Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Wider Context

It's the weekend and time to reflect a bit. I think there's been some good discussion of late, particularly regarding prison and looked at from a prisoner's viewpoint for a change. The following came in yesterday and posed a question, but as yet has had no response:- 

As the poster of the original prison-related comment the other day, I can say that most of these post-release issues have been problems I've also faced, but to be honest many of them (housing, benefits) are beyond the scope of the CJS. These are societal problems which have been neglected for a generation, but seeing as comments along the lines of "jeremmy corbin is bad 4 dis cuntry lol" continue, that discussion is quickly killed.

I do feel that the Probation Service public protection remit takes precedence over and above all else, though. For example, someone I knew was released to an AP as his home town was essentially an exclusion zone. He finds himself in a new town, gets on the housing list, tries to get suitable private housing with no luck. He is under 35 and is only eligible for 'single room rent' Housing Benefit. In short, he can't find a flat, and soon enough the hostel want to kick him out because they need space. 

His OM, well-meaning but seriously misguided, assures him everything will be OK because he can find him a place in a homeless hostel in yet another nearby town. Not good. Now I can see the OM's perspective, he has no clout in benefits or housing but does have an obligation to protect the public. Nonetheless, nobody should be made homeless in the interests of public protection, after consultation with some shady and mysterious MAPPA group who have decided that this is the best option, in spite of the fact that this person is only homeless because he can't enter the town where many willing and concerned friends and family members would be more than willing to accommodate him. 

This individual is now living in shared housing, despite being recommended an IPP at PSR stage by his OM, having done no OB programmes and being 'single cell only' in prison due to risk he is able to live in a multi-let which he found off his own bat, at the risk of being homeless otherwise. Many prisoners would find their relationship with their OM to have been broken beyond repair at the mere suggestion of a Salvation Army type hostel as a means of protecting the public. I certainly would.

I don't know how you probation officers feel about this, but it's for things like this that you're often considered a law enforcement agency with a phoney, chummy facade amongst prison inmates. Whilst even as an offender I can see the reasons behind making public protection a priority, so long as it's at the exclusion (and occasional detriment) of the offender's day-to-day well-being nobody is benefiting.


It certainly reminded me of the astonishing journey many of us have been engaged in over the last 20 years or so, ending up with what some see as a lingering and painful death of the probation ideal here in England and Wales. But of course I'm also reminded that our predicament must be viewed within a much wider context. 

As all long-termers know full well, there was a time when probation was able to respond to the various failings of social policy by developing in-house initiatives that in my personal experience pretty much knew no bounds. But sadly, that flexibility and freedom to innovate and develop pioneering housing, training, support, recreational, practical and therapeutic projects was knocked out of us as we slept-walked into bureaucracy and managerialism. 

Ironically, there's never been a greater need for flexibility and innovation, but orthodox political dogma dictated this was impossible for a public service and government has yet to accept that a market economy can sort it out. Meanwhile, here's some recent reminders of the wider context the newly split and part-privatised service is expected to work within. This from Community Care:-

Dear ministers, this is why social workers quit child protection

In its focus on attracting new entrants to child protection, the government is overlooking the support needs of practitioners already doing a taxing, traumatic job

During her time as education secretary, Nicky Morgan said that social workers should be tested to give them the same professional status as ‘surgeons and lawyers’. She cited the example of Peter Connelly (also known as ‘Baby P’) as social work failings.

In speeches Morgan was complimentary about social workers. She described us as unsung heroes “completing thankless work”. However, the underlying message delivered was that current social workers are not meeting the expected practice level – which is a significant generalisation.

I have the same aspirations as Morgan and the government that social workers should be admired, trusted and respected. However, the government’s solution to the debate about the perpetually corroded reputation of social workers is based on future aspirations, rather than on considering the skill set that already exists in abundance within current social workers.

High fliers

The government consistently says it wants to make improvements by attracting ‘high-flying’ graduates into the profession. Over the past year, it has repeatedly backed and expanded the ‘Frontline’ graduate programme to achieve its aims.

I consider myself to be the very graduate that the government would like to recruit. I obtained grade As in my A levels; attended a ‘top 10 university’ and achieved an upper second class degree. I read newspaper articles, am politically aware and sometimes, when time permits, I write poetry.

Yet the model of looking at future high achievers insults the substantial amount of bright; analytical; passionate and dedicated workers that I have had the pleasure to work with. The simplicity of future plans for testing seeks to find fault in individuals rather than assess the role of child protection social work in greater detail.

It is widely known that there is a shortage of child protection social workers. This does not mean that there are not enough people qualified to complete the work, but there is certainly a shortage of people willing to do it.

Expiry date

The reason for the shortage is that there is a clear expiry date. Some practitioners will progress up the ranks to management, while others flake away to emotional despair, a change of career or an area of social work which they consider less demanding.

I am baffled why more focus is not applied to the emotional impact of the work rather than looking at systemic failings or processes. Child protection social work is unique, disparate and taxing. You will always have a changeable day, which requires you to adapt to so many circumstances.

Social work is an isolating profession with work completed by individuals without the support of others. You are expected to complete your visits solo, without the emotional fortification of others. Referrals are made with minimal information, sometimes just an address, child’s name and date of birth.

I have faced real risk during my time as a social worker. I have stepped over a dead body whilst I discussed with the potential killer where her children should sleep that night; I have been held in a house with a machete; been spat at; had a window broken over my head; hid under a desk whilst a service user destroyed my office and had more death threats than I could count.

Emotional framework

Police officers generally visit in pairs, with crucial intelligence relating to the home address; weapons at their disposal and the power of arrest. Police officers also receive ongoing support from psychologists to manage the recognised trauma that they face.

Whether it is funding cuts, a lack of awareness or malaise into the traumatic working life of a social worker, the emotional framework is not there for even the most robust individual to cope with each harrowing episode.

I will always remember the time that the police refused to attend a property due to the risk of firearms. My colleague ensured she filmed me on camera: her car engine running. At least then, the potential murderer would be captured in evidence, if the worst case scenario came to pass. This dice with death was to ensure that a father had the correct court documents and a right to participate in care proceedings.

Not only overt risk takes place but other situations occur that gnaw away at social workers’ psyche.

Try being the person who takes a brand new baby away from the hospital ward. Try sitting at the back of a ‘riot van’, waiting for the scared little ones to be brought to safety, screaming for their mother. Walk from a court when a Judge agrees with your plan of adoption, watching the families you have destroyed react to the desolate news.


Frequently, with each chilling event, appropriate support is not readily available. Although, this is entirely dependent on the resources available within each local authority. Generally, there is simply not the time, the structure or the knowledge to manage such traumatic events.

’Firefighting’ is a term often used within social work and this is a live issue within many local authorities: emotional protection is the last possible priority.

Recruitment and retention within social work will continue to be a theme until there is wider appreciation of the demands of the profession.

The solution appears to be so apparently obvious that I am dumbfounded that it has never been progressed. Why look for the perceived intelligentsia or seek accredited professionals from abroad? If only we could nurture those fabulous beings already in existence: waiting for more cohesive emotional support; appreciation or awareness of the daunting task of everyday social work.

If only the government could start to understand the formidable and monumental task that social workers face every day: perhaps appropriate funds could be delivered to secure better working conditions to maintain the talented, diligent and creative workforce that is already in place. Hopefully the profession’s faith will be restored by Nicky Morgan’s successor.

Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker


This from the BBC website:-

Youth services heading towards collapse, says union

UK youth services are heading for collapse, research into the scale of council cuts since 2012 has suggested. Some 600 youth centres have been shut, 3,650 youth staff have lost their jobs, and 139,000 youth places have been axed, the report for Unison says. And information from 180 councils warns of more cuts ahead, and suggests the youngsters most in need are being left with nowhere to turn for support.

The government urged councils to "look at new ways" to secure youth services. The minister for civil society, Rob Wilson, said local authorities needed "to make sensible savings while protecting frontline services such as youth services. While it is a matter for Local Authorities to decide how best to meet the needs of young people, I urge them to look at new ways to secure youth provision now and long into the future," he said.

Unison sought information from all UK local authorities with responsibility for youth services on what happened to funding between 2014 and 2016. It received responses from 180 out of a total of 210 authorities and added this to earlier similar research dating back to 2012.

The report, A Future at Risk, said an estimated £387m has been cut from youth service budgets since 2010, adding there is "more of the same for youth services in the years to come. Already we can report that in the year 2016-17 and beyond, there is likely to be at least £26m more cuts in youth service spending, the loss of around 800 more jobs, more than 30 youth centres closed," it added.

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said youth workers were tireless in the support they provide to young people, helping them find work and educational opportunity. He said: "It's youth services which prevent problems happening in the first place by reducing feelings of isolation among young people and helping teenagers to lead positive lives. But they've been relentlessly cut and undermined at a time when they are needed more than ever. Youth services are heading for collapse."

This was "damaging life chances", he said, especially for poorer youngsters, and he called for the provision of youth services to be required by law.

Unison also surveyed its members working in youth services for the report, on how they saw the changes affecting young people and communities on the ground. It reported: "Most strikingly, the overwhelming majority (91%) said the cuts were having a particular impact on young people from poorer backgrounds. More than half said there were particular problems for young black people, young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and young women. So it appears that the cuts have hit precisely those who often need youth services the most."

One member paints a picture of "increasing isolation and lack of support for young people", while another reports "an increased risk of young people being caught up in gangs". The report said: "Increases in mental health, substance abuse and anti-social behaviour are bound to increase the pressures on statutory services like social care and child and adolescent mental heath services. These are added burdens which could be avoided - or at least mitigated - if youth services were maintained."

The Local Government Association, which represents local authorities in England and Wales, said: "Councils have faced the largest budget cuts in the public sector since 2010, and despite doing all they can to protect the most vital services, it's impossible to protect everything." It highlighted that the government was planning to spend £1.1bn on the National Citizen Service over the course of this Parliament.

But it added: "While this is a good scheme that provides positive experiences for many children and young people, given the scale of cuts to youth service spending highlighted in this report, it is vital that money to run the NCS should not be at the expense of restoring and supporting local services for young people."

Greet Party leader Natalie Bennett said these findings laid bare the very real damage austerity had done to our communities. "As a society, we should be prioritising giving young people the best possible start in life. But our government has shown it is willing to slash vital youth services for the sake of short-term cash savings - which is both reckless and short-sighted."


And finally, especially for our regular reader who gets bored easily, a few more observations from the Guardian regarding Troubled Families:- 

The troubled families scheme has failed – this is the folly of payment by results

The government’s £1.3bn troubled families programme was always a dubious enterprise.

Launched after the 2011 riots, the scheme aimed to “turn around” the lives of nearly 120,000 families. The first wave paid all 152 local authorities in England to identify and then turn around families deemed “troubled”, at a cost of about £400m. Councils received up to £4,000 per family if an adult got a job, children were truanting less or if antisocial behaviour and youth crime were reduced. The programme is being rolled out to a further 400,000 families with a wider range of problems by the end of 2020, at a further cost of £900m.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with experimenting with different ways to intervene early and help families. But this programme was built on several flawed premises.

Many of the families that the government identified as “troubled” were merely multiply deprived households. Eligible families were chosen if they met five out of seven measures of disadvantage, including one or both parents out of work, living in poor quality housing and having a parent with a mental health problem.

Then there were the ludicrous claims of the scheme’s success. David Cameron said last year that the first wave of the troubled families programme had been a “real government success” which had saved taxpayers £1.2bn by turning around 99% of the families worked with. A near 100% success rate? During a period of swingeing cuts to public services?

In fact, my investigation into the first wave of the scheme last year found that more than 8,000 families in more than 40 local authorities were deemed to have been “turned around” solely through data-matching exercises. Data on employment, youth crime and truancy, say, could be used to identify eligible families and find out which, with no input from the troubled families programme, met the criteria for being turned around due to the children going to school more often or a parent finding a job. Only 79,000 families had a “family intervention”, a key plank of the scheme. Others have found few of the government’s claims of success stand up to any form of scrutiny.

So the revelation on BBC Newsnight on Monday that the official evaluation of the trouble families programme (still yet to be published) found “no discernible impact” on employment, school attendance or offending is no surprise.

This programme was bound to maximise waste. Some councils have undoubtedly done good things and the scheme provided a vital cash injection into town hall coffers reeling from swingeing budget cuts, but the troubled families programme is a salutary lesson in the failings of payment by results. Much of the blame for this surely lies with Louise Casey, who, as director general of the troubled families unit until last summer, was responsible for the programme and claims of its success.

You cannot design a programme that pays local authorities for turning around families’ lives and allow them to self-certify that they have met the criteria. Cash-strapped councils understandably had an incentive to identify the exact number of “troubled” families the government told them they had on their patch and work out ways to claim that they had been turned around.

Some local authorities will have done good work, but even where families received intensive help, it is impossible to know that they would not have turned themselves around anyway.

It is time to call time on awarding public contracts which pay out for results, especially when the evidence for those results is so easy to manipulate.


I thought this comment on the article was particularly interesting:-

Any initiative that is headed by Louise Casey, a woman that honed her skills administering benefits payments to the homeless before moving on to greater things, will always ensure that creative results juggling is given greater precedence than actually trying to effect change. This after all was the person who, chosen personally by Blair, was to lead the crusade to eliminate the scourge of rough sleepers; her chosen strategy was to lambast charities for providing hot food and clothing changes and to urge the public to stop giving homeless people money directly but instead to put into the official collection boxes where it would be spent by those who knew the best way of helping the homeless. Her motivation was of course, that her targets would be much easier to achieve if she could stop people from giving directly to the homeless. This callousness she defended by calling the public's generosity "misguided goodwill" and there you have it in a nutshell; she knows what's best and the rest of the world is misguided.

She knows that the problems of dealing with issues that are lumped together and used to brand people, many of whom are living in the direst poverty, as being "troubled families" a term that many tory and labour supporters regard as being a euphemism for scum, are complex and it is very difficult to do much to improve the situation. So her preferred and tried and tested approach was to develop ways to cherry pick and massage metrics and statistics to allow the TFP to issue statements proclaiming enviable success rates. Casey is no fool however, she is on record as stating that it is her belief that young tearaways have trouble in their heart, probably stemming from a lack of love during their formative years. However she also believes that money or more correctly a lack of it is not a factor in this, which is nonsense.

Those on the right love to point out that not all families living in poverty and deprivation fail their children, they love to point out that some will succeed against the odds. It is curious that they are less keen to publish figures that would put these successes into statistical order so we may see what percentage of those that have deprived upbringings manage to escape the trap.


  1. Probation Officer13 August 2016 at 11:11

    What many prisoners do not realise is that probation has no resources when it comes to employment, housing and finances. This means we can't give you a job, home or pocket money.

    In many cases the exclusion zone is set by the Victim Liaison Unit and Mappa agrees it because of public protection. In many of these cases the exclusion zone is disproportionate, unnecessary and based on speculative reasoning, but once it is agreed that is that. Exclusion zones are easily challenged with legal representation and I'm not sure why more people do not do this. Unless they're very tiny zones then most can by challenged under the Human Rights Act and they are rarely in line with the probation policy on exclusion zones.

    If you are then released to an AP your stay will be time limited, shorter if you flout the rules (many rules disproportionate and unnecessary). If the best you can move out to is a Salvation Army hostel then this is not the fault of your probation officer. I could say it's your fault for committing a violent or sexual crime in the first place but you already know this. I could also point out that it is also the responsibility of the community and wider society (including social and welfare structures) to help you with employment, accommodation and finances but the Tories destroyed that idea when it sold off all the silver!!

    Probation officers do their best and are just as frustrated with the silly rules of the public protection culture and the lack of resources. Don't let this ruin the relationship because we don't get paid enough to deal with hostile offenders and only want to see you progress.

    1. I agree fully with Probation Officer above. However, I recall the days when I used to bring half a dozen problems to my P.O on appointment days with the hope of getting some help with maybe 2 or 3 of them. You'd sit and discuss them quite often with a cup of tea.
      Now the last thing a client wants to do is own up to having any problems at all for fear it may impact on their risk assessment or get them signed up to a program that may have consequences for them with their expected hours of job search at the job centre.
      Recent experience with Probation leaves me feeling that signing on at a police station once a week or even reporting once a week to a kiosk would see me no less disadvantaged or assisted then a visit to my local probation office.
      I therefore have come to the conclusion that maybe it's time to loose the title "PROBATION" and use a name that's more descriptive of the functioning of, and services provided by the current probation model.
      Post custody supervision services or perhaps licence enforcement agency would be more appropriate, and dispatch the expectations of and general assumptions held by many of what the probation service actually does.
      Just a thought, but I wonder when the last time a client was offered a cuppa in the office by any contributed to this blog?


    2. Probation Officer13 August 2016 at 12:34

      Oh yes we still work like this but the perverse culture of risk management and public protection over rehabilitation is phasing it out. Many come in with problems, ideas, plans, plots and scheme to discuss. You won't get a cup of tea but this is because probation doesn't provide facilities for this any more, and that goes for staff too. You will get a cup of water, bus fares and foodbank voucher, and I'll even share my lunch with you if you're hungry. You won't get a lift though, even if we're going in the same direction, carrying passengers in cars is on the banned list too!

      'Probation' is our brand but for starters the Community Rehabilitation Companies and Victim Liaison Units should lose the name. This is not to say the National Probation Service is much better, but we're still able to work as we always did and supervision sessions are not on a time clock YET!

    3. I;m really curious as to why so many probation officers actively discourage their clients or actively prevent their clients from getting work after release especially given how it's been proven that getting a regular job is one of the best ways to prevent reoffending. It seems completely counterproductive to say the least. It seems to boil down to deliberately being difficult or not wanting to do the paperwork neither of which seem to be good enough reasons to nix someone getting a job (especially if said job has nothing to do with offending and will put no one at risk and employer is happy to take them on).

    4. Probation Officer13 August 2016 at 20:42

      I've not heard of this. Work is encouraged. I know of cases where work has been in conflict with attending a programme or complying with a curfew or exclusion zone. Unless the employment risks further offending then it should be encouraged, and varying conditions to allow this is usually the process taken.

    5. When I trained as a PO in 2000, I understood there had been a Home Office direction that Probation should accommodate a person's work or employment aspirations and not set them up to fail by only offering day appts/programmes - hence late night reporting, evening programmes and weekend unpaid work groups. Sadly in the CRC I now regularly see/hear appts being repeatedly given during the day to clients who work in order to hit a target, even when they have declared they are in FT employment. The explanation given is ' well s/he got time off work for court.......'Similarly I see clients being actively discouraged from working in order to fulfil their Order requirements (and thereby hit another target).
      However I have yet to see anything in writing that rescinded the original Home Office direction.

    6. Getafix. I made a cup of tea for a homeless client last week and gave him some biscuits supplied by our admin staff after he had been out all night after being released from prison at teatime with no discharge grant ! I also bought another client some bread and milk who had not eaten for 2 days and had no food in the house when I went to visit I will probably be an ex PO soon if I'm discovered to be too "soft"

    7. I don't think anyone suggested that it was the responsibility of a PO to find accommodation, but the point was more about the punishment set by the courts for any offence does not include homelessness upon release, because this is the only way the public can be protected. I'm surprised the obvious flaws in such an option are overlooked, and fail to see how the offender should accept unnecessary homelessness as a secondary consequence of his / her offence.

  2. I was astounded by probation officer above wondering why more people don't challenge their exclusion zones as a breach of human rights. The answer is blindingly simple: people simply can't afford to because they need a solicitor to do so and there is now no legal aid for such things and no solicitors willing to take on human rights cases of this nature for free because it's not big name/glamourous/media hotspot enough as other human rights violations are. Especially if they are living in a hostel and on benefits. It's difficult to challenge anything with probation from such simple things as the wrong spelling of your name or the wrong date of birth on your file without help so anything complex is simply never going to happen.

    1. Probation Officer13 August 2016 at 20:54

      In many cases exclusion zones are set as part of release hearings, specifically parole and recall hearings. Legal representation is present and so exclusion zones can easily be challenged without affecting the release decision. There are other options I've seen used, eg the Citizens Advice Bureau, using an existing solicitor to write a single letter and even the person writing the letter themself in conjunction with the formal complaints process. Also some offenders can afford legal representation. I have seen all of these methods used, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

  3. I'm as frustrated as anyone with the paucity of accommodation and employment options for prison leavers but I don't feel we should be apologetic for the vast majority of the exclusion zones we apply. The peace of mind they might afford a victim is easily worth the inconvenience to the former prisoner

    1. Maybe exclusion zones should be a matter for a court to decide upon then, and not imposed by agencies that may have vested interests.

    2. Well, They are already very often decided by the parole board but what do you mean by'vested interests'?

    3. Probation Officer13 August 2016 at 21:01

      I don't think they need to be set by Courts, as if they did where would this end, licence conditions, appointment frequency, etc? What I am saying is that there is a process for anyone subject to an exclusion zone to scrutinise and challenge it. The probation service has policies for applying exclusion zones so it is possible to check if one is in accordance with it or not.

  4. In my experience victims either do not respond to exclusion requests or want people excluded from ridiculous areas"All of London" "Yorkshire" "All of the Solar System inside the orbit of Saturn". Ex Prisoners want tiny ones "The victims road" "Their living room". As a result they are compromises, and as such please nobody.
    Pina Colada.

  5. POs need to remember that all licence conditions including exclusion areas need to be necessary and proportionate. Unfortunately some POs just go along with pressure from police and Mappa usually dominated by police ! It' can be tough to stand your ground but it works for me