The following is a letter to the press by Margaret Locklan:-
I am a retired Probation Officer, watching the systematic destruction of one of the most successful and highly respected public organisations, recognised as very good, excellent or, in the case of Northumbria Probation Trust, where I worked - outstanding. Indeed, the National Probation Service was the first ever public sector organisation to be awarded the British Quality Foundation's Gold Medal for 'Excellence'.
Tragically the Government has split this effective and award winning Service, with over 100 years experience, in two, with one third remaining as a government department, but now within the Civil Service (National Probation Service), working with high and very high risk offenders, while the remaining two thirds are in the process of being sold to private companies which are being called CRC's (Community Rehabilitation Companies), who will manage medium and low risk, and motivated by profit, on a Payments by Results basis, now I believe changed to Fee for Service.
Chris Grayling, Justice Minister, has chanted a mantra for the last 2 years, about the urgent need to reform the Probation Service as a result of the 'failure' of the Service to reduce crime (which is incorrect), because of the high rate of recidivism of unsupervised offenders who had served less than 12 months, refusing blindly to acknowledge that the Probation Trusts have previously asked the government to allow them to do this, and indeed had set up pilot schemes around the country. Probation Trusts approached the Ministry of Justice last year, indicating their willingness to undertake this area of work but were told that this would not be pursued, without offering any reason. Chris Grayling has since pushed through Parliament the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, in March this year.
The Service is now in a shambolic state, described as a 'train crash', with staff who have had a long experience of working with high risk cases, now shunted into CRC's through the most flimsy and peculiar of allocation processes, and are not allowed to supervise high risk cases, write pre-sentence reports, or assess risk. Although they will supervise these cases, risk assessments on them will be done by the NPS, assessing cases with which they are not familiar. Domestic violence perpetrators, in the past, most assessed as high risk and supervised by specialist trained staff, are now allocated to CRC's, potentially eventually being supervised by inexperienced and unqualified staff, placing their partners/victims at increased risk.
As a result of the new complex bureaucratic processes between NPS and CRC's of case allocation, apparently now taking hours, rather than minutes as previously, there are 2000 unallocated and unsupervised cases, and staff are finding themselves working in the dark with some cases which have not been assessed.
New IT systems are not working, court and prison reports and contact records are being deleted after the 'Save' button is pressed. Staff are - quote - 'running around like headless chickens' supervising 70 plus cases, where they once would have had around 30, enabling them to provide supervision of proven value.
1000 vacancies are being advertised, but long serving and experienced CRC officers are not allowed to transfer back to the NPS (National Probation Service). There is a reluctance from other public services which have worked alongside Probation to share information and manage risk, to divulge confidential information to private companies, and courts are complaining about the poor quality of Pre-Sentence Reports, written by unqualified, unskilled staff.
Staff are demoralised, and the majority have indicated that they are looking for other jobs, forced out of a job that they took great pride in. There has also been two Probation Officer suicides, and an Officer sexually assaulted by a high risk offender, released from prison with records gone missing, which would have warned the Officer. And appreciation must be given to the highly skilled admin staff, who have always had a complex job, far more than the average office clerk, unravelling IT issues, working to hard deadlines, being on the front line to answer the phone and deal with reporting offenders, and calming agitated PO's, desperate to meet deadlines - even then! How must they be feeling now, with less job security than PO's have and even more complicated and error ridden systems?
Chris Grayling, of course, denies all this, claiming that the IT system works perfectly well, allocation of cases has been done appropriately and most staff are happy, with 'reforms bedding in well' and teams 'making good progress'. What staff are telling me, and what I read in the 'On Probation Blog' and 'Probation Twitter', is totally different, as identified in the previous paragraph. The 'Blog' is updated daily in detail by desperate, demoralised, exhausted staff, around the country, giving unbelievable examples of the recklessness and dangerousness of Grayling's decision, stuck in a situation where the two sides of Probation are not allowed to discuss cases, or see the others' records, which is essential to good risk management.
One well-respected and experienced PO, Joanna Hughes, who left the Service in June, rather than work under this new regime, has been battling to raise the reality of the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda in Parliament and has sought legal advice and support to enable her to challenge the Ministry of Justice before the bidding process leads to the sell-off of two-thirds of the Service to profit based companies, rather than the respected not-for-profit organisation where staff gained personal satisfaction in enabling offenders to change their lives and by this, protecting the public.
Some companies, like G4S and Serco, have made a shambles of previous responsibilities- losing offenders en route from court to prison, not managing the tagging system properly, sometimes not tagging people for weeks, and going to the wrong address, with the wrong name. I have personal experience of trying to sort this out with G4S when I worked as an Officer in the north-east, when concerned offenders would be phoning the office to say that G4S had not turned up to fit their tag, and were afraid to leave the house in case they were breached.
And then there was the chaos over the preparation for the Olympic Games, when David Cameron had to call in the Army. More serious was the £30 million pound fraud conviction, when the government was overcharged for tagging and transporting people who did not exist, using the names of deceased or in custody. And yet, they are allowed to bid to have the responsibility for public safety on a huge scale, albeit on a reduced scale.
It is appearing that more ethical voluntary organisations and charities, who have experience of working with offenders, cannot afford to bid against these multinational companies, who have little such experience, yet are also making inroads into prison management, resulting in staff cutbacks, increased violence and deaths. HMP Northumberland is run by what was a French catering company, Sodexo, and in spite of government denials, has become a dangerous place to be. I have been there many a time a few years ago, and always found a very relaxed and laid back atmosphere among staff and offenders. So it can be done, with the right discipline.
Chris Grayling has been accused of misleading Parliament over 5 issues -
1) reoffending rates increasing - not true - in 2013 a NOMS report (National Offender Management Service - a government arm) noted they have been steadily reducing in 10 of 15 Probation Trusts, with better than predicted results mainly in the north of England and London. 5 Trusts in the south have increased offending rates. The only element of increased offending rates is among those with under 12 months sentences who are NOT supervised by Probation, although this was recognised by Probation with the government rejecting their attempts to address this.
2) the lack of supervision of those serving under 12 months - stating that the Probation Service could not provide a viable plan - not true - as identified above
3) reasons for refusal to pilot TR (Transforming Rehabilitation) as 'time would not allow it because of the urgency to tackle that group's reoffending rates' - not true - Vera Baird, Newcastle Police Commissioner has confirmed that these changes will not be happening at any time soon, after a talk with the Minister for Prisons and Rehabilitation, Jeremy Hunt. Yet this is the core of the 2014 Act.
4) the need to make financial savings by privatisation - not true - over £125million has already been spent with £90 million on legal fees and consultants. If they appoint another 1000 officers, as is their intention, exacerbated by qualified staff leaving the Service or seeking to do so, that will cost a further £30million.
5) indicating that there are wealth of bidders - not true - many have dropped out, unable to compete and Grayling refuses to identify other bidders 'because it is not in the public interest'- although some bidders are announcing it themselves.
Why are you telling obvious lies, Mr Grayling - lies which can easily be checked?
Furthermore, he has now announced 10 year contracts will be given to the CRC's at a cost of £10 billion of tax-payers money, as compensation, should a future government want to return to the status quo - encouraging inexperienced and unsuitable companies to bid on a win-win situation, no matter how much of a disaster they may be.
He also speaks of 'through the gate' supervision, with prisoners being prepared for release with support both inside and outside prison. The Probation Service have been doing that for years, with PO's working in prison, and external PO's liaising with prison and Probation staff inside. Officers were responsible for devising a programme during time in prison, and being active and influential in attending prison reviews, indeed chairing those reviews before I retired. So why does this man advertise 'new' ideas which have been effective for years?
And why take long serving experienced officers out of the Service and into the CRC's, to work with medium and low-risk offenders, unable to do risk assessments or write pre-sentence reports, while NPS staff are being burdened by ever increasing caseloads?
And on a smaller but still meaningful issue, staff in Sunderland (I cannot speak for other areas) have had their offices split by the creation of the 2 sectors, creating a situation of confusing lunacy.
Previously, the 5 offices across the city were responsible for supervising offenders within geographical boundaries of that office, whatever their level of risk.The offices are now separated into 3 CRC offices and one NPS office, with CRC officers having to be squashed into one half of the building with the other half unable to be used, because it belongs to NPS, with the one NPS office heavily occupied. High risk offenders from every corner of Sunderland are having to travel to that one NPS office, miles away from many addresses and so causing what must be an increase in bus travel expenses, and the likelihood of some offenders not bothering to travel the additional miles.
Most worryingly, I have been told by a member of staff, that that office has already been noted by other offenders as where sex offenders and violent offenders are reporting, referring to the office and client group in derogatory terms. Is this a tinderbox for future clashes? In the old system there was no way of offenders identifying what others had been convicted of.
This is all happening with barely a whisper in the media. The Probation Service has never sought, nor had much publicity. Many people do not know what it does; in many ways it is an anachronism, 'working with naughty boys'. Yet the Service has quietly been playing a valuable role in rehabilitating people, and protecting victims through their work in offender supervision, and court, prison and parole reports, (effectively advising on appropriate sentencing, additional supervision requirements and length of sentence (Pre-Sentence Reports), prison release suitability (Parole Reports) and recall (Breach Reports), running appropriate accredited programmes from a few weeks up to 12 months, addressing issues such as substance misuse, illegal driving, anger management, domestic violence, sex offending; and working with victims, and liaising with Police, Social Services, medical services and mental health, schools, education, training, employment systems, housing, and finance, not to mention Unpaid Work.
They have never gone on strike and are now making themselves visible as they fight for the future of an organisation they valued. Last week they marched in Epsom, where Chris Grayling is the MP, handing out leaflets and talking to people. It has been reported that hundreds of people expressed shock that they had no idea that their MP was having such a devastating impact on the Probation Service.
Last year Probation staff were threatened with serious repercussions if they talked about this devious scheme, and coincidentally there has been nothing on TV news, and virtually nothing in the newspapers about the devastation which will happen if the sale goes ahead in the next few weeks. It will affect offenders, victims, communities and staff, as crime will undoubtedly increase.
I have been looking at references to Probation then and now on the internet, and I would remind the Government and Chris Grayling of a few brief lines in their future proposals for the Service, set out in 2011 -
- 'Decency - we will continue to promote and maintain decency in all we do and improve physical conditions where we can.'
- 'ensuring high performance by supporting people to give their best'
- 'our people culture, where staff are proud of the place they work and motivated to deliver the Department's objectives'.
- 'The Government is committed to greater transparency'.
Where did that go Mr Grayling?
Finally, almost, if you doubt what you are reading, please look up a website report on 'TRANSFORMING REHABILITATION. A FISCAL MOTIVATED APPROACH TO OFFENDER MANAGEMENT' researched and written by Midddlesex University in 2013, where they were expressing precise concerns about exactly those issues which have already arisen, even before bids have been signed. Very well written and thought provoking, acknowledging that it takes specific training and skills to be a Probation Officer, recognising that working with offenders is a slow process, gaining their trust before working with them to enable them to make their own decisions, rather than being told what to do, which is more likely to happen with inexperienced or unqualified staff, which will not work in the long term.
I worked for the Service for 18 years,(having qualified after 2 years at University at the age of 48, with a long history of further related work) and rarely worked less than 45 hours a week, and often many more, not taking time off in lieu because I was so committed to doing the best I could to encourage change and improve communities. Other officers also often worked longer hours, most enjoying and having a pride in the job, along with the camaraderie of like minded people. People worked at full tilt then, so I can only imagine the madness now.
So please, get onto the ' On Probation Blog' website, read about the tragedy which is developing, and fear for public protection. Enlighten your friends, neighbours, colleagues, and family, and tackle your MP before the sale goes ahead and destroys an effective and worthy organisation. Back up our union NAPO, who are struggling with this earthquake. Back Joanna Hughes, an amazingly committed woman, to save something which was never broken. Make your voice heard to preserve your community and avoid further privatisation of our 'national treasures'.
(to the editors - note - I am aiming to reach a varied readership, and so am sending this to 3 newspapers - 2 national ones and a north east newspaper, where I live - the latter being sent to Letters page and Newsdesk. I hope that at least one publication will print this in its entirety, given the urgent need to inform the public of the forthcoming debacle which will ultimately impact on much of the population, particularly those who are already vulnerable. And better again if all 3 do! I am aware that it is much longer than the average letter, and don't know if you would be able to print it alternately as an article. I would very much appreciate your consideration of this. The information is from colleagues I have worked with, quotes from PO's on 'Probation Blog' - a tiny number from the dozens of officers in despair, citing unbelievable situations, from Government reports and a university research report, as well as my own experience prior to retirement in 2011.)