Friday, 18 September 2015

Legitimacy in Leicester

In the end I managed to make it to Leicester University for the first significant academic conference since probation privatisation. The papers presented covered a diverse range of topics, but it was gratifying that pretty much everything covered had been discussed at some point on this blog over the last few years, not necessarily by me, but certainly in the often-lively comment thread. 

It was also interesting to discover that two pieces of academic research have confirmed both the mood and views expressed anecdotally on the blog over the last couple of years and during this whole painful TR transition period. An oft-used phrase yesterday was 'legitimacy' and although it may be viewed as an irrelevancy in certain quarters, I came back from Leicester confident that the blog has been both worthwhile and largely accurate in recording what's actually happening in this new probation environment of ours.

I don't intend to cover any of the material in great detail at this point, mainly because I find many academics incredibly softly-spoken and I'm hopeful that the powerpoint overheads might yet appear online at some point. However, I will try and mention particular highlights that I came away with, starting with the two papers that specifically credited this blog:- 

Lol Burke, Liverpool John Moores University

The impact of Transforming Rehabilitation in one CRC area

"In this presentation Lol Burke will present the findings of an ESRC funded ethnographic study of the formation of one Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) as part of the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda. There will be a specific focus on the construction and negotiation of occupational identities following the creation of the new company through to the transfer to private sector ownership. A number of key themes are highlighted as emerging from the research, prominent among which is ‘liminality’ (i.e. the experience of being betwixt and between the old and the new, the public and the outsourced). Other themes discussed in the article include separation and loss, status anxiety, loyalty and trust, liberation and innovation. Finally, consideration will be given to the longer-term impacts of Transforming Rehabilitation upon the professional identities and occupational culture of probation."

What I found interesting was how this research had to be conducted pretty much 'under the radar' given the paranoia present at the MoJ during the time TR was being implemented and the subsequent dire warnings issued to all CRC's about involving any researchers. We are not supposed to know which CRC it was, but by a process of deduction I'll take a stab at saying it was probably West Yorkshire. 

I gather the research team were given unfettered access from March 2014 until June 2015 'because senior management wanted the story to be told', pretty much the aim of this blog and not surprisingly they discovered a very familiar 'narrative of loss' with feelings of deprofessionalisation, fractured relationships, a cultural rather than rehabilitation revolution and an enduring sense of 'liminality'.

The view was expressed that, with the general election now out of the way and Michael Gove at the helm, the MoJ were rather more likely to look favourably upon research requests in the future, no doubt reflecting the new ministers' recently-stated belief in the need for evidence to inform policy. Quite a novel concept at the MoJ I feel.     

John Deering, University of South Wales, and Martina Feilzer, Bangor University

The attitudes of probation staff towards Transforming Rehabilitation

"This paper will provide an overview of the attitudes of probation staff towards Transforming Rehabilitation – at the time of being transferred from probation trusts to the new Community Rehabilitation Companies and the National Probation Service in March/April 2014. It will explore the impact of staff attitudes and values on their perception of the future legitimacy of working practices of within the NPS and the CRCs. The paper also reflects on the wider questions of the role of the private sector in the penal system and how this may affect the delivery of punishment."

Despite only a handful of CRC's having the bottle to actually agree to circulating this online survey to staff, citing it as just 'too political', the researchers were astonished to get 1,300 responses, representing approximately 10% of the probation workforce. In the end it had to be distributed by Napo, but provides legitimacy and homogeneous views across all experiences, both new and old. It confirms that any who can, are leaving the Service and that faith in senior management had been lost. In effect this research amply confirms the majority of views expressed here and it was noted that the blog 'makes for very sad reading'.

Jake Phillips, Sheffield Hallam University

The lack of resistence to privatisation 

"This paper uses two of Bourdieu’s concepts, capital and homology, to explore why the government was able to implement the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms with relative ease. I argue that probation practitioners have (been) shifted from the dominant to the dominated pole of the field and consider where they are currently situated. In doing so I explore the changing nature of probation workers’ capital in the context of the field, the changing shape of alliances within (and without) this subfield of the penal field and argue that such changes limited opponents ability to mobilise their own field-specific form of capital."

In effect it seems we hadn't fully appreciated the changing nature of our 'capital' over the years and we had mobilised the 'wrong' capital. There was much criticism of Napo and instead of concentrating so much on what was likely to go wrong, we should have tried to make a convincing case for how we could have done things better. 

I recall, somewhat late in the day admittedly, the sterling work Joanna Hughes put into trying to make a business case for probation delivering the supervision of the under 12 month custody cases in a cost-effective way and within existing budgets. Of course this should have been undertaken convincingly by those of a much higher pay grade though. 

By the way, it was interesting to hear that at one point the MoJ website quoted an anticipated figure of £27million being the extra annual cost associated with breaches and recalls as a consequence of supervision being extended to this group.   

I thought this was a useful reminder of our journey, but unfortunately the slide disappeared before I completed the list. Can anyone help complete it? 

1940's Saving souls
1930's - 60's Rehabilitation ideal
1970's Nothing works
1980's Alternative to custody
1990's Punishment
1990's - present What works
1990's - 2000 Enforcement    

Dennis Gough, University of Portsmouth

Birds of a feather desist together? Peer mentors and Transforming Rehabilitation 

"This paper will focus on the recent mainstreaming of those who are or have been service users in the criminal justice to become involved in the Coalition 'Transforming Rehabilitation' agenda. It will highlight how the government's call for radical change in the field has led to greater involvement of peer mentors as an innovative and effective rehabilitative intervention. The paper will highlight issues from my empirical research on peer mentors which highlights new knowledge and new legitimacy to rehabilitative efforts afforded by the involvement of voluntary peer mentors."

A great idea, much-lauded of course by Chris Grayling in his numerous references to 'old lags' turning up at the prison gates, but despite it being a good idea, in practice it's not working and there's no evidence. It seems peer mentors don't take too kindly to being managed, or bureaucratised even and start 'walking' if attempts are made to apply some sensible constraints or parameters on their practice. 

Mike Nellis, University of Strathclyde

Electronic monitoring, commerce and digital technology

"Electronic Monitoring is a fairly standard form of commonplace digital technology, customised for penal purposes. It is, in its own estimation, an industry, albeit not one entirely independent of government. What should the politics of probation be in the age of the smart machine?"

I found this presentation absolutely fascinating, not least because I'd failed to notice what a total mess the MoJ has made of the new electronic tagging contract, and we know their contract design track record is legendary. Basically the idea to split software, hardware and phone network provision into three seperate contracts has been a complete disaster and delayed roll-out of GPS tags by well over a year. 

What was also made abundantly clear in this presentation is that there is no penal justification for promises to tag up to 75,000 people at any one time, an astonishing figure in itself and I gather reference to it now removed from the MoJ website, but that the only rationale is a commercial one. There is no evidence base for any of the planned increase in tagging and Mike made the point that England and Wales is out of step with most other jurisdictions who have active probation involvement and as a result the use of tagging is considerably less.

He also pointed us in the direction of the right-wing think tank Reform and their recent scathing report into the tagging fiasco, but also their enthusiasm for the commercial opportunities on offer:-

Tagging has become a common tool in offender management. By 2011-12, there were around 25,000 tags in daily use. Yet despite this volume, the criminal justice system in England and Wales is barely scratching the surface of its potential.

There are four key reasons for this.

Firstly, the existing tags are largely reliant on old technology (radio frequency (RF)), which whilst there is still a role for this, has limited capability. In America where GPS technology has been in use for years, criminal justice practitioners are able to be much more creative in their use of tagging – including using it for serious offenders. The Coalition Government recognised this and in early 2012 launched a procurement for the “new generation” of GPS-enabled tags. More than three and a half years later and no new tags have been mobilised, leaving the criminal justice system, with the exception of a handful of innovative local pilots, reliant on RF.

Secondly, even if the procurement had been delivered to plan in early 2013, the contract design itself is poor. Contrary to international practice, the Ministry of Justice split the service into four separate lots. Contrary to recent advice on effective public service markets, they awarded the delivery of each part to a single provider for up to six years. This model means there will be no competition to drive performance and innovation during the course of the contract – particularly worrying given the pace of technological change. It also means that local criminal justice services have to use the ‘one-size-fits-all’ tag that the Department commissions, rather than procuring for local need.

As Reform’s report out today argues, the Government should cut its losses and scrap the current procurement. Instead it should introduce an approved suppliers framework and allow local services such as police forces and Community Rehabilitation Companies to procure from it.

Thirdly, legislative change is needed to fully realise the benefits of tagging. Prison governors should be able to use early release under Home Detention Curfew for serious offenders, subject to an appropriate risk assessment. There is good evidence from the US that electronic monitoring is effective for violent and sex offenders. Evaluations of electronic monitoring programmes in California and Florida, for example, showed positive impacts on recidivism. There is also evidence from the US of the efficacy of tagging for domestic violence perpetrators, including increased likelihood of conviction and increasing victim safety. The Government should therefore amend the relevant legislation to allow courts to impose mandatory electronic monitoring as part of domestic violence-related order.

Fourthly, criminal justice practitioners need to be able to access monitoring data. Mapping the data against reported crimes would enable the police to quickly implicate suspects or eliminate them from their enquiries. Enabling police and probation officers to use the data to identify suspicious patterns of behaviour could help them prevent crime. And allowing probation officers to flex curfew conditions (within the limits set by the court) based on monitoring data could incentivise offender compliance and behaviour change.

The prize for getting electronic monitoring right is sizeable: increased public protection through increased compliance and decreased reoffending, swifter responses to breaches, and lower criminal justice system costs through reductions in prison time. The new Secretary of State for Justice should act now to make sure these benefits are actually realised.

David Raho

Report to the machine: Probation's biometric future

"Biometric reporting systems featured prominently in at least two of the operating models submitted by successful bidders for Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs). There are already plans to implement these systems in as many as five (24%) CRCs with other CRCs expected to follow. Biometric reporting was apparently welcomed by the MoJ/NOMS in submitted bids as a legitimate and innovative probation reporting method despite a lack of research evidence and little if any legal basis. The only previous pilot of biometric reporting in the UK failed. One owner of two CRCs is currently piloting a system that goes beyond anything previously attempted and another multinational corporate owner of three CRCs appears to believe that probation staff can simply be dispensed with en masse and replaced by automated call centres and ATM style self-service reporting kiosks. This paper argues the case for greater caution to be exercised by CRCs in adopting untested and untried techno-solutions post privatisation in what is becoming an increasingly diverse and fragmented collection of approaches to probation rehabilitation."

Personally, I find it hugely reassuring to hear that these machines, currently being installed at great expense by several CRC's, eg in Nottingham, are almost certainly not going to work. It would appear that many of our our clients don't like them and as a result put a great deal of effort into rendering them inoperable. I gather various fluids, including engine oil, and applied to the active surfaces, frustrate any attempts at gaining biometric information and much time and effort has to be expended by staff in cleaning said machines. I also gather that, such is the reliability and utility of our famously crap computer systems, consistent and dependable digital compatability is most unlikely to be achieved any time soon.       


I'll end this by the news that the Probation Institute announced the appointment of a new Chair yesterday:-

The Board is pleased to announce that Professor Paul Senior has been appointed as the Probation Institute Chair. Paul Senior is Professor of Probation Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. He has been engaged in probation matters since 1975. As a practitioner, trainer, researcher, writer, academic and consultant, he has seen probation develop and change over the past 40 years. He brings to the Institute a wealth of experience in the probation training field and is a staunch supporter of probation practice being informed by evidence and research.

Paul said: "I am absolutely delighted to be taking on this role at a formative time in the life of the Institute. I am determined to help establish the Institute as the place where the probation world in all its complexity can find a place to further its professional goals and aspirations whether working in the public, voluntary or private sector. I believe passionately that in this changing world the Institute can be a voice of continuity and aspiration to ensure that probation practice retains its historical ability to provide high quality trained practitioners and managers working with a strong evidence base and to this end I will dedicate my time to support these goals."

A very good friend of probation, it will be interesting to see if hearts and minds can be won over.          


  1. Thanks Jim B - You have worked hard.

    As I have said before I feel a sense of despair that some folk previously prominent in probation practice seem to be trying to provide a lead through the TR shambles when anyone with even a little experience knows that by splitting probation locally it has been made more bureaucratic and less effective and probably more dangerous for all concerned including the general public, than it ever can be as a single localised service.

    That is nothing to do with privatisation - it needs to be said simply and repeatedly over and over until the legislators 'get it' and at first acknowledge and then legislate to change it. To not say that; by anyone, senior manager, academic, inspector, etc., etc. shows a lack of integrity that means I cannot trust anything else they say because we already know they are being deceptive about one thing. So as we hear over and over from barristers - how can we be sure you sure not being deceptive about anything else?

  2. Tagging for Domestic Violence perpetrators, where will they be curfewed, surely not at the same address as their victim? So, where exactly?

    1. I think the new tags are GPS so they will know if they go near a victim

    2. Yes that's the idea - but because the MoJ did not award the contract to one provider, but instead split it into 3 parts, software, hardware and phone provider, not surprisingly there are problems with compatability and Intellectual Property rights. In short it's a complete mess and doesn't work as yet - in fact situation normal for an MoJ bright idea project.

    3. @anonymous 00:35
      No, a gps tag will document where the wearer was because it won't be monitored in real time. Wholly useless at preventing re-victimisation

    4. Depends how sophisticated the software becomes....

  3. Just to put you out of your misery, the Trust then CRC that underwent the L'pool University paper on TR and its impact was Merseyside, It was a good experience to get to the truth of the initial impact of TR on a team/unit/organsiation. Still travelling through the TR wormhole!!!

    1. West Yorkshire have been conducting research with University of Huddersfield into the role of the PO in CRCs.

    2. I can't wait for the research by Prof Brian Cox or David Attenborough or Lucy Worsley or Winifred (File on Four).

    3. '....another multinational corporate owner of three CRCs appears to believe that probation staff can simply be dispensed with en masse and replaced by automated call centres and ATM style self-service reporting kiosks.'
      Not Working Links is it? They are looking into biometric reporting

    4. They will be all looking at biometrics

    5. And working links are in charge of 3 crcs...

  4. May I offer suggestions for the incomplete list?

    2001 - dancing (to a new choreography)
    2003 - noms-ing
    2005 - floundering
    2007 - trusting
    2013 - shafting
    2015 - leaving

  5. It is good probation folk like David Raho are on to these things and are trying getting a debate going and talking out about these biometric kiosks because it looks like they are being introduced all over without any proper independent research taking place at all. It seems to me there is a real urgent need for the research. Can napo help? It will be interesting to see who is looking into introducing reporting to machines and if this means they can reduce costs.