Thursday, 19 November 2015

National Treasure Speaks Out

Michael Palin recently delivered the annual Longford Lecture and the full text can be found here. Entitled 'Collateral damage: The effects of prison sentences on offenders' families' Michael Gove was in the audience and although well worth reading in full, I've taken the liberty of selecting the following extract:- 

There is a system specifically designed to help offenders and ex-offenders, and that is probation. Probation officers have to assess some people with special needs and very acute problems. A probation report can impact greatly on the families of the offender. It is a chance for the background of their lives to be examined and their special circumstances discussed. But, like many other areas of the justice system the Probation Service has been affected by cuts and reforms designed to save money. Though the most dangerous highrisk ex-offenders still remain within the National Probation Service, the 35 public sector probation trusts were last year broken up and replaced with 21 privately-run "community rehabilitation companies" 

These have begun to cut human jobs in favour of automated facilities, which seems risky in an area where the efficacy of one to one help is generally accepted as the best way back. Those employed by the old Probation Service have had to put themselves up for re-employment with the new private providers. And they're not happy about it. As one of them put it, "the worst thing has been the attack on our morale. We've got the message loud and clear that our work isn't valued" 

1800 staff have left the probation service in the last year. It's hard to know how this loss of staff, specifically qualified to deal with unpopular and often dangerous people, can be squared with the oft-quoted commitment to reduce re-offending. 

Some prison officers I spoke to felt that one aspect of the re-organisation of the probation system, the idea of "transformative rehabilitation", was having exactly the opposite effect. Those with one-year sentences can now only be let out on licence. A single failure to meet any of the terms of the licence such as checking in for interview can result in them being taken straight back into custody. In practice this has resulted in a jump in numbers re-offending. This also raises the question of how many of the shortest custodial sentences are the best way to deal with the problem. A relative of a young offender told me paradoxically of how much more damaging shorter sentences can be than longer ones. They are predominantly served on younger males, many still in the education system. A year inside can mean the loss of GCSE qualifications which can set the offender at a huge disadvantage for the rest of their lives. 

But I'm an optimist and my interest in the whole subject is to try and see the positive side and to try and do what I can to understand the problem and to help those who are directly involved in offering support to the families themselves. I want very much to see chinks of light in so many stories of unrelieved gloom - some hope that things might be getting better. That we can learn from all these heart-rending stories.

When seeing dark clouds, or looking for silver linings, two things must be remembered. One is that no two cases are ever the same. We are not dealing with a certain class of person, or a certain mindset, we are dealing with individual cases all different one from the other in the way that we are all different one from another. 

The second thing to remind ourselves is that so much of the anecdotal evidence involves the potent combination of drugs, poverty and deprivation. From which one can only draw the conclusion that despite all the good work that is going on in the rehabilitation and re-education of offenders, there is nothing much that can be done whilst poverty is endemic in the system. The reality is pretty desperate. Figures from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2015 showed that 16 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Child poverty stood at nearly 19% and absolute child poverty at nearly 20%, That's over 4 million children in poverty. And to be poor in our society is not the same as being poor in many of the places I've visited across the world. 

We are a developed country, and to be poor here is to have your nose pressed against a well-stocked window, with a finger constantly beckoning you to come inside. Possessions are power. The more you have the more you will be listened to, the less you have the more vulnerable you are to anything that will desensitise you from the real world. 

So let's not sit here and shake our heads about families who get into trouble and think that the answer is bigger prisons and a faster justice service. What we should be thinking about is how we can change a society that has 20% of its children in absolute poverty. 

But, as people are fond of saying these days, we are where we are - which roughly translated means don't blame me. If we are to be positive, we must not allow ourselves to be discouraged. We must look hard at what can be done, what is being done, and what needs to be done to help and support families of prisoners here and now. 

The state has not had a great record in this area. Prison reform is not a votewinner at the best of times, and certain sections of the media, though not of course, the Daily Telegraph, have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that they feel smacks of consideration for criminals. But something is clearly not working. The most recent report from HM Inspector of Prisons makes sober reading. "Outcomes reported on by the inspectorate", it concluded, "had declined in all areas and were the worst for ten years". The number of assaults in prison had increased, as had deaths in prison and attacks on staff. Overcrowding and staff shortages were blamed for this overall decline in safety. 

The Government is aware of the problem. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice, pointed out in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in July, that re-offending costs taxpayers £13 billion pounds a year. Almost two-thirds of those serving short sentences will return to prison within just a year of release. He echoed the conclusion of the Inspector of Prisons that even a small reduction in the prison population could free up sufficient cash to allow a lot more rehabilitation work. 

He went on to declare that the biggest failure of all in the Criminal Justice system was, and I quote, "the failure in our prisons" and he called on all concerned to put a new and unremitting emphasis on reform, rehabilitation and redemption. Individuals should never be defined by their worst moments. Prisoners should not be seen as liabilities, but as assets. The cause of prison reform, he concluded, should inspire us all. 

Fine words, very fine words, and it is encouraging to hear a government commit the state so unequivocally to rehabilitation and redemption. And in the last week we have seen encouraging signs that action will follow, with the announcement that some of the older, grimmer urban prisons are to be closed and sold off for housing. I must say, I can't wait to see how the marketing boys run with this one. Will we soon be seeing The Scrubs Quarter ? Or Pentonvilletto, Luxury Living a stones throw from the City, or the Mansion on Brixton Hill - your very own executive escape? 

I’m delighted that the Justice Secretary is so firmly committed to prison reform, but I can't help wondering how much he will be able to achieve when his own Chancellor is asking for 40% cuts across all unprotected departments. 

Which brings me back to the theme of this lecture. That whatever grand plans are being made, one of the modest, but eminently achievable ways of tackling the problem of harassed staff and overcrowded gaols remains a matter of valuing, maintaining and encouraging family support. Government figures confirm that chances of re-offending are 39% higher among those who have not received visits in prison than in those who have. And yet figures also show that almost half of all offenders lose contact with their families when they go to prison. 

Something clearly needs to be done to try and bridge this gap. If the Government accepts the implication that families are such an important element in their declared goal of rehabilitation, then they must make it a priority, not a side-issue. This requires effort and commitment right through the criminal justice system. It requires an investment in people as well as premises. People with the skill and the patience to deal with all the intricacies of family access including the damage done by separating mothers from their children. People qualified and experienced in detecting those with special needs, including mental health problems or learning difficulties, who shouldn't be in prison in the first place. It means making better use of community penalties. There are practical improvements too. Like financial provision for visits. At present non-working parents receive assistance, parents who are working, albeit on a low wage, just to keep food on the table, have to pay for their own transport. 

They should consider making the family more welcome in prisons, extending family days, providing areas in which the family can be reunited in a nonthreatening environment with looser time limits. These have been found to be highly successful in maintaining family links. The provision of family and visitor centres outside prisons where family members can wait in comfort and security should be made a priority. A reduction in the cost of phone calls from prison, currently four times as expensive as BT landline charges, would encourage prisoners to keep in touch with their families. Greater use of ROTL - Release on Temporary License - would mean that important home visits could happen. 

The National Offender Management Service is trying to address these issues, encouraging parents and children to stay in touch with more family days and in a couple of open prisons, facilities for children to sleep over for a night. 

All these measures require extra resources. The more families that visit, the more prison staff have to be available to organise and supervise the facilities.


  1. What a gem? I would loved to have been a fly on the wall, watching the SoS shift uncomfortably on his seat!

  2. Yes. YEs. YES!
    (... and sadly I still don't feel confident enough to put my name to this, for fear of falling foul of my CRC's social media policy.

  3. I would hope the Napo and Unison leadership will watch closely the developments of the industrial action of the junior doctors. Maybe there are some lessons here about solidarity.

    I have just heard Jeremy Hunt calling for reason and Cameron urging a return to talks. All very respectful and moderate in tone.

    They cannot fault the mandate of the doctors, based as it is on a stunning 76% turnout with a 98% call for industrial action.

    Already other Tory politicians are saying there will have to be a compromise. Not even their Trade Union Bill would have saved them from this outcome.

  4. As the parent of a junior doctor, the hype from the government has made me want to vomit.£11,000 rise my arse, my child (don't want to ID myself due to NPS or CRC media policy) will be £2000 worse off if this goes through. My child currently earns less than a fast food outlet shift manager and works considerably longer hours.
    Now add my anger about this to being a shafted probation officer and yup I know this government does not spin, IT LIES.
    PS Thank You Michael there's a word Gove will have to look up and have explained to him.....PROBATION.

  5. Thank you Mr Palin. I hope Gove listens but doubtful.
    Slightly off topic but I wanted to see what the situation is in England regarding car parking? In Cardiff office PO's get car parking cards so they can park for free. Due to a NOMS policy change, after Jan 31st we have been told the car parking cards will be going. This will mean a cost of £18 per day. I understand that long term paying for car parking at base isn't feasible but we've been told that even if we have to go to a prison/home visit/CP conference we cannot claim our parking for that day. This is grossly unfair. Why should we be out of pocket for doing our job. We have no hire car we can use, or office cards which can be used for situations like this. I feel I am being punished for working in a city office.

  6. Simple, do not use your car..there is NO Requirement to have one, use public transport they have to allow time for travel ....the employer can not have it all ways but the way we are letting them walk over us you would think they can!