'The probation service is a mess. Flog it off'
Richard Spence, 63 - who began in the City then switched to be a probation officer for 30 years in London and Norfolk before retiring last year - says the organisation has collapsed. Society Guardian, Thursday 25 July 2002.I was an ordinary, main-grade, what I'd call bottom-of-the heap probation officer, and I really enjoyed that: dealing with the punters face to face.
The ambitious ones went up the ladder and became chiefs, but the trouble with the probation service today is that a lot of the people who got to the top weren't up to the mark.
They've basically destroyed the probation service. It's fallen apart in the last couple of years - at least in London, which is the bit I know. The financial situation is absolutely disastrous here, they're millions up the Swannee. Top-heavy with middle management, lots of people with important titles, putting nice suits on, going to meetings with coffee and biscuits, setting these ludicrous targets - but because they've cut back so much, not enough infantry to do the frontline work. Which means the service cannot do its most important thing, which is to see clients face to face, and to write assessment reports on them.
Everything stems from that, because the reports are the basis for sentencing by the courts. And for appeals too. [The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, said this month that the probation service was having trouble producing reports for judges and running community-sentence punishments credible to the public.]
A probation officer's report gives something about defendant's background, but primarily it's about his or her attitude toward the offence. Why was it that you went shoplifting in Sainsbury's" This is the fourth time you've been caught, is it to do with your family, your personality, are you using illegal substances, are you drinking too much?
If you run around with a knife threatening to stick it into people, clearly that's what a prison's there for. We all understand that. But if you aren't a danger it may be cheaper to put you on probation or do something else with you, because putting you in prison for six months might cost £500 or £600 a week. You may lose your housing, may have problems with your family, may destroy all sorts of things costing the taxpayer all sorts of money. The probation report helps the court to understand, and then to determine the sentence.
I know of one probation office, they got 24 requests from courts one day recently for reports on people remanded in custody or on bail for three or four weeks' time awaiting a report from a probation officer. But this office can't do them, they're swamped, they haven't got the staff.
If I'm the judge, and three weeks later everybody comes back to court, and all there is is a bit of paper from the probation office saying they're sorry they can't prepare the report in time, I'm entitled to say, What the hell is going on? It's already cost us £1,500 to lock this man up for three weeks, and it's going to cost us £1,500 more for the next three. And of course on his side, he is locked up for something he may get a non-custodial sentence for.
Judges are becoming increasingly incensed by this; it's just becoming a scandal.
The courts hardly ever see a probation officer any more either. Formerly, I'd be called into the witness box to answer some questions, add some flesh to my report on the defendant. Nowadays a PO hasn't got time. So all the court sees is the report, which is written in a much more mechanistic way by a person who is just a form-filler, busy playing safe. Whereas my report painted a picture of the person. And I would know the sentencer and the sentencer would know me.
I saw in the Guardian that the new chief inspector of probation, Rod Morgan, - the "incisive" new chief inspector - was reported saying the probation service needed to "sell its services more effectively to sentencers", and make sure traditional case work wasn't overshadowed.
But they're taking probation officers out of courts not putting them in there, and they haven't got the infantry to do the casework. The thing is, once things start to go like this they crumble and crumble and you can't get it back because the ethos goes. Courts are fed up with the probation service; in the service, the morale goes, people are pissed off to the back teeth.
Beautiful little quote somebody told me the other day relating to all the cuts and the financial restrictions. If a probation office is in trouble because there's nobody to do all the typing or all the probation officers are off sick, you ring up head office and say: "Mission critical!" That enables Great Peter Street [London headquarters] to say: Right, you can spend whatever getting a temporary person in for three days. "Mission critical!" Wonderful. It's like Mission Impossible.
When I began, the management layer was much less, and the people who were at the top had character, and had personality, and they were robust in their views. If you're robust in your views today you don't get to the top. So if you do get there you're just a cypher. Your views have been ironed out of you. So you become a little Hitler, stutting around terribly self-important.
But they've lost confidence: the probation service, the Home Office, the prison service have all lost confidence nowadays because we live in a blame culture. Same with judges - safer to lock people up. Judge gives somebody an intelligent sentence, gets castigated in the Sun.
Prison governors are encouraged by Blunkett & Co to release short-term offenders, tag them for the last couple of months. But if one of them commits an offence, it goes up as a black mark against that governor. If you're an ambitious prison governor you're not going to let people out early, give them home leave; and if you're a governor in a women's prison you're going to chain 'em giving birth. Play safe - people playing safe all down the line.
We've lost confidence in allowing people to have original ideas as to how to deal with offenders.
Look at Woolf saying, You nick my mobile telephone you'll go to prison for three years automatically except in special circumstances. And then they have to back-pedal of course.
They want it all ways: they want original ideas, they want offenders out in the community, but they don't back people when things go wrong. If I'm a newly appointed probation officer and ambitious, I'm going to go absolutely by the rules. But that doesn't help people to get rehabilitated in the community.
It's very sad because it was a fascinating job 30 years ago.
When I kicked off in 1970, the overall prison population was 40,000, today's it's over 71,000. For women it was under 1,000, now it's almost 4,000. Costing a fortune!
My particular interest was long-term offenders, lifers, because when people like that come out of prison they're on licence for the rest of their lives - meaning they are seen frequently by a probation officer in the initial years after release, and they're liable to recall to prison at any time if they misbehave; they don't even have to commit a criminal offence.
I had a number of lifers on my caseload, people who committed murder. Before a man came out I'd visit him regularly every three or four months in the institution. I'd know him, but more important he'd know me.
Very very difficult for a man to get back into the community who's been in prison 15 or 20 years, had everything provided. A terribly difficult ordeal.
Not many do it very successfully. They can't make relationships, they don't know where they are. To make it work, you have got to give them consistency: they want to see the same probation officer, somebody who knows their history; quite reasonable, like seeing your doctor instead of a locum. They don't want erratic dealings because they cannot afford it.
But with the financial restrictions in the last year or two, the probation service can't do much pre-release work. They can't even write basic reports now, so certainly not pay for people to be visited in institutions.
What they're doing now is probation on the cheap, but it doesn't work because you're not dealing with the individual and his or her problems: relationships, housing, no jobs, poverty, and poverty again, bottom of the heap, and no hope. Oh, some hope: go and wash the dishes at the Savoy. Very charming sort of a job.
One of the cheaper ways of dealing with clients is trying to get them into groups; formerly you always saw them one to one. There's lots of these group programmes: Reasoning and Rehabilitation, Think First, Drink Impaired Driving, Sex Offenders, Domestic Violence.
Initially these schemes did go well because they were well staffed, with charismatic people running them. But over the last two or three years they're finding it very hard to get staff for these groups.
And these groups are also run on very rigid lines from the point of view of timing, people not turning up. They're given a warning, then taken back to court. Then of course the court's hands are tied cause they don't know what to do with them. So they lock them up for a short time.
Instead of having it one to one and having it flexible. Say you're a client, my appointment with you is at 10 o'clock this morning. You've got your children off to school, done this and that. But one child's not well. You've tried to get an appointment with the doctor, it's pouring with rain, and the buses don't come.
You get to me at 20 minutes past 10. I know you've got four children, I know that child's not been well, but you've struggled to get in. Under the present system, though, if you arrive 20 minutes late for community punishment [formerly community service] you can't do that day's work - unless you have a medical certificate, nice middle-class stuff here - and also you get a warning letter. Do it again and you're back to the court, never mind the doctor, the buses.
These things are set up by people in offices who never deal with the clients. They lose touch with what it's really like to be poor on a Clapton estate, or a Kilburn estate.
But of course if you're a manager, when you get to a certain stage [up the ladder] you don't have the unpleasantness of having to deal with clients. (We used to call them clients, now they're called offenders, which was Michael Howard's way of dealing with it [as home secretary under Margaret Thatcher]. I would have thought they should be called ex-offenders, but that shows the way that the Home Office has gone, including under Labour.)
Clients can be violent, abusive because they're frightened and upset. These managers might have known something about all that 25 years ago, but they know sweet nothing about it now. People come out of prison they're erratic, they miss buses.
What would I suggest the government do with the probation service? Well the mess it is, the only thing is to scrub the whole bleeding lot and flog it off, privatise large chunks. I don't agree with privatisation politically but to some extent the probation service deserves to be privatised: it's not working and the public service ethos is gone.
You don't need this whole edifice of non-productive people above the people writing the reports. If you pay me £250 to write a report on somebody, I'll see the person in custody, I'll write the report, I'll get it typed up and it'll be fine. And if they put their minds to it community punishment could be privatised too.
As it is now, it really is collapsing, and the people at the top don't have the ability or the wish to salvage it. They're going to blame anyone else they can think of.
Society Guardian, Thursday 25th July 2002.
- Footnote: Reflecting the concerns expressed in several contributions to Public Voices, probation staff voted to stage a one-day strike on January 29, 2003, and afterwards to work contractual hours. Their union, Napo, said: "Over the last decade probation workloads have increased by 50%. Currently in excess of 15% of the probation workforce is leaving each year. Napo has been raising the issue of the need for manageable workloads with officials for the last three years. Since that time the Probation Service has taken on numerous new tasks such as youth offender work, drug treatment orders and intensive group work without a commensurate increase in resources."