in the process ruthlessly cast aside those that may have had their time. The still relatively-new Guerilla Policy blogsite is a good example of this and it's certainly opened my eyes to interesting stuff being written by lots of people I was blissfully unaware of. 

Part of my problem is I'm finding it very hard indeed to reconcile the new wave of 'openess and transparency' being espoused by government with quite blatant bullying of people who dare to tell stories that are 'off message'. The situation is becoming somewhat surreal I feel with the recent announcement of a legal obligation of 'candour' within the NHS. WTF does that mean exactly?! 

I remember thinking it was barmy when David Cameron announced in Parliament a few months ago that energy companies were going to be forced to limit the number of confusing tariffs on offer and ensure everyone was on the best tariff for them. How is that going to work in a capitalist market economy where the need for profit dictates that some of the people have to be  misled some of the time? Isn't that what advertising and marketing is predicated on under a capitalist system?

What's supposed to happen if this astonishing concept of a 'duty of candour' spreads? Are politicians going to be required to tell the truth? Will the likes of Waitrose have to point out how much cheaper Asda is? Will the hospital consultant have to point out the very poor infection history of their operating theatre? Surely it's all so much cobblers!

Have a good Easter and sign the No10 petition here. It should top 20,000 this weekend.              

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Delius Road-tested

In amongst the astounding news that Home Secretary Theresa May is going to abolish the lamentable United Kingdom Border Agency due to woefully poor performance, I spotted this interesting revelation:- 

In other changes, Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill has been asked to revamp its "inadequate" IT systems

So that makes another government department with a crap IT system! There have been some monumental IT failures in recent years both at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, including our very own aborted C-NOMIS intended as a universal case recording system. It didn't work, cost a fortune and each probation service opted for differing systems such as CRAMS, ICMS or Delius. 

With impending privatisation of probation, clearly someone at the MoJ thought a standard case recording system would be a good idea and it's intended to roll out nDelius (n for national) to all service's shortly. Clearly a reliable, universal and efficient IT system is crucial to the success of privatisation, so how's it doing? The following is one person's experience, and it doesn't look promising:-  

In a word `chaos.' No one knows what they are doing. For example, to add a contact you run a national search then when you have found the person you must not click on `add contact', No you have to click on `view' then contact log, then scroll right down to the bottom of the page and then you can click on the other `add contact' button and click click click again.

To make it more complicated the Delius page is designed for a wider screen so it does not fit on a square computer screen so you have to keep moving the page around to see what is in the corners. 

When making a contact you can only see 4 lines of what you are typing. Then when you have made a contact there is no button to add the next appointment, Oh no, you have to do the whole search again and programme the next appointment in, around 20 clicks of the mouse, it gives you repetitive strain injury.

If you want to send a letter, god help you, you might as well write it by hand as that would be quicker, I have been shown how to build a letter 4 times but still loose the letter every time. And if you dare to want to see a letter that has migrated over that is nearly impossible as all migrated documents are named, wait for it as `migrated documents', so unless you know the date you sent it you cannot find it. 

Then if you want to breach some one it is such a complicated process that only those with a PHD in computing science are able to do it. The OGRS score is hidden deep in the recess of events, and the actual order is not clearly shown. 

Flags are not clear and some DV perpetrators migrated over as DV victims! Caseloads are not accurate ie I had 40 cases pre Delius, but now appear to have 22, the 18 others have just migrated to random people who have had something to do with them at some time in the past. 

Delerius -  it is not fit for purpose and feels like we have been given a case record system from the eighties, Remember when you had to press all the function buttons? Beaumont Colson have a lot of work to do to get it more user-friendly. Lets hope they are paid lots for all their effort. 

The problems will be highlighted when there is an SFO and then the managers will have to try and decipher what has been going on with the case. Can't wait until you get it and see what you have to say.

Beaumont Colson are the designers of nDelius and this is what they say about it:-

In 2009 a new, national Delius system, was commissioned by the MoJ and BCL's development of this system was completed in late 2012.
The National Delius application is a browser based, national probation service case management system, designed to include the required probation business logic and appropriate security, and will be rolled-out across England and Wales during 2013.
A large part of the work in delivering National Delius has involved the preparation of migration tools - required to move existing legacy data from a number of different types of case management system. Current migration successes demonstrate our capacity to manage this activity through a standard, repeatable process. There is clear potential for these techniques to be applied in any project concerned with the mapping and movement of data between systems. 
No hint of any problems there. In the end history tells us that it's crap IT systems that often frustrate the aspirations of government, so it's as well all those prospective bidders for our work know what they are in for. Yes you guessed it guys, the IT really is crap. The system often 'crashes.' The servers can't cope. It's regularly on a 'go slow' and you regularly lose your work.
Sign the No10 petition here..  

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Mission Impossible

I do admire Russell Webster in his efforts at trying to keep the prospect of Payment by Results alive as a means of delivering Chris Grayling's Rehabilitation Revolution. In his recent piece on the subject he recites the received wisdom that 'it's a simple concept' but equally that 'the devil is in the detail'.

Like Russell, I've attended meetings full of assorted aspiring privateers and carpet baggers anxious to get a slice of the probation action. But inexorably most soon begin to show signs of losing the will to live as the problems with the 'detail' begin to sink in. In true understated style, Russell himself identifies the following problems for the Ministry of Justice as they attempt to draw up contracts. He also concedes it's not an exhaustive list by any means:- 
  • The contracts must be long enough to encourage a wide range of providers to bid while still providing break clauses for those that under-perform.
  • The proportion of the contract paid on a successful outcome/PbR basis must be big enough to drive innovation and improved performance but small enough to be a realistic financial model that medium and smaller providers can bid for.
  • While it is reasonable enough for price to be part of the awarding criteria of any public contract, it will be hard to assess likely quality, especially since most providers won’t have a track record in reducing reoffending.
  • The contracts should promote innovation with the intention of sharing best practice, but at the same time may have to allow providers to keep at least some of their intellectual property rights.
  • There is also a substantial challenge in designing an outcome metric which includes both binary and frequency measures of reoffending.
  • The contracts must be large enough to have substantial cohorts so that outcome metrics can be valid, but flexible enough to reflect local needs and existing effective partnerships.
He draws a handy Venn diagram, but a magnifying glass is required in order to find the 'sweet spot' that would get hearts racing amongst prospective bidders. 

Sometimes you just have to admit that the brilliant idea you had is basically crap. It ain't going to work and the sooner you face up to the fact and change direction, the better for us all!

Sign the No10 petition here.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Big Ideas

Chris Grayling, the Minister of Justice, has two big ideas. The first is Payment by Results and we all know what a roaring success that's proved to be over at his last job with the Department for Work and Pensions. The other big idea concerns old lagsHe keeps talking about them and how he sees them as being absolutely key in being able to deliver his Rehabilitation Revolution. Here he is talking to the Justice Affairs Select Committee last month and quoted on the aged member speaks blog:- 

I’m a great believer that the best mentor for a young offender is an old lag gone straight or a former gang member who’s left the gang and tries to encourage the young gang member to do the same. Now what I don’t want to do is to have a situation where in order to start delivering mentoring support, offender management support in the kind of lower risk groups that you have to have a kind of a three year degree course because that rather kind of removes the ability of the old lag to do the job. But at the same time we need to make sure that that those people do get training in how to spot problems so what we will be looking for in the contracting process is an understanding of how you ensure that you equip your people to spot the problems that when you need to call up the corridor to the public protection guy, say that this one you need to take a look at for me. How we continue to develop a very high quality specialist profession in the public protection roles and we will be looking for ideas in the development of people and how that will happen in the bidding process…

Now first off many people find the term old lag unhelpful and insulting, conjuring up as it does ancient images of Fletch out of the BBC1 comedy series Porridge. In fact here's an open letter to Chris Grayling from an old lag and making their displeasure clear. It begins:-  

Dear Mr Grayling, 

I read with great interest your speech on Tuesday. As someone who has been to prison, and now recruits and trains mentors, I am doing the work you want to encourage. But I find your description of me as an ‘old lag’ offensive and ignorant, adding as it does to the prejudice and discrimination that people who have served a sentence have to endure.

It's unfortunate to say the least that the Justice Minister is so ill-informed and ill-considered in his use of such terminology that disrepute is likely to be attracted to both himself and his department, but he does of course have the germ of a good idea. This was picked up recently by Professor Senior writing on his Yorkhull Blog on the topic of peer mentoring. Like most things, it's not a new idea and had been pioneered within probation many years ago:-

Mentoring of course is not a new idea even if this nomenclature has been coined more recently. I go back to 1975 when I first started as a probation volunteer and befriended young clients on behalf of the probation officer. The role of ‘advice, assist and befriend’ is at the heart of the traditions of the probation service and until relatively recently probation volunteers were a significant part of the supervision armoury. In the late 70s I initiated a programme funded through the Manpower Services Commission called ‘Octopus’. This meant we employed two ex-offenders as assistant supervisors in a voluntary day/drop-in centre. It was a challenging experiment not only for the individuals concerned but the probation officers too who, though used to finding clients employment elsewhere, were somewhat disconcerted to find that that employment was in their own agency. Indeed to some officers attending a case conference for their client when the supervisors were present was often a bridge too far.

The piece goes on to explain in some detail how peer mentors and volunteers can indeed play an important role in rehabilitation, but it has to be undertaken properly and cannot be the 'quick fix' Mr Grayling seems to imply. It concludes by saying:-

I am totally in favour of the use of both mentors and peer mentors in the criminal justice system. I think they have a valuable role to play which compliments and enhances the case management undertaken by the public services. There is a real danger however that in a rush to make such assistance available across the whole of the criminal justice system within a short period of time it will lose the careful and incremental way in which peer mentoring systems have been nurtured so far. I think we must be very careful not to make the system untenable before it has had a reasonable chance to succeed. Whilst Grayling has hit upon a germ of an idea in executing that thought he is in real danger of damaging its very prospect of success.

Yet another example of how ill-thought-out the plans to privatise probation are.

Sign the No10 petition here. 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Privatisation Roundup 2

It's been gratifying to see widespread condemnation of Chris Grayling's recent gagging instruction to all probation staff and if anything it's served to re-energise the campaign to keep the Service public. When you are so obviously losing the argument for a policy, it's outrageous and completely counter-productive in a democracy to attempt to silence critics and I'm pleased to say it's helped restore NAPO's mojo. 

Regular readers might recall that a week or two back I highlighted what appeared to be a sneaky government plan to begin privatising the Fire Service by means of encouraging some Service's like Cleveland to mutualise.

Probation staff will be very familiar with this concept as it's being continually talked about in relation to probation privatisation. In some quarters it's being seen as a more preferable alternative, but as we all know, at some point mutuals can de-mutualise, especially if they prove successful and the beneficial owners are seduced by private sector loot and are persuaded to cash-in. It leads to privatisation, but via a more circumlocutory route.

Anyway, 38 Degrees mounted a massive petition against privatisation of the Fire Service and interestingly it's had the desired effect. Recently Eric Pickles, the minister responsible, was forced to categorically rule out any privatisation of the Fire Service in response to widespread public concern. He even went as far as confirming that he would ensure that regulations did not make it possible for any Service to become a mutual, thus scuppering Cleveland's plans.

So, what do we learn from this? First off, that campaigning and public awareness does affect government policy. Secondly, that u-turns happen all the time in government policy - another recent example is the back-tracking on minimum unit-pricing of alcohol - and thirdly that the public has absolutely no appetite for privatising public services. 

Here's hoping that the ham-fisted attempted gagging of probation staff will continue to bring well-deserved reputational damage upon the Ministry of Justice and its Ministers for many more weeks to come and that the campaign to save probation continues to gain momentum!   

Sign the No10 petition here.  

Friday, 15 March 2013

Some Observations 13

We have to remember that it is only a story and not real life, so reality need not get too much in the way. But it did tickle me to see that probation officer Steve Lowe in Enders 'dropped' Bianca's case so he could be 'ethical' about cosying up to Carol, her mum. Never mind that he decided to chat her up in the Vic (it is only a story) and was on orange juice (what a wuss), it was that bit about 'dropping a case!' Oh, if only it were that simple to go to the boss and negotiate a transfer of any case, for any reason, let alone 'I think I fancy her mum!'   

I notice Russell Webster is continuing his crusade to get everyone in the Criminal Justice System tweeting, ironically just as NOMS is putting the screws on probation staff to stop them. Well ok that's going a bit far. Stop them tweeting anything remotely useful or of interest and that might interfere with the government's plans for privatising the Service. 

Mindful of David Cameron's infamous remark that 'too many tweets might make a twat', I've been content remaining what might be termed a 'twitter voyeur' and just eavesdrop on others conversations. I admit I've picked up some useful tidbits, but boy is most of it just inane rubbish or officially-sanctioned newspeak. 

As for the medium stimulating debate or exchanges of ideas, well I think even Ben Gunn feels that the novelty of being able to stir up a hornets nest at the drop of a tweet has worn off a bit. To an extent continuing in his self-styled role of victimhood, I love the bit about him having 'wandered' into two ferocious twitter-wars, as if they were somehow unexpected or not invited! I wonder what Marshall Mcluhan would make of it, the 'medium being the massage' and all.

Finally, I couldn't help but produce a wry smile at the news that the Attorney General Dominc Grieve has come up with a cracking wheeze to take the pressure off a hard-pressed Crown Prosecution Service. In another stroke of genius he suggests getting the police to be more involved in prosecutions, thus effectively taking us most of the way back to where I started in 1985, sat in court behind a police inspector as he prosecuted all the ordinary mundane and mostly uncontested stuff.   

There's still time to sign the No10 petition here.         

Thursday, 14 March 2013

More on Gagging

As probation chiefs begin their two-day conference in Birmingham, they have much to mull over, not least whether collectively they can agree on anything in the light of impending privatisation. Dare I suggest that the gallows humour saying, the gist of which goes something like, 'it's preferable to hang together, rather than hang seperately' has never been more appropriate?

It's now clear that the NOMS gagging order effectively extends to all staff and Trust Board members, many of whom have been merrily tweeting away for a few weeks now. The recent instruction relating to social media issued by Caroline Corby the London Probation Trust chair is typical:- 

For the avoidance of doubt, the following are non exhaustive examples of unacceptable postings, endorsements tweets or retweets:-

  • Derogatory statements.
  • Comments that might be perceived as humiliating, offensive, abusive, insulting or degrading. 
  • Use of language or phrases demonstrating a lack of respect.
  • Comments that are made in criticism or designed to undermine the Justice Secretary’s policy or actions.
  • Political campaigning under the banner of LPT.
  • Inciting or approving any of the above e.g retweets.

Understandably people are now running scared of being the subject of disciplinary action and there has been an appreciable reduction in probation-related twitter traffic as a result. But it's one thing to be bullying the small fry into shutting up and trying to include the chiefs as well. Come on guys, we need a bit of leadership here! 

In my view there couldn't be a better time for a display of unity in the face of these daft privatisation plans, all in the new spirit of 'openness and transparency' of course. This is official government policy now because Jeremy Hunt the Health Secretary has said so. No more atmosphere of secrecy or gagging orders are going to be allowed in the NHS in the wake of the Staffordshire hospital scandal:-

"There has been a culture where people felt if you speak up about problems in the NHS you didn't love the NHS. Actually it's exactly the opposite," Mr Hunt told the Mail.

So we can hardly have different policies in different government departments, can we? 

I wrote yesterday about the demise of the extremely popular police blog written anonymously of course by Inspector Gadget. As I suspected, there has been much speculation on several websites concerning the possible reasons and whether or not he had been 'nobbled'. Did he retire, run out of stuff to say, or was he got at?

For what it's worth I think the latter, not least because the site has disappeared from the ether completely and I find that not just very sad, but very worrying as well. Like all bloggers, he would have been extremely proud of his writing, but it's all 'gone' and I simply refuse to believe that any committed blogger would agree to such a thing voluntarily. I hope Cockney Copper will not mind me quoting his words left on the Magistrates Blog, and we know all Judicial Office holders have been put under pressure to stop blogging too:-

As an aside, I now find myself casting around to try and find another Police related blog to help pass the time between dog walking and work, but trawling through the 30 or so blogs that I had in my 'favourites' list, it would appear that 99% have been deleted or shut down over the last couple of years. A sad indictment of the Orwellian stranglehold that ACPO and PSD have over officers making comments publically , where criticism is universally interpreted as 'bringing the service into disrepute'.

Not only deeply disturbing, it's robbed us all of the opportunity of looking up our favourite posts and prevented future social historians having access to a very important social commentary. 

This was always going to be an issue as we entered the digital age and as a consequence institutions such as the British Library have had to install vast data storage facilities to make sure we do not lose internet-published material. It might not be uppermost in most people's minds, but what we are collectively writing is of course history and no civilisation worth anything ever throws that away consciously does it? 

Lets hope that, despite the best efforts of government, all the material will be safely stored on a secure server somewhere so as to enlighten future generations and that they don't just have the self-serving efforts of Sir Stephen Bubb to pore over. 

Sign the No10 petition here.      

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Rattling Cages

I suspect like a lot of people, I'm still coming to terms with the news that Inspector Gadget has called it a day on his blog. His incisive and skillful writing was one of the reasons why I took the plunge and started this blog in September 2010.

I certainly didn't always agree with his views, but his colourful description of life on The Swamp, the characters and situations he encountered on a daily basis and the obvious care and concern with which he went about the business of 'coppering', I found utterly riveting. 

To us probation officers, it was also all too familiar. No great surprise there I suppose because essentially we see the same people, but for different purposes and at different times. Much of his writing was as sensitive as it was provocative. Undoubtedly as moving or annoying in equal measure on occasion, but always a good read as the nearly 13 million hits bear testament to.

That is an incredible achievement and yet again underlines the sheer power of the internet as a platform for discussion and informing, free of political or other interference. But there has to be meaningful content and Gadget supplied that in shed loads. It's time-consuming, tiring and feeding the monster can be quite a challenge. Not surprisingly he says he ran out of different things to say, but it took seven years!     

While it lasted and for all intents and purposes, Gadget's blog was the unofficial voice of British policing. The place you went to first when something was 'kicking-off' or tragedy had struck. The vast numbers of comments that flooded in after each new post gave us all an insight into what might sometimes be unkindly termed the 'canteen-culture' of British bobbies, but I'd rather that than sanitised press releases or platitudinous management pronouncements.

Inspector Gadget, you rattled cages and made me laugh. You helped remind me about the power of words and the telling of a good story. You confirmed that we are still very lucky to have policing by general consent in this country. I bet the Home Secretary won't miss you, but I have already. 

Best wishes for the future Inspector!        

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


I'ts becoming increasingly clear that the government has lost the argument in relation to privatising most of the probation service by means of a Payment by Results method. Even though the civil servants at both the Cabinet Office and Treasury have very serious concerns and most of the 580 written submissions during the consultation period are highly critical, Chris Grayling does not quite feel ready to announce a change of direction. 

What does an organisation or individual do when it knows it's plans are going seriously awry and begins to get rattled by voices of objection and criticism? When it's competency is being questioned and some reputational damage is looming on the horizon? Well, if you're a famous footballer or tv personality, you reach for a 'super' injunction. If you're an NHS Hospital Trust you arrange comprehensive secrecy clauses. Or if you're the government, you gag troublesome probation Chief Executives.

There is now clear evidence that CEO's of all probation trusts in England and Wales have been threatened with disciplinary action should they have the temerity to continue with public questioning or criticism of the government's privatisation plans for the service. Twitter accounts are being assiduously monitored for any dissent by NOMS officials in actions that must seem reminiscent of the People's Republic of China. 

None of this should be that surprising though because politics is basically a dirty game where pretty much the ends justify the means. Where spin and dissembling might fail, threats and bullying might work. 

We all know that NOMS control of the probation service is pretty much dysfunctional anyway and if confirmation was required, look no further than Liz Calderbank HM Chief Inspector of Probation giving evidence to a Commons Select Committee in November 2012:- 

"The National Audit Office (NAO) rightly identifies tensions in the relationship between NOMS and probation trusts. In my view, these result as much from the history of NOMS’ development and the different organisational structures of the prison and probation services as any failings in its management. The restructure of NOMS HQ was, as the report states, well received and both the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NOMS and the Director responsible for the probation service are spoken of positively by probation trusts.

Nevertheless, there is, I believe, an inherent dissonance in the NOMS model, which essentially incorporates two organisations with different functions and governance arrangements. Unlike the prison service, which is a national organisation, the probation trust CEOs report to a locally managed Board but are accountable to NOMS for their achievement of targets. When these arrangements are considered in the historical context of a probation service that has gone through four major reorganisations over the past 15 years, and is currently awaiting the response to the probation review which will herald yet another one, it’s not surprising that relations are a little tense.
What this means is, given that the line management arrangements of the probation service is different from those of the prison service, as is its history and its focus on the community, so the dialogue NOMS has with probation trusts also has to be different. And this isn’t achieved with sufficient consistency. As a result, the work of the probation service is not fully understood at the centre and as a consequence not properly valued and too easily dismissed."
In a situation where things look like they're rapidly going 'pear-shaped' the last thing Chris Grayling wants is probation CEO's just rubbing it in how crap the whole idea is beginning to sound. The mood could get a lot nastier of course with reports of campaign posters being removed in London and dark rumours as to how the Serco Community Payback contract is being operated there.

This is very important for the government's privatisation agenda and clearly there is a keen desire to make sure a tight lid is kept on any bad news. You will recall that Heather Munro, London CEO, recently questioned via twitter Chris Grayling's assertion that 'the contract was delivering savings of 40%.' She described it as 'pure fantasy' with savings 'nearer 20%.'  

Sign the No10 petition here.  

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Human Cost

I've often bemoaned that the world of probation is largely a mystery to most people. Trying to shed some light on this most mysterious of occupations was one of the main aims in starting the blog in the first place. To be frank, widespread ignorance of our role, significance and remit is one of the main reasons why both main political parties have been able to mess around with us over recent years, and finally privatise us.

As a profession we've probably not helped. We've done rather too good a job of respecting client confidentiality and our natural reticence has often meant that important stories have gone untold. However, as all probation officers know, every single client's journey through life and to the doors of a court is different, sometimes tragic and often amazing.

It's not an overstatement to say that sometimes we literally put highly-damaged people back together and help enable them to lead happier and fulfilled lives free of offending. That process, generally referred to as rehabilitation, sounds simple and straightforward in the current debate about a 'revolution' being required The answer according to the government is to privatise most of the probation service and bring in contractors remunerated on a Payment by Result basis.

But even government can see that handing over all the 'risky' cases to the likes of G4S might be just a tad, well risky, so the plan is that they will in all probability stay with a rump public service. The only trouble is how 'risk' is defined and how it can be measured? It's not just risk in relation to serious public harm. What about the risk to an individual of their early life experiences? Or a person's innate character, or state of mind or current circumstances? Is it not a valuable, socially-useful thing to be concerned about a person's risk to themselves?

In the brave new world of probation marketisation, what will happen to the difficult cases like the not untypical story of 'J' highlighted by a probation officer guest-posting on the Ladies' Room blog? The author argues that:-  

"The intervention worked with J because of a consistent approach which was costly to me on a time management and emotional level. J would never cross the threshold of the Probation Service in a newly privatised regime."

The story begins here and I hope the author does not mind me quoting:- 

"Being a Probation Officer for nearly 12 years has exposed me to the grittiness of humanity in all its gruesome glory, yet I still possess a belief in the capacity for change as I have witnessed the small miracles of success as a person is enabled to believe in themselves perhaps for the first time.
For those of us who have had reasonably ordinary life it is hard to understand the physical, emotional and psychological damage that is done to others in their most vulnerable childhood years. This damage shows up on brain scans as the brain fails to develop fully, stifling the future potential of that person from the very beginning. The damage manifests itself in many ways such as violence, aggression, mistrust and poor self image.
These are often the people who fall between the cracks of services and end up banned from their local GP practice and are criminalised rather than helped. I daily witness such persons in my work, the persons that even Probation Officers don’t want to work with. After some years I recognised that often the most disruptive were acting out their emotional age at which such damage occurs. It is like they get caught in a time loop of ‘fight or flight’ and can be incredibly difficult to work with, but with a lot of patience – and an understanding that they are a traumatised individual – you can help them move forward.
J was a lady who came to me with severe emotional disturbance and was diagnosed with an emotional/histrionic personality disorder. This was in the days when the psychiatric community did not believe such was treatable. J was fortunate to access treatment from the one psychiatrist in the city who did not subscribe to such a belief. I had the privilege of working with them both for over 3 years."
The whole post is well worth reading in full and I'm grateful to the person who pointed me in the  direction of it.
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Friday, 8 March 2013

Privatisation Roundup

The right-wing thank tank Policy Exchange held a conference recently on Payment by Results and how the Probation Service was to be privatised. Attended by all the usual suspects and addressed by both Chris Grayling and Jeremy Wright, news has been filtering out ever since. 

It would seem that Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee is beginning to rattle Chris Grayling because he had quite a go at her according to this report in the Guardian:-

At a Policy Exchange conference in London on Monday, Grayling renewed his attack on Hodge, claiming she was playing politics by attacking payment by results whenever she could.
"She's wasted no time in bashing and misrepresenting the credentials of work programme. But the reality is that under the last government she served as employment minister, and millions and millions of taxpayers' money was handed to private companies without any significant measure of success or transparency," he said.
"It's madness for her to now claim that payment by results – a clear mechanism whereby providers put their own money at risk before they can demonstrate an agreed measure of success – delivers a worse performance than the black hole Labour presided over before."
Apparently it's quite unusual for Ministers to be so critical of Select Committee chairs and I'd say it's a sure sign of them actually doing a thorough job of holding the Executive to account. I notice she was in fine form only yesterday making life very uncomfortable for the Charity Commission bosses for their mishandling of the Cup Trust tax avoidance 'charity.'
It seems as if the government have back-tracked a bit on there vision of every released prisoner being met at the prison gate by a volunteer peer mentor. According to this Daily Telegraph piece, Jeremy Wright is now saying that in all probability mentors will be paid:-
Mr Wright said many offenders already mentor others in custody, either to help them settle in, as reading coaches, or in other areas of education and training, and this work should continue through the prison gate.
There must surely be potential for us to say to those offenders, ‘Look, wouldn’t you like to consider this as a career so that when you come out you will have the opportunity not just to do mentoring, but to be paid for it?’” he said.
"I think that would be attractive to a large number of former offenders.”
That's much more realistic, but clearly going to put the costs up considerably. 
There's clearly a difference of opinion between the big contracting boys like G4S and the government. According to Russell Webster's report on the day and in relation to risk, G4S just want the whole of probation handing over, but Ministers don't agree according to the Daily Telegraph report:- 
Mr Wright insisted public safety was paramount and said the public sector probation service would retain responsibility for high risk offenders, with private firms and charities being brought in to manage those assessed as low and medium risk.
“We believe that a professional public sector service is best placed to manage those who present highest risk of serious harm, just as we believe they are best placed to make judgments about who falls into which risk category, both at the outset and an ongoing basis.” 
It can't be bad news to see the likes of G4S and the government disagreeing, so lets hope it continues.
I notice at least two Probation chiefs were present at the Policy Exchange event, Heather Munro of London who of course signed the deal with Serco for the Community Payback contract and Sarah Billiald of Kent who speaks on behalf of the Probation Chief's Association. 
Finally, I see that Lord Ramsbotham has at last 'broken cover' and roundly criticised the government's proposals in the House of Lords. Well done sir!
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Thursday, 7 March 2013

Profit or Philanthropy?

I notice that Guardian columnist Erwin Jones does not like the idea of privatising the Probation Service. His view is particularly worth noting because he's had personal experience and recently wrote a moving tribute to an officer he came into contact with whilst in prison.

In another piece on his blog he states that privatising the Service is 'morally repugnant' and invokes the memory of the founders of the modern Probation Service, like Frederic Rainer, who most probably will be revolving in his grave:- 

I can’t see how a “probation officer” employed by a private contractor is going to be any more effective than a real probation officer contracted to the state. The primary motivation for the operation of a private company is profit, profit, profit. There was never any notion of Probation for Profit in the hearts of those who built the foundations of the modern probation service.

As all of us in probation know full well, there's long been a close connection between philanthropic endeavour and the state-run Service. Many probation hostels to this day are still owned and managed by charities and individual officers and local worthies have formed numerous charitable bodies over the entire life of the state-run Service. 

In order to illustrate the point, here is Lord Rhodes speaking in 1985 during a debate on the Probation Service and describing what was happening in Manchester:-

Successive Home Secretaries have sincerely tried to stem the tide of increasing crime, with only limited success. We welcome the working paper Criminal Justice and the statement on national objectives and priorities for the probation service which have been issued during the past fortnight. The remarks I have to make are directed to the statement on the probation service. The statement clearly identifies the need to maintain a whole range of facilities for use by the courts and the probation service. It highlights the need to assist all those returning to everyday life from custody. To this end, we in the community are urged to rally around and to make a prime contribution by involving ourselves in the rehabilitation of the offender. Quite rightly, for without that involvement of the community in the rehabilitation of an offender, rehabilitation is a non-starter.

We have been doing that in Manchester for the past 13 years; that is, carrying out the tenets which are mentioned in the two documents. Our trust is called the Selcare Trust. It comprises Crown Court judges, probation officers, magistrates and a fine lot of people from the general public. Last week, we held our annual general meeting in Manchester Town Hall. It was one of the most vibrant meetings I have attended in recent years; it was one of the finest meetings I have ever had the privilege to attend. The hall was full. It is now recognised that we are making the kind of progress that is paying off in this particular field.

I ask your Lordships to give me your indulgence when I read out the progress that we have made in Manchester during the past 13 years. If my name crops up occasionally, please forgive me. We started first with an organisation, involving the head probation officer for Manchester. In 1971 the Chadderton Guest House was opened as a rehabilitation centre for older men, to help many of the men living there avoid further crime and breakdown. In 1972 it was the Bury Family Centre for women needing help—wives of prisoners who did not know how to add up. In 1973 it was the Failsworth Guest House for homeless women and their babies, especially when leaving hospital or prison.

In 1974 it was the Oldham Anchor Club—an evening centre for the isolated and lonely, a day centre for community groups with special aims, and so on. In 1974, we had the Bolton Guest House for homeless men in single rooms; and rooms for battered wives, unmarried mothers or the homeless from care or prison. In 1975 we had the East Manchester, Beswick Guest House, for homeless young men in the 17 to 21 age group discharged from detention.

In 1976 we were registered as a housing association. In 1976 we had "the Lady Rhodes", a narrowboat. This is a marvellous project where probation officers give of their own time to take out young lads who have just started offending against the law. Then we had Flagg Barn, another place in Derbyshire that we have for young offenders to learn sensible adventures. Again, the probation service comes up trumps, because much is done in their own time. I shall soon be through this list. In 1979 there was Stretford, a group support scheme providing facilities for a number of probation officers in the area. In 1980 there was Leigh, a bed-sit rehabilitation unit for six homeless men discharged from prison. Then, in 1981 there was the Manchester Forward Drive Scheme, the Manchester Coach Scheme and the Manchester Day Centre for all after-care contacts, where people can put down their names so that they can keep in touch with really good influences day by day.

In 1981 there was an extension to Chadderton House to accommodate men discharged from prison. In 1982, in Manchester, we obtained paramount control of two existing and successful hostels. This is absolutely fantastic. One is for men and the other is a stopover home for young women who, shall I say, are seen and looked after, having arrived at Piccadilly Station with nowhere to go and no home. In 1982 Failsworth House was reopened for homeless males discharged from prison. Also in 1982 Leigh Hostel was opened. In 1983 seven developments were commenced. I shall come to a conclusion in a few moments. This year, Princess Margaret opened the Rhodes Centre in Oldham—a resource centre able to cater for many groups and which contains the original Anchor Club. The building had been completely gutted and rebuilt, mainly using Manpower Services labour skills. It is to be used from mid-December, and was officially opened in February.

It could be said that in many ways the development and operation of the Probation Service has been a model example of that now widely-derided concept known as The Big Society. What has been described for Manchester was replicated all over the country and my own Service has a very similar fine record of innovation and philanthropic endeavour. 

It irritated me enormously when Sir Stephen Bubb, official cheer leader of the bosses for what is now referred to as the third sector, recently claimed some moral right to take back control of the Service. I'm afraid many of the organisations he speaks for nowadays appear remarkably lacking in terms of a philanthropic ethos and look pretty indistinguishable to me from all the other aspirational predators keen on grabbing our work, building empires and making money. 

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Wednesday, 6 March 2013


The subject of juries has come in for quite a bit of discussion recently as a result of the first Vicky Pryce trial and the now infamous ten questions they put to the judge. They were eventually discharged and a fresh trial ordered when unable to agree a majority verdict and raised questions as to their ability of being able to 'grasp the basics' concerning the issues involved. 

Of course we can never know what went on in the jury room as such deliberations must remain sacrosanct, but the measured view seems to be that the questions arose not from ignorance, but rather from some members exasperation and a valiant effort at trying to seek confirmation of the issues and therefore a decision. Obviously this was not to be and a re-trial is in progress.

I want to highlight a case where a jury has made a decision, but a deeply disturbing one in my view. As always, any discussion of a case without full knowledge can be risky, but the case of Nicola Edgington is truely shocking and one I simply do not understand. 

Most press attention has focused on the IPCC report confirming that police failed to deal correctly with this woman's numerous telephone pleas for help. As someone who had already been subject to a Hospital Order for killing her mother some years before, she was becoming desperate to be 'sectioned' because of her state of mind. In one call she reportedly said 'the last time I felt like this I killed my mother' and yet she was not assessed or detained. 

Tragically for everyone concerned, because this woman was not dealt with properly, she armed herself with a knife and committed two horrific attacks on random members of the public, almost decapitating one.

I think most people hearing the broad details of such a case would not require expert psychiatric opinion to confidently come to the conclusion that at the material time the balance of her mind was significantly affected by a severe mental illness and therefore how could she be found guilty of murder?

To most people, acceptance of a guilty plea to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and a Hospital Restriction Order would seem much more appropriate. But instead, astonishingly in my view, a jury convicted her of murder and the judge in summing up is reported as saying 'she should take full responsibility for her actions' and gave her a tariff of 37 years. 

The saddest and most worrying aspect of this case in my view is that in all probability she will at some point be transferred from prison to Special Hospital due to her psychiatric state. She needed treatment all along and if she had been dealt with correctly, a life would have been spared and another wouldn't now 'be doing life.'

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

All Targets Met

We used to have a notice on the wall that read 'All targets met; all standards achieved; all pigs fed and ready for take off!' It made me chuckle then and it still might if it didn't sound just a bit hollow nowadays.

I can't help noticing that this blog will pass 200,000 hits today. The first 100,000 took from September 2010 to January 2012, so clearly productivity and customer satisfaction is improving year upon year. Much has been achieved, but there's more to do as they say when a prison gets a really bad HMI report.

As I'm prone to do, I thought I'd look back at the very first post. It was short and to the point:- 

In the Beginning

All blogs have to start somewhere - and this is it. I'm fed up with work - a job I absolutely loved has gone horribly wrong and is about to get a whole lot worse. I moan endlessly to colleagues - and clients - they listen politely and think 'poor sod, he'll be retired soon'. Nobody understands what the hell probation is all about - there's never been a decent tv drama series and this void of universal ignorance is ruthlessly taken advantage of by successive governments in order to wreak havoc upon us. We've been nationalised,  rationalised, marginalised, bureaucratised and will shortly be privatised. I feel helpless as this madness goes on around me and then suddenly all becomes clear - start blogging! 

Nothing much has changed. I still don't think most people understand what we do and there's still no decent tv drama series, but privatisation really does seem to be just around the corner.

Writers block doesn't seem to have affected me of late and this blog remains a blissfully troll-free zone. I'd like to thank everyone for that and for the very perceptive contributions and comments from readers.  

One of the extraordinary aspects of writing this blog seems to be my ability to meet self-imposed deadlines. I was always late with homework, always had extensions on essays at University and some of my PSR's have been known to go to the wire, but pretty well this blog gets new posts every morning.

I really do enjoy writing it and thank you very much for reading it!  

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