Monday, 26 January 2015

Voices From the Past 1

With only a week to go before the privateers are let rip, I'm very grateful to the keen newshound that managed to dredge up the following fascinating piece from the Guardian over a decade ago.    
'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."


  1. So having (by the end of this week) sold off the probation service we need to be focusing the resources left in the public sector on excelling in report writing and risk assessment. Instead what are we doing? We're preparing oral reports with no background checks with little or no risk assessments. I have no problem at all with oral reports but we need to make sure that we complete a thorough assessment with it. This isn't happening. If we allow this to continue there will eventually be no need for us at all because what will the point of us be? It's time to stand up for our profession. Am I on my own in thinking this?

  2. The prison staff who run NOMS and the MoJ are satisfied with PRETENDING to rehabilitate, as they always have been in the prisons. The Probation service I joined has been watered down to become an insipid pretence. Pretend to report pre-sentence, pretend to supervise post-sentence. All so very sad.

  3. I really enjoyed the blog today Jim, thank you, that article was a real find.
    I couldn't agree more with the comment
    "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, strutting around terribly self-important."
    Sadly I have seen this behaviour in a newly appointed NPS manager recently so I believe the culture remains. At the point of the staff split, as a PO, I was managed by an SPO, Admin Manager, Assistant Director, Director and Chief Exec and all in one of the smallest trusts! It is sad beyond words how the current state of probation has come to pass.

  4. Off topic, but the comments of Glyn Travis seem somewhat relative to the direction the probation service is being pushed in.

    1. Glyn Travis, spokesman for the Prison Officers’ Association, has previously said officers were “being treated like punchbags” on a daily basis as Government cuts took effect.

      Speaking about the attack that left three guards in hospital hospitalised, he said: “This attack on prison officers is an affront to hard working professionals and violence in prisons needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

      He added: “The issue is the prisoner to staff ratio means staff have less time to interact with prisoners, less time to get information, less time for security, less time to search for contraband and less time to deal with prisoners who are vulnerable and feel the only way to deal with things is by lashing out, when they may be being bullied or intimidated by other prisoners.

      “It is a cocktails of things which makes a recipe for disaster.”

  5. Wasn't Grayling supposed to have made a statement by now about the possible conflicts of interest with the HMIP?

    1. Yes but it will be ignore the problem and delay until he can slide out to another department after the election.

  6. Still trying to find the date given for Grayling's response. In the neantime, here's a transcript of McDowell's interview:

    1. On 16 Dec 2014 said this:

      "Elsewhere in the session, Grayling pledged to fix the conflict of interest problem involving the chief inspector of probation. Paul McDowell's wife is the director of a company which won the largest number of contracts to run probation services in England and Wales.

      Grayling's concern about the situation is relatively recent and dates back to when she was promoted from deputy director to director. Before that, he pretended it wasn't a problem.

      That's why he suddenly told the justice committee it needed to be dealt with as a matter of urgency the other day. And it's presumably why he told the Commons today that the "very recent appointment" is "clearly an issue which must be addressed".

      Again – the "recent" appointment comment is utter nonsense. This was a problem before her promotion as it is now. He has known about this situation since before they submitted their bid. It is entirely disingenuous of him to now pretend it is a recent unforeseeable development.

      Regardless, Grayling told the justice committee he'd have it sorted by the time the contracts are signed, which is on Thursday (I.e 18 Dec 2014). The clock is ticking."

      On 18 Dec 2014 Sarah Champion MP released a press statement linked to this issue.

    2. "Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said:

      “Let us be clear: I regard the current chief inspector as a man of great integrity and great skill, who has been doing a very good job for the past few months. He was selected on merit by my department and his appointment was approved by the Justice Committee.

      “The fact that an issue has now arisen with the very recent appointment of a member of his family to a senior position in one of the providers clearly has to be addressed. It will be addressed sensitively and I will report to the House when it is appropriate to do so.”

      Sarah's response:

      “Whilst I appreciate that the Justice Secretary will address this issue, it is vital that we have a Chief Inspector who can be independent and provide us with the best possible probation service, free from fear or favour. After the recent disclosures can we be certain that the current Chief Inspector will give us this?

      “This also raises questions in my mind about how Mr McDowell could be appointed in the first place when these links were known from the outset

  7. I remember that 5 minutes was the cut off point for late attendance for Community Service in my area and I'm pretty sure it was later than the article above, where he thinks 20 minutes is too inflexible. Whilst I agree with his comments about the type of managers that were emerging even then, we can't sell ourselves as rigorous and challenging and then complain about not being able to enforce the sentence of the court by relaxing part of the rigour, ie timekeeping.

  8. I was told by my boss to day that CG needs to sign off the ORA legislation before it comes into force on Feb 1st. Does anyone know if this is correct, and if so, when is he planning to do so? I am very worried as we have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in place anywhere in my area to deal with the new legislation.

    1. He has done already. Was told the NPS are not ready but Allars said ' they are ready enough'. The MoJ should be deeply ashamed as the inevitable debacle unfolds over the coming weeks. No-one is ready; Probation, the Courts, prisons, no-one. A work Progeamme farce will unfold; 'worse than doing nothing'.

    2. Dont worry NPS I,m sure your pals in the new private organisations will 'prop you up' as they apparently have been briefed and ready for ORA. Seems like the one thing the CRC's are doing well is keeping staff briefed and aware of issues as they unfold.

    3. The Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 - Commencement Orders

    4. Hold on Anon 19:55, that is not the universal state of affairs by any means. I'm in the CRC and I sat thru 5 1/2 hours of 'briefing' (I use the word advisedly) on ORA last week. The resounding message coming through is that nothing is in place at any level in our area to implement this legislation. It seems to me there are enough grounds anyway for a legal challenge on proportionality, let alone if some areas start implementing it before others. Postcode justice indeed.

    5. Hold on a tick because I may have got this wrong. Whilst the ORA commences next month, I believe this is ONLY for offences committed after that date, rather than prior. From memory (which is not that good given my age) the same rules applied in 2007 when we got the new CJA (2005).

      If I'm wrong please correct me.
      If I'm right then I can see mass confusion in the Court as a mixture of sentences will have to be passed dependant on when the crime was committed.

      I might pop along to my local Court to watch things dissolve. Are we allowed to take pop-corn into the Court?

    6. Yes Anon 21:20; that's correct. So it will start with all the weekend overnight arrests for drunk and disorderly, drink related criminal damage and minor Public Order offences after a night on the town. These offences (especially for repeat offenders) are often dealt with (as far as I can see) by a week, two, or poss a month's custody. Locally therefore, we have anticipated the first probationers sentenced under ORA coming through to us in less than a month. And it doesnt matter if its one or two or a whole raft of newly sentenced individuals- if the structure isnt there to deliver under ORA then it isnt there....

    7. As I understand it if a person commits an offence on 1st February, & is arrested & put before a court on that day or thereafter and is sentenced to more than 2 days in prison but less than 12 months, they will be subject to the Grayling 'Old Lag' mentoring scheme.

      A visit before release by the 'Old Lag' mentor, who will be at the gate to meet the prisoner on release and if necessary escort them to their new accommodation, and oversee any signing on arrangements with the DWP - it sounded very straightforward when Mr Grayling explained it!

      I doubt there will be many releases in February but presume they will begin to come on stream with steady regularity during March and April.

      I wonder if Keith Vaz will take the House of Commons, Home Affairs Select Committee to the prison gate to meet the first one, like they went to meet the first worker from the EU accession countries on 1st Jan 2014, at Luton Airport?

    8. It's all going so well with Graylings reforms, that a spokesman for Liverpool has just said on the news regarding staff safety (3 staff with serious injurys last week and another stabbed in the chest today), that the only way to keep staff safe is to unlock far fewer numbers of prisoners at any one time.
      Nobody was available at the MoJ for comment, but it does put it on Graylings toes a little.

      As for being met at the gate? Well it wont work if theres not enough prison officers to bring those being discharged to the gate in the first place!!

    9. and thats implementing the RAR as well by the weekend. Good luck with that one Courts teams it seems as tho having 5 1/2 hours of a briefing is more than the entire NPS and Magistrate's have had in the entire country.

  9. Amnesty International are now protesting about Grayling. He should be brought to parliament to answer for his disgraceful actions.

  10. Anyone hear the interview with Lance Armstrong on radio 5 live today, about 5:30? The man/interview is an absolute perfect example for anyone struggling with the concepts of deniel, minimisation and blame. I can't recall exactly, but when asked about whether he'd use performance enhancing drugs today, he said, no but "in 1995 everyone made that decision, my team mates, the entire peleton". When asked if he had regrets, he said he regretted the decisions " that man made, the behaviour of that man"' clearly, not him, but some alien that took over his body! When asked why he took the drugs he suggested "back then they were prevalent". Yeah, they always have been. On further questioning about his use of drugs, he suggested he was driven by competition and if any sports person/cclist chose not to use, it would have meant "us kids" would have had to return to college, office jobs, some would be returned to Eastern Europe and others would have returned to work in the fields of France!!! Interviewer asked what was wrong with that, at least he would have his integrity in tact - to which he said, "I know a lot of people without integrity". I despise the man, so I was going to turn it off, but he uttered those words which causes for you to continue listening " I will be honest" if only. He thinks he should be forgiven, but for what, he didn't take any responsibility for his decisions and behaviour, so why should he be contrite! Blimey, it's all so bloody familiar!

    Anyone confused about their role as a po, it is, advice, assist and befriend and if Mr Armstrong had any real friends, they would be having words about with him as to how pathetic and transparent he is!

  11. From Civil Service World

    "A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Just Solutions international provides knowledge and expertise of prison and offender management services to international organisations and governments who work with offenders.

    “It has been government policy for many years to work with overseas governments and help them develop their criminal justice systems, utilising that knowledge to bring funds to the public purse.

    “JSi does not work with countries unless it is completely safe to do so and details of any contracts will be made public when agreed.”"

    1. Its reported that the Germans have decided to no longer sell arms to a brutal Saudi regime. More pressure on Grayling and JSI?

    2. Yesterday the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported that Angela Merkel had decided to stop exporting arms to Saudi Arabia.

      The German national security council holds its meetings in secret, and has so far declined to comment on the article. The paper said that due to the ‘unstable’ nature of the Kingdom at present, the council had decided not to approve arms exports until further notice.

      It is unclear what the motives for the cancellation are – it could be that the death of King Abdullah has indeed destabilised the country, or that the spread of IS militants nearby makes the Gulf state too risky an investment. It is also possible that the recent media attention on Saudi human rights abuses, and on its funding of Wahabbi extremism, has led Germany to withdraw military support.

      Germany is the world’s third-largest arms exporter, and has been criticised many times over the years for supplying arms to dubious regimes. Saudi Arabia paid German weapons manufacturers €360m in 2013. In February of last year, De Spiegel published a classified letter revealing government plans to provide guarantees for the export of over 100 patrol and border control boats to Saudi Arabia,with a value totalling €1.4 billion. So how does this compare to the UK?

      In 2014, Saudi Arabia was the UK’s biggest arms market. According to figures released by CAAT this month, Westminster has exported £2bn worth of arms to the Kingdom over the past three years. Saudi Arabia is the second biggest foreign customer of BAE Systems, the largest British arms company.

      In 1985 Margaret Thatcher negotiated the biggest ever arms deal struck between two countries, with the signing of the Al-Yamamah arms contract. In exchange for British Tornado fighter planes, helicopters, tanks and ammunitions, the Saudis would provide 600,000 barrels of crude oil per day to the British government.

      In 2001 there were investigations into alleged fraud surrounding the deal, but Tony Blair intervened to halt them, concerned about a breakdown in the UK/Saudi alliance. With the British eye on the Middle East largely trained on Iraq in the following years, details of arms deals with the Saudis have slipped out of the limelight.

    3. How many people remember the drama/documentary 'Death of a Princess' and the resulting furore?. ATV had to broadcast an apology, Concorde was banned from Saudi airspace, visas were refused for Brits and all for a work of fiction, based on Saudi customs. Why do we pander to these despots?. Why do we even pretend our justice system has any common ground with theirs?. We all know the answer. How long before the first 'this is an exciting time to be part of the DLNR (Derby's, Leics, Notts and Riyadh) CRC' bulletin comes out?.

  12. "I note with approval that the practice has developed that when the suitable sentence is considered to be a community order which includes a single requirement that does not necessitate the involvement of probation (e.g. a curfew order), courts often proceed to sentence without the need for a written or oral report."

    I would have thought if a court is concerned about safety for the supervisees family and the successful completion of a curfew order - for anything but a short term - a PSR is vital!

    1. Reminds me of Cleese et al some 40 years back - "Why do you want to join the secret service? Can you keep a secret? Yes? Then you're in."

      And on similar lines I can almost hear the following exchange on the afternoon of 2 Feb 2015 - "Good morning Miss - oh, I'm sorry, I have a cold. I wish to make a complaint about this CRC what I bought from you this morning.... This CRC is no more. It has ceased to be... etc, etc, etc."

    2. The cast:
      Mrs McDour
      Mr Grayling

      The sketch:
      A customer enters the MoJ buildings
      Mr. Praline: 'Ello, I wish to register a complaint.
      (The Minister does not respond.)
      Mr. Praline: 'Ello, Miss?
      Minister: What do you mean "miss"?
      Mr. Praline: (pause) I'm sorry, I have a cold. I wish to make a complaint!
      Minister: We're closin' for lunch. We’ve a plane to catch to Riyadh in five minutes.
      Mr. Praline: Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this CRC what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.
      Minister: Oh yes, the, uh, the Northumbrian Pinko...What's,uh...What's wrong with it?
      Mr. Praline: I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. It's dead, that's what's wrong with it!
      Minister: No, no, it's uh,'s an investment.
      Mr. Praline: Look, matey, I know a dead CRC when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now.
      Minister: No no its's not dead, it's, it's an investment! Remarkable CRC, the Northumbrian Pinko, idn'it, ay? Beautiful programmes!
      Mr. Praline: The programmes don't enter into it. It's stone dead.
      Minister: Nononono, no, no! It's an investment!

  13. Report from HMIP - Sodexo run Northumberland Prison published today....concerns about there's a surprise!
    Also any news re Grayling's statement on future of HMIP himself?
    Northern PO

  14. Je suis probation officer27 January 2015 at 08:40

    Quite a poor article for what appears to be a burnt out and disillusioned probation officer way past his sell by date.

    To suggest improving a good service by 'selling it off' is ridiculous. We know probation needed improvement but not a single credible person wanted to sell it off. We've learnt from the Thatcher years that selling off public services generally does not improve them.

    This article was best left in the archive.

  15. "Magistrates & Judges Sentencing Powers Diminished?

    (Article Begins): -

    If I am understanding correctly the provisions of the Offender Rehabilitation Act, 2014 - which until last week, I had believed would not be implemented, without prior amendment, will mean no longer can Magistrates or Judges impose a Community Punishment Order, but instead the power transfers to Officers of the National Probation Service and Community Rehabilitation Companies."

    For the whole thing: -