Monday, 16 October 2017

Guest Blog 67

Whitewashing the Probation Service

For the past few years we’ve all been struggling with the changes to the Probation Service. While we’ve been preoccupied there’s been quite a few questionable policies and procedures implemented under the radar in both the NPS and the CRC’s. The strategy that is most insulting to me is the increasing policisation and prisonisation of the Probation Service. I may have just made these words up, so by ‘policisation’ and ‘prisonisation’ I mean the turning of Probation Officers into police and prison officers, or more accurately, turning us into the lackeys of the police and prison services.

I could start with MAPPA and the subservient position probation can at times have at these meetings in comparison to the police and other professionals, particularly at Level 3 meetings. But I have to admit to quite liking MAPPA meetings because probation still has a say and we all know the meetings would be pointless without us. I don’t know why IOM and the police have adopted our ‘Offender Manager’ title. I don’t really mind because I’ve never referred to myself as an ‘Offender Manager’, which is quite a silly title since our ethos is historically grounded in rehabilitation, anti-labelling and generally being quite nice to people on probation to stop them being ‘offenders’. 

We’re under constant pressure to return people to the Court, recall to prison and oppose release based on ‘risk’, but we all know we’re not really an enforcement or risk management agency either. We seem to have put aside encouraging individuals to be honest, and instead we’re using polygraph tests and drug tests to trick and force individuals to disclose information. I even saw an article on the NPS intranet recently introducing the drive to encourage probation staff to monitor each other and ‘snitch’ on 'corrupt' probation colleagues (I’ve since stopped taking home stationery!)

All these things above we’re getting used to, it’s every day stuff, but there are two things that are really beginning to irk me most. The first is ARMS assessments which we’re forced to complete on all on probation offenders convicted of sexual offences. Now I’m a jobsworth so I was amongst the first in my office to complete the mandatory ARMS (Active Risk Assessment) training and have completed one for every relevant individual on my caseload. 

I haven’t done any “required” joint home visits with the police, I can’t bring myself to voluntarily sit in a police car, marked or unmarked, nor am I willing to be part of a police interrogation because I’m a Probation Officer not a police officer. While ARMS may benefit the police ‘public protection units’ who are the only ones that actually read it, it is a pointless exercise for probation staff. I’ve completed my appraisal-linked ARMS quota and I can safely say that ARMS is of no use to us, particularly as I’ve already completed on each relevant individual an induction, OASys risk assessment, home visits and multiple supervision sessions, and more.

The second thing that irks me is Vetting. I understand the need for CRB checks, DBS checks and all that sort of stuff, but this process has taken such an intrusive form with the implementation of Vetting to police standards. For those that haven’t had the privilege yet, according to the long since implemented PI 03/2014, while we were preoccupied, this means;

“Once staff transition to the NPS, they will be subject to the same vetting checks and requirements as other HQ personnel. Where NPS staff apply to move to other NOMS HQ and prison locations they will be subject to a full security vetting check. If NPS staff move to another role within NPS, vetting will only be required if they are subject to a higher level of vetting for the post. This will be a minimum level of Enhanced Check 2, but may be higher dependant on the level of risk and type of work undertaken.”
Now you may be thinking “well I’m not changing role at the moment so I can file this PI in the trash with all the other important NPS instructions”. Well you can’t because our probation directors and unions have allowed Vetting to be forced upon us. Firstly, Vetting now replaces CRB/DBS checks now we’re part of the (un)civil service. Secondly, all ‘offender management’ staff are required to use the police Visor database as a “reasonable management instruction”, and that’s whether to want or need to use it or not. For this privilege we all must be vetted first, and the Vetting itself is a “reasonable management instruction” too.
“ViSOR users are now subject to additional Vetting requirements by the police who as data owners require NOMS staff to undergo Non Police Personnel Vetting (NPPV) at level 2 or 3 depending on access rights.” PI 03/2014.
So there we have it, even though we don’t need Visor and it is not necessary for all probation staff to have access to what is actually a piss-poor database. The probable truth is that we’re being vetted simply because police officers and prison officers are vetted, and the Ministry of Justice probably see it as a way of further sidelining probation and speeding up our extinction. If any of you, like me, have been through this process already you’ll know how intrusive, stressful and worrying it actually is, and that you can fail it. 

The minimum level of Enhanced Check 2 that will being forced upon us includes PNC and local police intelligence checks, checks on other non-conviction databases and Special Branch for applicant, spouse/partner and co-residents (including parents and siblings); military and Professional Standards checks on the applicant if required; Credit Reference checks on the applicant, including history of credit card refusal, debts and CCJ’s. I’ve seen a circular stating this may adversely affect a small number of staff but I think this could affect a significant number of probation staff, some with past criminal records, some with family members or spouses with criminal records, and some with bad credit histories past and present.

So what do the unions say? Not much, well this is Ian Lawrence’s (Napo General Secretary) position on Vetting;

“Unless the reason for failure of vetting is such that a disciplinary case is warranted then no member of staff will lose their employment as a result of vetting failure. Anyone failing the vetting process would be redeployed or have a restricted caseload or other adjustments to allow them to continue to work”.
I’m going to end by saying that the Probation Service used to represent rehabilitation and change. Our wealth was largely in the diversity of our staff group which included people from all walks of life, ranging from rich-gits and Tory-boys sitting next to ex-soldiers, ex-miners and those from beyond the fringes of regular society, including the poor, the underclass, recovered addicts, reformed gang members, and the like. This all now ends because once again our probation bosses have bowed to the will of the Ministry of Justice, this time putting police procedures and prison logic over probation staff and practice. I wonder if Vetting is why the ex-offender mentors and volunteers have disappeared from the NPS?

On a side but related note, the recent David Lammy Review told us that certain groups are more likely to be ‘over-policed’, stopped and searched, prosecuted and therefore have criminal records. He concluded as part of his solution that the inequality should be addressed and even that criminal records should be sealed to help former offenders combat discrimination and find work. 

I watched our Prime Minister vow to end the racism and discrimination that certain groups face in every walk of life, including the CJS and workplace. I am sure the Ministry of Justice will be tasked to get its house in order because of the bias and discrimination in the justice system. While the MoJ and the UK in general is trying to achieve what it couldn’t dating from the MacPherson (Stephen Lawrence) Report and before, the NPS will be simultaneously dismissing probation officers for their circumstances and mistakes of yesteryear.

Sadly, I know many probation staff of all backgrounds that have past criminal histories, criminal family members and financial problems, mainly due to bad life choices, and in some cases stemming from the earlier forms of the discrimination and disadvantage described in the Lammy Review. I couldn’t think of anyone better placed to support those on probation facing similar experiences, and to help balance our unfair justice system, but now that’s only if they are able to get past Vetting. With the Lammy Review in mind, if those adversely affected by Vetting are disproportionately originating from working-class family backgrounds, ethnic minorities or marginalised communities then this could end up being seen as a ‘whitewashing’ of the Probation Service.

Thanks for reading.

Probation Officer
Too many years to retire


  1. The majority of what you write is spot on and there is an increased level of politicisation and prisonisation (i like those words) for our colleagues. However, I have to correct you on enhanced level 2 vetting- the amount of detail you are referring to for checks is for Counter Terrorism Clearance which probation staff are not subject to unless they work in highly sensitive secondment roles or a vetting contact point. Enhanced level 2 is a much lower level of vetting and whilst relies of previous conviction information and social group membership is doesn't look into the details on your family and friends or your finances. This is scaremongering amongst staff which is unnecessary.

    1. I was proud to work for a service that was prepared to employ people who had, bar the understandable exceptions, employ people who had previous convictions but I wonder how many of those individuals; professional and competent practitioners, would now get through civil service vetting.

  2. From liverpool Echo today:-

    The Governor of Walton Prison has been removed from his post after a snap inspection, the ECHO can reveal.

    A National Audit Office (NAO) doc­ument leaked to the ECHO states that Peter Francis, who took on the role about three years ago, has left for “operational reasons” following a recent unannounced inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP).

    Details of the inspection revealed a bleak picture of prisoners forced to live in squalor – with cockroaches, filthy toilets and damp-ridden walls within the ageing complex.

    In a section on “the departure of Peter Francis from his post as governor”, the NAO letter sent anonymously to the ECHO states: “I have confirmed through discussions with HMPPS (Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service) officials that his removal was for operational reasons following a recent unannounced inspection by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales (HMIP).”

    The document is signed by Steven Corbishley, director for home affairs and justice at the National Audit Office. Walton MP Dan Carden said he would be contacting the Ministry of Justice for clarity on the situation at the prison. It is not clear what management arrangements are now in place. On Saturday, we reported on how HMIP had brought up concerns that too many prisoners were being forced to spend their days inside squalid, overcrowded cells.

  3. From Prison Reform Trust:-

    Prison Closure Confusion

    Last week, the Ministry of Justice’s programme for modernising the prison estate was thrown into confusion, with justice minister Sam Gyimah MP, appearing to contradict the head of HM Prisons and Probation Service, Michael Spurr, about planned prison closures. Speaking at the Prison Governor’s Association Annual Conference on Wednesday, Michael Spurr said that he anticipated that “we won’t close any prisons this parliament”. However, just the following day, when responding to a question in Parliament, Sam Gyimah said that the commitment to close prisons over the next few years “very much remains”.

    The Prison Reform Trust highlighted concerns about the viability of the Ministry of Justice’s prison building programme to HM Treasury, ahead of this year’s budget, in light of the publication of concerning prison population projections and a rapid rise in prisoner numbers this summer. Since May this year growth in the prison population has been extremely strong—rising by over 1,200 places in only 13 weeks, and it remains higher than at any other point in the last four years. In a sign of rising pressures on the prison estate, it was also reported that The Verne Immigration Removal Centre, would revert back to holding prisoners in 2018 just three years after a multi-million-pound re-role.

    Commenting, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

    "Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer of HM Prisons and Probation Service, has now publicly admitted what the Prison Reform Trust stated in evidence to HM Treasury’s consultation on the budget a fortnight ago. A major plank of the government's prison reform programme has already bitten the dust. Dilapidated old prisons, rightly damned by the chief inspector's report on prison conditions earlier this week, will now not be closing. Some will even be re-opened. ‘New for old’ has turned into ‘new at any cost’.

    “But the uncomfortable truth is that the government was relying on the savings from closures to finance both the construction and the running costs of new prisons. No-one knows where the money to fill that black hole is now going to come from."

  4. A good blog thanks for your contribution

  5. Very interesting blog. VISOR (Violent and Sex Offenders Register) does require enhanced security access controls (usually available behind two locked doors), controlled printing etc. If an offender manager does need to access VISOR they shouldn't need any more security checking than they currently have (as agreed during its original rollout to Probation). Access should be controlled with system access control measures and controlled user management.
    As you say the strength of probation is the variety of backgrounds of Probation Officers enabling empathy and understanding with true rehabilitation measures.
    Perhaps this concept of polication and prisonation (thereby losing the third pillar of the triangle of offender management and rehabilitation) should be raised with the Judicial Review.

    1. Our VISOR terminal & security-cleared operative are in the same office as all staff; and the terminal is linked to a shared network printer.

      Presumably if you pick up the wrong sheet of paper a sniper on the neighbouring rooftop will take you out.

  6. Sorry a little off piste here ;

    1. Interserve, the troubled construction and support services group, has said it is in “constructive and ongoing discussions with its lenders” in the wake of a profit warning which wiped two-thirds of its market value.

      The firm said on Monday that it is working to provide greater clarity on both its current trading and any extra costs that might arise from its struggling 'Energy from Waste' contracts, which are expected to cost the firm at least £160m to sort out.

      Shares in the company dropped as much as 8.58pc to 101.25p on Monday, amid concern among investors that the company could be set to make another profit warning.

      Last month, Interserve warned that business had slowed across the country in July and August, hitting its expectations for the rest of the year.

      It had originally flagged up problems with a contract to design, procure and install a gasification plant at a recycling and renewable energy centre in Glasgow more than a year ago when it warned that it had experienced problems with its supply chain, leading to delays.

      It originally allocated £70m to pay for the project, before upping the amount to £160m. Last month, it suggested that the costs will exceed even that.

      Reports over the weekend suggested that a number of Interserve’s banks, including HSBC and Royal Bank of Scotland, had called in consultants at EY to advise them over the company’s next steps. EY is also helping fellow support services firm Carillion to restructure after its own heavy losses.

      The market is still anticipating a statement from new chief executive Debbie White setting out how the business will proceed.

      Ms White joined the firm at the beginning of September, following the departure of previous boss Adrian Ringrose.

    2. HA bloody ha they deserve everything they lose and then they will have to cap in hand to the government and I guess they will get bailed out to run the Probation contracts .

  7. Parliamentary outrage about loss of 400+ jobs at Vauxhall, Tory govt promises to "do what they can" ... NOT a fucking peep when the Tory govt PAID private companies with UK taxpayer money to get rid of hundreds of probation service jobs.

  8. great blog post. Thanks for taking the time.

  9. Yes indeed, really great blog post, thank you. I am sure I read the chief inspector of probation saying somewhere that while the NPS isn't doing so badly, more attention needed to be paid to rehabilitation. Trouble is, the whole NPS culture is so risk averse, and craven, it seems no-one of any standing in the senior ranks is prepared to be assertive here.