Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Innovation not Soundbites

Just one of the many things that annoyed me about Grayling and his rubbish arguments for introducing TR was the constant reference to how new players to the probation world would bring much-needed 'innovation'. Apart from being the usual political disingenuous crap, it completely ignored the fact that probation has always been one of the most innovative of public services as anyone with time under their belt know full well. 

But the sin is far worse than that because, as the following story from Manchester admirably demonstrates, everywhere innovation is being driven out of a once gold standard service:-  

'It's ripped my heart out': Ex cons' despair as Manchester probation group has Government funding pulled

A group of ex-offenders are fearing for their futures as they stand to lose their beloved Manchester community probation group. The HOPE (Hope Outside Prison Environments) Project, which supports ex-offenders in the community, has been funded by the Government for the past six months, having previously been funded by the NHS. But the decision has now been made to end the project’s financial support, which currently has capacity for 20-30 clients, and it will finish at the end of April. One HOPE client told MM: 

“I feel like my heart’s been ripped out. My life has been turned around by this project. Here you’re being treated like a human being. It has a real impact on your mental health.”
Clients stand to lose a tight-knit support network alongside activities like cooking classes and boxing which provide them with support, builds self-esteem and a routine unlike anything else on offer in Manchester. Another explained he feared his mental health would suffer without HOPE support.

“There’s nothing else like this with good role models and like-minded people,” he said. “The support they give is above and beyond help I’ve ever had before. Without it I would be isolated.”

A weekly reading group currently takes place each Thursday for those who want to give shared reading a try. Due to the cuts, HOPE’s partnership with The Reader, who run the group, will also end this month. Session leader and Reader in Residence for Greater Manchester West NHS, Kate Hughes-Jenkins, told MM: 

“Losing this group is really hard. You get to know them well and develop relationships. It’s frustrating to know there currently isn’t anything we can offer instead.”
The reading group is just one part of HOPE’s holistic approach, which HOPE Project Manager Sue Casey believes is seldom used elsewhere in the probation service. They also welcome back ex-clients who still struggle post-probation. Ms Casey, told MM: 
“The Project gives people hope, belief. I’ve put my heart and soul into this project. Without Hope it’s almost like I have no hope. The project is a life saver. Offending is instant gratification. We provide positive alternatives, like the boxing. With the reading, they hear a voice telling them a story, something many of them never had as children. It’s like putting back that part that is missing. Probation is risk management, and we take risks with people by having them in the community. We see them as a person, rather than a label. But for this government, management seems more important than rehabilitation.”
Ms Casey, who will return to an office role for the Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) when the project ends, teamed up with one HOPE client to work out the costs involved if he were to ever end up reoffending. It was around £157,000 for one year.

“They aren’t thinking of the long term higher costs,” she said.

Labour politician and life peer Lord Bradley, who has been a champion of the HOPE, attended the reading group’s penultimate session on Thursday to hear concerns to take to the Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC). “Invariably the alternative to this group is back through the system, and then there are the expenses involved in that,” he said.

At this point, the group do not know what, if anything, will be done to keep some activities running when the project finishes.


By a strange coincidence, I was recently looking around on the internet for something unconnected to probation and I came across the following obituary in the Guardian. I think it not only rather neatly illustrates our proud history of innovating, but also the nature and calibre of leadership in times past:- 

Michael Varah

Michael Varah, who has died aged 62, was the former chief probation officer of Surrey and a Great Britain international 800 metres record holder. He was the eldest of triplet brothers born to Chad and Susan Varah. His father was rector of St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London, where he started the Samaritans in 1953; his mother, apart from raising five children, was the world president of the Mothers' Union in the 1970s.

By the age of 18, Michael was a national schoolboy 800m champion; he later ran for Great Britain in the World Student Games in Tokyo, and the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica, plus several international meetings. He went on to captain Loughborough College athletics team, and in 1966, at Crystal Palace, broke an unusual world record by 2.4 seconds in the 4 x 800m relay.

After graduation, he joined Rugby school as the director of physical education. In his own time, he began to work as a volunteer education tutor at Onley Borstal, then decided to train as a probation officer and joined the Warwickshire service in 1973.

The qualities that marked him out as an outstanding athlete shone in his probation career: determination, energy, leadership and the courage to break new ground. Early in his career, he created the Rugby Mayday Trust for homeless ex-offenders, which now runs several hundred housing units for the vulnerable homeless.

He extended his repertoire of experience by working as an assistant chief probation officer in inner-city Birmingham in 1985, when the city was scarred by industrial collapse and racial tension. Michael was impressed by the scale of unemployment, particularly among poorly educated offenders.

After he became the chief officer in Surrey in 1988 he devoted much of his time to setting up the Surrey Springboard Trust, providing training, vocational skills and jobs for unemployed offenders. He played a key role in raising over £4m for this.

In an unorthodox move, Michael sent 32 offenders on community service to work for a fortnight in a poorly maintained children's hospital in Romania, doing essential repairs under professional supervision. None reoffended; two years later, nine of them returned to do more electrical and plumbing work under their own steam.

Michael retired in 2004, having raised the reputation of the Surrey service to the highest levels. He was appointed a deputy lieutenant and was to have been the high sheriff of Surrey in 2008-09. He was a national trustee for Victim Support and the Samaritans and a part-time panel member of employment tribunals in Surrey.

Michael had an extraordinary capacity for friendships - people knew they were special in his eyes - and a scurrilous wit that made him the centre of any room that he was in.

He was disappointed by the government's gradual demolition of the probation service. Not long before he died he noted: "It is a pity successive governments cannot get their act together - they all need to be put on probation and find that change takes time."


  1. From The Times:-

    Prisoner is top crime student at Cambridge

    A 28-year-old prisoner serving an indeterminate sentence at a high-security jail has finished top of the class in a master’s degree course in criminology, ahead of a dozen Cambridge graduates.

    Gareth — the Ministry of Justice has asked for his full name to be withheld — was one of 22 inmates at HMP Grendon in Buckinghamshire who studied alongside criminology students in one of their master of philosophy modules.

    The project was designed to offer elite education in the category B prison while enabling students to leave their ivory tower and gain a deeper understanding of the criminal justice system.

    1. Yes, contrary to popular opinion, people in prisons have brains too!

  2. Today probation should watch and learn from the junior doctors how to strike properly. Credit to the BMA which has been fast to release the statement "junior doctors cannot be blamed for deaths".

    When probation strike, like idiot do-gooders, they continue to staff the probation offices, hostels, courts and prisons. No risk = nobody cares.

  3. Now might be a good time for some recent trainees to post - I see MOJ are actively recruiting - forewarned is forearmed. https://www.facebook.com/andrew.s.hatton.1/posts/1153611108016505:6

    1. One responder says applications close on 6th June.

  4. Far be it from me to speak ill of the dead, Michael Varah, who passed away several years ago and not recently as the inclusion of his obituary implies, was at the forefront of introducing private and third sector organisations into the delivery of Probation related services and, through his Surrey Springboard initiative, had intended to 'outsource' his Community Service units to this 'charity' of which he was a trustee (what conflict of interest?). It feel at the last hurdle but it was not because the unions tried to argue that the 'outsourcing' would have resulted in employees losing thousands through the loss of their entitlement to Local Authority pensions etc. Arguably, Varah was the person who introduced the Home Office (this is pre-NOMS)to the idea of introducing the private and third sectors into the delivery of core services. If we were able to respond to Varah's comment above today, it would be to say 'Be careful what you wish for. You may get it'.

    1. Yes I remember this being discussed previously:-

      ML 9 November 2014 at 15:09
      I typed in 'probation service close to breaking point' and up came 4 pages of sites with those very words - in 2014,'13, '10, '08, '07, '05, '03, and even 1983, in a letter from Michael Varah, published in a Probation Journal, referring to some areas taking on extra duties with no extra funding, and it was getting worse. I was a mere youth worker then, but it evidences that we have always been stoic in offering up our best, with no thanks, just expectation that we would continue to push ourselves to the limit, in our belief in the job as a vocation, assisting and enabling, whatever they threw at us (or didn't throw).

      A colleague of mine worked in Surrey when he was CPO and always spoke of him with fondness. On the 'Michael Varah Memorial Fund' site, he is described as 'a wise counsellor, a friend to all who needed him, who could fix broken windows and broken souls' - how many CPO's would come anywhere near that now.

      And a quote of his - so prophetic -'it is a pity that successive governments cannot get their act together- they all need to be put on probation and find out that change takes time'. Wow! What a man!
      CG - and your mates at MOJ - ARE YOU READING THIS?

      Anonymous 9 November 2014 at 15:40
      Michael Varah tried to outsource Community Service to HIS OWN CHARITY in the late 1990s. Be careful who you look to for inspiration.

      Anonymous 9 November 2014 at 17:45
      I remember that. A maverick who caused a lot of problems.

  5. How about this for innovation and a possible new acronym, ROROPOs or Roll On Roll Off Probation Officers, essentially the ever increasing use of Probation Officers employed through agencies on a rolling one month contract in your local CRC. Wonder where that idea came from? Love to all, sleep well.

  6. How does the roro thing work then? In the wide awake club as you can see. Managers need to do something about the impact of staff sickness. I can barely manage my own caseload, never mind covering for colleagues who are off sick! Yours truly, cheesed off!

  7. Heard on the grapevine that the deposed CEO of SYCRC has secured a nice big payoff and already has a job lined up with her new masters Sodexo shame her frontline staff couldn't get the same generous offer

  8. No surprise there then!