Monday, 23 February 2015

Guest Blog 26

Advise, Assist and Befriend.

I've seen a lot of changes in probation over the years. When I started working in probation most of my colleagues tended to have 20+ year service records, while managers had been in post for like forever. The success of qualification as a Probation Officer was a real achievement, particularly when working alongside such long serving staff, some with previous careers in professions including mining, finance, teaching and the military. In those days you had to be qualified for at least two years to supervise a dangerous offender or lifer, you wouldn't be allocated a Parole Report unless you had already proved your worth in both report writing and through-care, and you needed an arms length of quality service to become a manager and a lifetime of service to become a senior manager or Chief Officer. Nowadays the new recruits can be allocated a caseload of high risk offenders on the first day and management is an escape route for those that have the least understanding of probation work. Pay increases were on an annual basis and I'm sure pay bands used to be a lot higher too.

There were always unique characters in probation offices, such as the good-natured colleague that supervised all the lifers and was always visiting prisons, the colleague that was an expert on mental health and seemed in need of the service too, the rebellious Union colleagues that management revered, you know the ones that were eventually seconded off to the local prison (the elephants graveyard for burnt out probation officers), the colleague that would bring in token presents for the most isolated clients at Xmas and allegedly on occasion would invite the most needy to dinner at Xmas and Easter (to which management turned a blind eye), the colleagues that awoke the office with Reggae tunes first thing every morning (if you were in early enough to hear), the colleague that seemed to have mastered the art of avoiding all unnecessary meetings in place of fag and coffee breaks, the colleague that was always trying to bend and reinterpret legislation and sentencing guidelines (sometimes summoned to appear before Crown Court Judges to explain their proposals), the colleague that wrote Pre Sentence Reports so lengthy that the rest of us went into hiding at gate keeping time, and the colleague whose Pre Sentence Reports were so short they could fit on two sides of A4. What united us all was the value of being probation officers and the desire to help our clients to change and improve their lives

I think I joined up when Probation had just about clawed back its status as a worthwhile profession after Michael Howard had tried to kill it off, but since qualification it's been downhill all the way. Unfortunately much of our good work seems to have been eroded and this has escalated under recent governments and the introduction of TR. Pay freezes and 1% pay rises are now an expectation, sickness and stress levels have risen even for the most experienced staff, probation management (particularly those recently retired CEO's) sold us down the river and told us to say "thank you", and we've lost a disproportionate amount of experienced staff to CRC's to be replaced by probation (PQF) trainees fresh out of university, some of which don't really seem to know what probation work actually is, or don't really care. Sad but true.

I joined probation a few years after leaving university too. I had the experience of youth work and being employed with various non-statutory rehabilitation agencies, and before that manual labour was my thing and long before that I was a delinquent and subsequently a prisoner, that's the experience I brought. On the last point (now that I have your attention), probation believed in me and in turn I've believed in every client I've supervised. I've once known a client return to probation as an employee, and I've counted amongst my probation officer friends over the years a few former football hooligans, two reformed prostitutes, numerous recovered drug addicts and alcoholics (some in relapse if the Xmas party is anything to go by) and a few convicted of the more minor indiscretions. 

So I'm not at risk of being accused of glorifying offending or bringing probation into disrepute. I add that over the years my undesirable bunch of probation officer friends has also included a range of identities and top notch exemplary characters from the lowest classes to the borderline upper class, and even two 'new money' lottery winners still actually coming to work. I've also been lucky enough to work with some of the best probation managers, and thankfully my current manager is 'old skool' and and falls into this category.

What binds us together in probation is the contribution we make to society in supporting probation clients. We hold a basic set of values believing every person can change, given adequate support, motivation and opportunity, and this can shines through for many no matter whether they qualified with DipSW or DipPS. Ever since the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 provided the statutory foundation for the probation service we've been 'advising, assisting and befriending' those under our supervision. A few weeks ago when prepping for a parole hearing I came across documentation from what was then the Probation and Aftercare Service and I thought to myself, "even though it's hard to see amidst the MoJ limescale and gloss, we still are that service". 

Despite all the changes, the IT failures, the TR omnishambles and the combined impact of the ideas of Michael Howard, Chris Grayling and all the other probation-haters, we will always be probation officers doing probation work. I won't pretend that probation officers are not overworked or are sometimes too preoccupied with assessing risk, MAPPA and "protecting the public". And we know when we attend hearings with barristers and psychologists that we're evidently not lettered enough to earn anything more than £27 per hour in providing our opinions. However, for whom the Courts think fit to be placed under our supervision every colleague I know takes their duty seriously in helping probation clients to improve their quality of life, which is what probation work has been about for over 100 years.

The reason for this now rambling post was to respond to the comments on this blog from probation clients, the ones that have unfortunately had a negative experience of probation. I occasionally comment here as 'Probation Officer' and I used to Tweet as 'SaveProbation', so this is an addition to my previous two-pence worth. A while back I fell out with my probation bosses over too many outspoken views and so moved on to pastures new, but I returned a while later because of my love for probation work, albeit less active in the campaign against TR (which has now been lost). The disclosure about my own background and that of some of my colleagues is to highlight that probation officers come from all walks of life as do the clients we work with. 

I cringe at the implementation of too many conduct policies, vetting procedures and the now forced adherence to the Civil Service Code, which I think has become partly responsible for some of the rigid probation practices that undermine 'best practice'. This is unfortunate as our gift is that we're real people with real experiences and we use this in our work. Saying that, we do need forms of appropriate regulation and this is not an excuse for the discontent towards probation supervision, but if recruitment does not allow for variation and diversity then we may as well buy a bunch of robot probation officers like they have in the USA (probably coming to a CRC near you soon). Sometimes we don't have the time to bend over backwards for clients, we can't provide flats in Mayfair or jobs with the Bank of England, and yes sometimes we do have to refuse a release from prison or return clients to custody. We can't please all of the people all of the time.

I understand the frustrations of both supervising and of being supervised, and I have in the past come across probation officers that wrongly believed that probation clients should not be anxious or angry about having to come to probation and should even welcome their supervision. I've witnessed probation clients wrongly breached for arriving 10 minutes late and even learned of clients recalled to prison for trying to 'chat up' their probation officer or expressing a few profanities during supervision. I remember when 'supervision' wrongly began to take a back seat to CBT programmes and the activities on offer from outside organisations became increasingly more important, and when Community Service worryingly became a way to generate an income and create photo opportunities for local politicians and Police and Crime Commissioners. 

What I'm saying is that we all know that there has been problems in probation for some time, made worse by TR, but I've also seen all of the good work. Some say they took away probation's social work roots and others say they turned probation into an enforcement agency, but they did not. Every probation office I enter has the same old mix of varied staff all trying to work towards the greater good. The age and experience of new entrants to probation officer training seems to be ever decreasing with the latest recruits fresh out of university, but I still don't think the ethos of probation work can ever be removed because by the time the 'nodding dogs' have escaped to management roles the rest would have already begun evolving into "poxy social work types" (as I was recently referred to).

The government is constantly banging on about reoffending rates but what's usually omitted is the fantastic news that the majority of people on probation do not reoffend. I know my own work has aided these figures and this is a summary just from today for those wanting an insight into probation work. After dropping the kids off at school I arrived at work, fighting the traffic to arrive at my usual time. I checked my emails and picked up a file and on to visit a local'ish prison. The visit was to discuss release plans for a man soon to be released after serving a very long sentence. He has no home to go to and no family to support him, but I've got him a place in a probation hostel and he's happy with that. We finished with a bit of a chat about Morgan Freeman's parole speech in the Shawshank Redemption, one of his favourite movies. 

Two hours later I was back at my desk going through emails ranging from concerns about a young offender to gripes about what may be lurking in the office fridge. I tend to pick up the phone to respond to emails it's faster and I don't need to evidence everything I do with an email. As I was on my way to join colleagues for a team lunch I bumped into a client on his way in to see me unplanned. He wanted to use the phone to call the Benefits Agency so I put my coat back inside and sat with him while he made the call. He's not very articulate (and "where's my effing money" never works) so I explained the situation to the person on the other end of the line to get the ball rolling. 40 minutes later and after listening to his reflection on his recent melt down over Xmas, job done and I managed to grab a sandwich to eat at my desk. 

Over the next few hours there was the usual steady stream of emails, telephone calls and clients in my direction. At the same time I was working on a Pre-Sentence Report due in Court in a few days time. The person in question is suitable for a community sentence and that's what I'm recommending. I try to keep people out of prison wherever possible, and I try to emphasise rehabilitation over punishment. My to-do list also includes a Parole Report, a recall review report, a few risk assessments and supervision plans, and I'm usually running a bit behind in updating the contact logs with details of every phone call and email and every visit from a probation client. 

It had already turned dark outside and was nearing the end of the day. The last client through the door is young and headstrong so I always try to spend a bit more time with him. He's really started to do well since being released from prison and we have a chat about his future plans to keep him focused. He failed his driving test in the past week so we talked about that too and I gave him a few tips for his retest. In return he let me hear his lyrics in his latest Youtube video, which thankfully only lasted a few minutes. 

The last part of my day is usually spent updating the contact logs, and then finishing outstanding prices of work. I managed to complete a recall review report ready to be countersigned and sent to the recall unit. The client in question has outstanding offences so I'm recommending that he's not released from prison just yet. His solicitor had been constantly phoning me about this decision and doesn't seem to understand legal processes so I'm no longer taking their calls until my report had been submitted. 

Just as I was having a chat with colleagues and about to switch off the computer an email came through with confirmation that a prisoner due to be released will not be detained by the immigration section. I rang his parents with the good news and my working day ended on a positive note. It was a long day but a good day, as are most days in probation. There were no crisis situations, I wasn't called a "cunt", nobody turned up homeless, and there wasn't a fire drill so it was all good.

Its probably a good point to get back to the point of the article, which is to remind probation clients that we are here to help and we are darn good at it. I'm not interested in claiming to protect the public, provide a service to victims or to enforce 'proper' punishments. My job as a Probation Officer, not an Offender Manager which is an awful term, is to advise, assist, befriend, help, support, motivate and rehabilitate. Anybody can be an 'Offender Manager' (whatever that is) and in my book impersonating a Probation Officer should become a criminal offence. 

The Government meddling and the introduction of TR will not change my ethos and nor will the business plans of the new owners of private probation companies. As the news of the cost cutting strategies of the new private probation companies begin to emerge it is quickly becoming apparent that they may have bitten off more than they can chew. The Offender Rehabilitation Act is built on too much controversy, TTG to be delivered by privateers and charities is already a looming failure, and only an idiot would introduce a Post Sentence Supervision strategy that is abbreviated and referred to as PSS.

Probation work cannot be properly costed because if it were we'd be getting a lot more than £27 per hour. Nor can our work be time restricted or dictated by government whims, that's if rehabilitation is to remain an achievable outcome. When probation services are in tatters, when a new Justice Secretary is in post and when all those probation Chief Officers and management types that aided and abetting the sale of probation are forced to lower their heads in shame, we will continue to say "We told you so" and we'll carry on with advising, assisting and befriending.

Probation Officer
(10-20 years to retire!)


  1. Enjoyed reading this. Thanks. Felt strangely familiar...!

  2. £27 quid an hour!!!!!!!! Bloody hell that's an absolute fortune for most people who will never earn close to that in their working lives, including most of the people you supervise. For that £27 an hour it is not unreasonable to expect that the person earning that do their job absolutely brilliantly at all time: no cutting corners, no failing to uphold the law, always treating the client as a human being, not misrepresenting things in reports etc. So my question is, is why have I now had four probation officers who have all failed to earn their £27 an hour by not doing their job properly??

    1. £27/hour gross is about £1000/week (@ 37 hour week)... That's £50K p.a. - certainly NOT what most probation staff are paid. I think there's been some confusion or over-excitement.

      Still not in the realms of Jack "I need to earn a living" Straw, expecting £5,000 a day over & above his gilt-edged MP's pension, exit bonus (a tidy sum) & any other personal &/or financial benefits he's managed to accrue whilst being paid by the taxpayer; not to mention assisting the UberWeasel in taking us to an illegal war.

      It is nevertheless useful to remember that the minimum wage is £6.50/hour, whilst I would guess most probation staff are paid somewhere between £10 & £20 per hour.

    2. You can't drill holes in concrete with a plastic spoon, regardless of how much you're being paid!
      It's a sad fact, but some people are so entrenched within their own belief that they are always 'right' they really do miss out on a lot in life.
      My real regret in life is that I burned that many bridges in my life before I realised I actually did have some level of abillity, I now wake up every day in the knowledge that what ever success the day brings, I can never actually realise my full potential.
      It hurts too that that is because I didn't take oppertunities and assistance when it was available.
      It's my own fault, and my cross alone to bear.
      I have a great deal of respect for todays guest blogger, because they obviously did not make the same errors.
      I've had many probation officers over the last few decades, and one or two I didn't really like, but that didn't exclude me from getting the help I asked for.
      To my mind getting four on the trot tat have all failed in their duty suggests the real problem dosen't lay with probation, four on the trot does not only suggest piss poor luck, but defies all the laws probabillity.
      It's a sad thing to look back on a life of missed oppertunity and unfullfilled potential.
      Maybe by meeting the world halfway you wont make the same mistakes I have, and who knows, if you grab all on offer you may end up with a job that pays £127 an hour.


  3. Bear in mind £27 per hour is an agency rate and before tax. These amounts differ between areas. The average PO salary ranges from abot £28k - £35k per year.

  4. Sorry to come back so soon, but I think the real riches and rewards contained in todays guest blog go far beyond monetry renumeration.
    I hope todays discussions focus on the real value contained in todays post, and not the hourly rate of pay.


    1. You are, in my view, absolutely right get-a-fix - there are more valuable things in life than cash payments.

      Sadly not everyone agrees, and most are those allegedly 'leading the country' or 'representing' their constituents. No wonder, then, that money is a fixation for many:

      "Sir Malcolm [Rifkind] told undercover reporters that he was “self-employed”, despite getting paid £67,060 a year, and that he would be “surprised how much free time I have”. Despite this, he told reporters "nobody pays me a salary" and "I can do what I like". As chair of the parliamentary committee which oversees Britain's intelligence agencies, his salary rises to £81,936 a year...“I think also if you’re trying to attract people of a business or professional background to serve in the House of Commons and if they’re not ministers it is quite unrealistic to believe they will go through their parliamentary career being able to simply accept a salary of £60,000."

      Meanwhile, on't'other side of t'house: "Mr Straw was recorded describing how he operated "under the radar" and had used his influence to change EU rules on behalf of a firm which paid him £60,000 a year. (NB - this is IN ADDITION to his MP salary & anything else he gets)... On the subject of payment, Mr Straw is heard saying: "So normally, if I'm doing a speech or something, it's £5,000 a day, that's what I charge."

      Thieves, liars, cheats, scoundrels, con-artists.

      We (tax payers) pay their salaries whilst they ignore us, take us to war, give our money away to their chums, buy favours and line their own pockets.

    2. I just wondered of Getafix was one of the forgotten characters in the Asterix stories?

  5. Comment overheard today in CRC.

    "Our job should be reducing reoffending rates, not dealing with all the regions f***ing social problems".
    Methinks reality is dawning.

    1. That will be the same thing :lol:

    2. Maybe, just about right now, they are realising that re-offending, or indeed offending, is down to 'f***ing social problems'.

      Words fail me!

  6. Off topic but needs to be read. Could be a very bad week for Grayling!!

    1. The government’s leading expert on suicide prevention has pulled out of a Ministry of Justice presentation on the rising number of suicides in prisons after being told, he says, not to make any link with falling staff numbers.

      Prof Louis Appleby, who oversees the implementation of the national cross-government strategy for suicide prevention, was due to speak at the justice ministry’s “independent ministerial board” on prison suicides on Monday.

      Several members of the independent board voiced their concern after Appleby, who is the national clinical director of health and justice, made public his decision on Twitter.

      Deborah Coles, the co-director of Inquest, which works with families of those who die in custody, reacted by saying it was outrageous that the MoJ was trying to “gag” Appleby from making a link between a rise in prison suicides and staffing cuts.

      The shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, also protested: “If these reports are true, this is censorship – plain and simple,” he said.

      “Ministers can’t tell a leading expert what he can and can’t say just because the truth is unpalatable. We need an honest assessment of what is driving the surge in suicides and violence in jails under this government.

      “The truth is Chris Grayling refuses to acknowledge there is a prisons crisis, and will do anything he can to avoid hearing the truth about just how terrible an impact his policies have had on our jails.”

      Whitehall sources suggest Appleby’s decision may have been based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

      They stress that the independent ministerial board, which is chaired by a Labour peer, Lord Toby Harris, and has in its membership Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform and Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, has repeatedly discussed a possible link between suicides and prison staffing levels.

      The board’s secretariat is provided by a seconded member of the justice ministry’s national offender management service and is understood to have requested Appleby keep his presentation focused on the wider aspects of the issue over which he has been an expert for more than 20 years.

  7. Looks like MTC (London CRC) are doing well in Texas Prison system!

  8. Excellent piece, Purple Futures take note ........... and in terms of Oasys completion in 10 days post sentence, Good Luck With That One !

    1. My guess is that people will try for a while but will stick two fingers when they realise how difficult (and pointless) that is.

  9. As another many many years in, I too have worked through many types of change and up to this point have always been able to find a way through whilst carrying on without really changing the core. However, this is the biggest and worst mess of them all. The abusive way the so called management are prepared to behave whilst deluding themselves, their sycophants and those 'above'them that they are actually achieving anything is !!!!!! Slick / slimy management speak and the ability to present the Emperors New Clothes seems to be their only skill . They achieve nothing. Their job is to resource and manage the worker to produce. They do neither. They produce nothing. They do not protect the public, reduce crime or victims. Yet they have the gall to sit around in meetings, oh so important, best frocks and suits..and think they can come up with processes, solutions, when they could not, had no interest in or did not, do the job of protecting the public by reducing crime, they now seem able to persuade those who know no better that they actually know what they are talking about. Consult they say. utter rubbish they wouldn't and don't know how to consult. No wonder it's a mess, cobbled together , ridiculously lengthy and ineffective...they don't even have the decency to proof read the stuff. amendment after amendment . Now, having given themselves plenty of time to get their dishonest self affirming, haven't I done well, stuff to send up the line. What manager tells their manager they are actually hopeless at their job ?, they forgot all about the 'bottom up' appraisal process conveniently and quickly didn't they !. Now they reckon we have had enough time to have been able to work through their mire and let's pretend the months since June just didn't happen.

  10. Good blog and yes, familiar! My respect and admiration goes to Get a fix, who always causes me to check I'm still doing the job well and have a strong alligence to those I work for and with!

    I consider myself lucky to have a job I love and a reasonable income, although no pay rises anymore as I've been in a while, however a colleague pointed out, no payrise is actually a reduction in my pension. So for anyone who begrudes us payment, it's not all its cracked up to be especially as I now have to work until I'm 67! I've never been scared of hard work and will keep going, although I will do so with the same attitude expressed by today's guest blogger!

  11. I have tried to close my ears and eyes to all the bull shit speak that people seem to think they need to spew to sound as though they have something to say: "driving the..." "mobilisation..." "reconfiguration..." I try to remember why I chose to do this work, but I notice that, increadingly, those who come before the courts, are utterly irrelevant to the new and uneccessarily complex systems and processes dumped on us. CG has set out to destroy the CJS - and the notion of 'justice seen to be done' - by replacing it with a production line set at such a pace we will all be too busy with our faces stuck in yet another shitty IT tool that doesn't work to notice exactly who is passing through the doors of the court. Once an error has occurred, it tends to be compounded as it travels along what is now an increasingly bureaucratic journey. The excellent reviews coming out of Hanson & White and others, all now counts for nothing, because all that matters now is the market, the volume, and process. I mourn the simplicity and efficiency of what has been destroyed.

  12. everything that has ever come out of any serious case review has been completely ignored and abolished. Lets remember this when the Serious Case Reviews start pouring out in the future - and when they do lets bombard the MOJ and the media with the reasons for the failings, reminding them how we repeated said what would happen. The more pipes you put into a system, the greater the risk of leaks - thats the only thing I remember being said by a previous ACO - the very one who as a CEO was known for the JFDI quote.

  13. Probation Officer24 February 2015 at 20:45

    As the guest blogger I'm grateful to read those familiarising with my experiences. Despite all the changes forced upon us we are a 'probation family' united by our work (long may it last). Totally agree with anon 00:13, I also consider myself lucky to have a job.

    Just to respond to Anon 9:10 and 9:33, £27 (gross) per hour was a big city agency rate. I referred to this rate to show our maximum monetary worth, which is not as much as you think when all the relevant reductions have been made, and then compare it to all the other "professionals" in the room. I think it's reduced now and about £24 (gross) on average. Permanent Qualified probation officers (which I am) are not paid hourly and earn between £28,000 to £35,000 a year. Whatever the pay rate we all work much more than the 37 hours per week we're paid for.

    It's a decent income and I'd love to earn more, but I doubt anyone joins probation primarily for the money, which means we have a lot of staff that love their job. Probation should though do more to promote serving probation officers as justice consultants of sorts (just my opinion), if it had then maybe we'd have had more of a say in NOMS and TR.

    'Getafix', thanks for your comments ... and it's never too late.