Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Probation the Working Links Way

The caravan's definitely started moving faster and it's a job keeping up. This in today's Guardian just won't wait until tomorrow, so it's Working Links in the frame yet again:-

Why are privatised probation services using public libraries to see clients?

A lack of adequate meeting rooms means ex-offenders in Weston-super-Mare have to meet their probation officers while sharing a table with library users

It’s a Thursday afternoon and Weston-super-Mare’s town hall is buzzing with activity. Through the main entrance is the public library, where Dean (not his real name) is waiting. He’s antsy, muttering to himself and jiggling his legs up and down. Where he sits is flanked by the children’s books section and a bank of public computers.

But Dean isn’t here to take out a library book or use the free wifi. He is on probation for an offence that’s deemed him to be of “medium risk” to the public and has come here for his weekly meeting with his probation officer. “I’m sorry, we don’t have any rooms available so we’ll have to have a chat over here,” says the probation officer when she arrives, gesturing to a table near teen fiction. Dean shuffles after her, looking tired and dishevelled. He is clearly conscious of the suspicious looks being cast in his direction.

The whole conversation between Dean and his probation officer can be overheard – it includes his fears of becoming homeless again, his difficult relationship with his family, and an update on how his course of methadone is going. These are personal issues that you would expect to discuss in private. But with only one interview room between six probation officers, highly sensitive and potentially volatile conversations such as this are having to be played out in public.

Until last year, Weston-super-Mare’s probation team were able to meet offenders at their purpose-built facilities by the courts. But 15 months ago, its staff were moved into the town hall, where they share office space with the council’s housing team and the Avon and Somerset police. The aim is to bring services closer together in an attempt to reduce offending behaviour. Now the six probation officers have to interview at least a dozen of the 25 people they typically see a day in public, due to alack of meeting rooms.

“This is the most untenable, dangerous situation I’ve witnessed,” says Julie Wright, a probation officer with 10 years’ experience in various English towns and cities, before moving to North Somerset. But she was so appalled by the service she was expected to deliver in the public library that she quit her new job after just two days.

“The staff are on their knees, it’s putting the public at risk, and the service users are being stigmatised and denied a proper chance to engage in rehabilitation,” she says.

In June 2014, 70% of probation work in England and Wales was outsourced to 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) in England and Wales. Only the most dangerous offenders – those deemed “high risk” – are still supervised by the public sector, under the remit of a new National Probation Service (NPS). Critics of the controversial probation privatisation say what is happening in Weston-super-Mare is symptomatic of – and a grim indictment of – the poor service that has followed.

“The arrangements for interviewing clients in a public library are absolutely unacceptable,” says Ian Lawrence, general secretary of Napo, which represents more than 8,000 staff working in probation and family courts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The number of serious crimes such as murder and manslaughter committed by offenders under supervision in the community has risen by 25% since privatisation. In 2012-13, 409 serious further offence reviews were triggered, yet by 2016-17 this had increased to 517. The Ministry of Justice says comparisons are misleading, as it reformed the system so the numbers of offenders on probation are now significantly higher. “Our probation reforms have meant that around 40,000 offenders who previously would not have been supervised – because they had been in prison for less than 12 months - are now being monitored for the first time,” says a MoJ spokesman. “But we have been clear that we need probation to work better. We want more intensive rehabilitation to take place in the community, particularly to tackle offenders with substance misuse and mental health needs. And we want tough community sentences that are consistently and effectively enforced so they command the confidence of the courts and the public.

But it is not as if the MoJ were unaware of the potential problems. A leaked document in 2013 by senior officials warned that there was a more than 80% risk that the privatisation proposals introduced by the then justice secretary Chris Grayling, would lead to “an unacceptable drop in operational performance”. In Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire, community probation services are run by Working Links – a global company delivering government welfare-to-work, criminal justice and learning and skills outsourced contracts. It also won the contract to run the CRC in Wales and covering Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.

In August, Working Links received a damning report from the probation inspectorate for its service in Gloucestershire. The quality and impact inspection found that “painful staffing reductions”, “unacceptable workloads” and facilities that were not fully functioning were putting the public at “more risk than necessary” and denying service users the chance to turn their lives around.

The Working Links service in North Somerset has yet to be inspected. But HM chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, said of Gloucestershire: “This CRC’s work is so far below par that its owner and government need to work together urgently to improve matters, so that those under supervision and the general public receive the service they rightly expect, and the staff that remain can do the job they so wish to do.”

Conducting interviews in public is particularly detrimental for vulnerable women, says another ex-staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity. She describes a situation with a female offender having to be interviewed within earshot of her ex-partner – a perpetrator of domestic violence. “He deliberately sat at the nearby computer station in order to intimidate her.”

Sometimes unsuspecting members of the public will sit on the same table and settle down with a book, she adds. When I was there a man interrupted an interview to ask about the wifi password, mistaking the probation worker for a librarian.

“Situations like that happen all the time and it undermines what we are trying to do – we can’t challenge people about their offending or go into any meaningful detail,” the ex-staff member explains. “A lot of the people we work with are very traumatised, vulnerable people who are a risk to themselves as much as they are to others.” Welfare changes, benefit sanctions, a huge shortage of affordable housing and cuts to support services have limited the help that probation offices can signpost for ex-offenders, she adds.

“We anticipate that the rollout of universal credit will make life much tougher for our client group as many of them survive on limited benefits or zero-hour contracts.”

In a town where 40% of people live in poverty, she says her clients arrive in increasingly more desperate states and many are sofa surfing. “There is only housing association accommodation that people can bid for, some voluntary sector social housing such as accommodation for people with mental health problems and the private rented sector. But very few private rented sector landlords will rent to people on benefits.”

Emotions can run high – sometimes people become angry and abusive and the public library setting doesn’t help to de-escalate things, says the ex-staff member. Probation colleagues in Bristol are also having to compromise on privacy. The CRC’s building better relationships group, run for perpetrators of domestic violence, has been moved from purpose-built offices to a shared space run as a community enterprise. “The group is held behind a door but it has no security. Reception staff is limited and anyone could walk into the group room,” sources close to Bristol CRC say.

“There have been incidents, including a chair being thrown through a door. There is a creche on site and vulnerable women who attend the centre for various community events. The programme’s team is under-staffed, so often the group is run by two women on their own in the evening.”

Napo says senior management consistently blame staff for their failings, saying that the problems are due to maternity leave, sickness and staff shortages. Says Lawrence: “All of this should have been factored in before they made nearly 40% of their staff redundant. We have little confidence that they will make a recovery from this or that they have an adequate plan to address these issues.”

Asked about concerns raised in Weston-super-Mare and Bristol, a spokesman for the Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire CRC says: “Weston Town Hall is part of our wide network of community hubs, designed to bring services closer together to reduce reoffending behaviours. We share this venue with Avon and Somerset police and North Somerset council’s housing team – two of our main partners delivering important services affecting our service users.

“At all times we aim to deliver a safe service, working in an environment enabling us to build up trust and relationships with the people we support. We are talking with the council about the facilities and are exploring options to ensure we continue to deliver safe services that deliver results for our service users and the wider community.”

A spokeswoman for North Somerset council says: “Following concerns, a new health and safety assessment has been undertaken to review existing arrangements and the CRC are currently looking for alternative locations to see some of their service users. The Town Hall reception and library area has a security officer present during opening hours.”

The local Conservative MP, John Penrose, who had been informed about the concerns raised by probation staff says: “I’m very pleased Working Links accept that they need to find alternative, better accommodation and are exploring options with the council.”

I speak to Dean outside after his interview and ask whether he would have preferred to be in a private room. “Yeah, that might have been nice,” he says. “A bit of privacy, a bit of quiet and the chance to have a proper chat – I don’t really have that in my life, but it’s just one of those things,” he says with a shrug. He doesn’t seem to expect any better.

Later I tell the ex-staff member about our exchange. “A lot of our service users have been disadvantaged all their lives and have come to expect very little from the world,” she says. “It’s very sad – they deserve a proper chance to turn their lives around.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman says: “We are looking very closely at these issues as more needs to be done. Public protection is our top priority and it is vital that we have in place probation services that not only keep people safe, but help offenders turn away from a life of crime by ensuring they have the correct levels of supervision and support.”


I thought this comment was particularly interesting:-

Data Protection Act surely applies here, along with Section 8 of the European Human Rights (right to a private life) which, whilst the offender has been subject to a public trial, doesn't mean that therefore all information about them is fair game.

When I worked in Adult Care, any conversation we had with a service user was expected to take place in a private room and not to be overheard by members of the public and preferably not by other staff who had no connection with case. Phone calls were treated in the same way. As far as I recall, breaking this rule could lead to disciplinary action.

Treating offenders in this way compromises their privacy and their ability to move forward and break away from committing criminal offences. It shows a lack of respect and inability to treat offenders with dignity. I am aware that some may say that by committing an offence means they have lost the right to respect, dignity, privacy etc. In my opinion that attitude simply compounds the problems that person is already facing.

Cost-cutting is unacceptable where it puts staff, members of the public and service users at risk. The trend to hot-desking has also meant an increased lack of privacy for staff as there are, invariably, fewer interview rooms. In probation services, it is often inappropriate for staff to conduct such meetings at the offender's home (if they have one) due to safety and privacy concerns. The same applies to having these meetings in a public space such as a library.


  1. So what are MOJ going to do to rectify this appalling situation and force Working Links to accept that 'the working links way' is not the correct, legal or morally acceptable way to do things? Clearly they have been getting away with cheating the public out of their money by cutting corners in a completely uncaring manner, leaving staff, public and service users at risk. No doubt this is just the tip of the iceberg and if the rug is pulled there will be plenty more dirt beneath.

  2. It's unbelievable that these companies are continuing to work in this way. When is the government going to admit they got it wrong and pull the plug on itall instead of keep throwing good money after bad.

    1. They wont admit they got it wrong. But they know they did. We can whistle for an apology till the end of time, but we should be thinking hard about what next

  3. Perhaps the members of the public would like to join in with the Big Picture jigsaw puzzles?

  4. I think it's just awful. It can't be right that the government can hand over millions of pounds to a company that can't even provide premises for its workforce.

    I don't know what CRC operate in Chepstow, but they're charging the local council £50 a day for those on community Payback to do maintenance work.
    Personally I find that just as appauling as using public libraries.


    1. CHEPSTOW Town Council has agreed to pay the Probation Service to carry out maintenance around the town, reversing their original decision.
      Last month the council had voted to agree to the service carrying out the maintenance but had not agreed to paying the cost of £50 a day. The Chepstow Chamber of Trade and Commerce, had expressed their “grave disappointment” with the decision and five councillors signed a motion to reconsider the issue.

      A second vote on the issue was passed with eight of the 14 councillors voting in favour after a heated discussion. Councillor Tony Redhead started the discussion by saying he was “furious about the emails from the Chepstow Chamber of Commerce”, who he said misrepresented why the council had refused the proposal previously. He went on to again argue that he could see no reason why the £50 a day the council was being asked to pay needed to go towards petrol costs, equipment and protective clothing and questioned why the Probation Service was not already supplying these.

      Councillor Jez Becker argued for the service regardless of what the money was going to. He said:

      “It is incredible value for money and we are losing perspective. If anyone can get someone to clean up the town for £50 I’m all ears.”

      Councillor Yvonne Havard expressed what councillors either side of the issue agreed on, that the cleanliness of Chepstow needed to be addressed long term. She said: “Perhaps in the short term it is something to look at but in the long term we have to address it as a council.”

      A point of order was raised which meant the council had to either agree or turn down the proposal and couldn’t look at it at a later date. This resulted in the council agreeing to to fund the service with up to £2,000 subject to a 10 day trial period.

      When the Chepstow Town Council looked at this proposal previously they were asked to consider contributing towards petrol costs, equipment and protective clothing for the service users, not the cost of a supervisor as previously mentioned on 11th October.

    2. Getafix..Working Links run all CRC's across Wales and South West

      So Chepstow will be Working Links managed!

    3. Priority is to get some form of payment for each CP job of work. As costs are bargained in regardless then CP is making profit for the company however you try to change the wording to justify it. Morally wrong, is it legal?

    4. It's only 50 quid a day for the council, but it sets a president where money can change hands for services provided by probation to be carried out by those under sentence of the courts.
      How long will it be before money is being taken from businesses for services?
      The money given to CRCs must include enough for petrol and protective clothing.
      It's criminal to charge anything for services that have already been paid for by central government.

  5. A constant theme and message from those in parliament or criminal justice ‘experts’ - CRC’s are not performing as expected. There is limited, if any, purposeful activity with offenders. No targeted intervention.

    A simple question. What do they expect?

    An average caseload is 50-60 (London). We are constantly told by management, 55 is a ‘manageable’ number. That’s part of the problem. It is just a number. It fails to take into account the person, the service user, offender. It fails to take into account issues contributing to their behaviour. Their problems. Support needed. Whether they are homeless, have substance misuse issues, mental health concerns, financial issues, learning difficulties.

    A caseload cannot and should not be assessed as a number, but as a person. With complexities. With time required to address these. To allow and provide positive change.

    Sadly, that has all been lost. Buried under a need to reduce costs, display a green tick next to a meaningless target, de-skill staff and ultimately offset any actual quality rehabilitation.

    Services get cut. Targets get changed. Weekly.

    The current inspection in London is a farce. All cases being inspected have be identified. Quality assured. They have been manufactured to look good. It is all a lie. A cover up.

    In Inspection briefings, schools and OFSTED has been used. We are told schools prepare. So should we. Schools are generally notified 24 hours prior to an inspection. You can’t cook the books in a day. In LondonCRC, you can in three months. It’s shameful really. There will be no real, true assessment of the shambles our service has become.

    I have been a Probation Officer for 10 years. I am ashamed. Ashamed at what my profession has become. Ashamed at the service I am now delivering.

    Gone - despite policies and talk - are supervisions with your line manager. Gone is any form of training to increase knowledge, improve your quality or skill set. All that is implemented are boxes being ticked. Cover ups.

    Gone is community payback. I quote ‘do not contact CP for a month or so, they won’t answer, they are retraining’. It’s a shambles. Gone is any decent IOM work. No budget. No effort. Just a monthly meeting where no actions are set, no support offered to prevent. Just a tick box exercise. We have met. That’s all is expected.

    Recently rolled out has been ‘Plan, Meet, Record’. A patronising policy on what our job is. We can plan. We can meet. We can record. We cannot effect change when polices like these are rolled out to simplify what is a challenging, demanding role.

    Front line staff are not valued, not appreciated, not supported we have been de-skilled.

    It will only get worse. Until front line staff are increased, services portfolios built, funding in important areas rectified. Management with actual experience in the field. Not faces that fit with limited experience who simply become yes men / woman.

    LondonCRC has become lazy. Management are - except a rare few old school SPO’s - clueless. Front line staff are demoralised and do what is required to be seen to be doing their job. There is a deep rooted negative atmosphere. An unhappiness which creates poor quality. A poor service to people who need help.

    1. I think this inspection is national, I was interviewed today, inspectors are in Manchester this week. All the things you mentioned above where conveyed to them. I hope they took note and not just throw more money at the CRC's for failing.

    2. One can hope. Sadly, I do not foresee change of a significant nature. Staff have been prepped. Cases have been manipulated. I can only see more bad days in the immediate future.

  6. RRP ingeus looking to cut 40% back office staff

    1. MoJ need to step in and put a stop to further cuts..look what has happened in other areas such as working links where 40 to 50% cuts have been followed by ongoing exodus.

  7. I see you tweeted today "There is a massive shortage of qualified staff and MoJ are pushing for CRC's and NPS to retain fully qualified staff."
    They are also recruiting qualified staff, except... over in another place, NPS recruits are comparing notes on how long the process takes from interview to sitting at a desk. So far the average seems to be circa 10 months, with one person having taken a WHOLE YEAR. We are considering a formal awards ceremony, with the "Waiting for Godot-ful Shared Services" Trophy. At least one recruited, experienced PO just gave up and walked away. So treating your recruits in a professional courteous way, and not treating your existing staff like shit, might be a good starting place

  8. LOL..just read that Michael Gove, Environment Minister is backing Weston-super-mare coastal clean up programme to reduce environmental pollution. He is joining the likes of 'surfers against sewage'. Meanwhile in the local library probation officers are sat with offenders near the teen fiction isle being overheard because of Michael Gove's very own policies! 'Probation officers against bullshit' are due to meet tomorrow to tackle a spate of effluent that Gove has left in his wake.

  9. What's the bet that cash strapped councils are monitoring this regarding payments for service by using CP gangs. £50 per day when deemed acceptable will then have CRC's rubbing their hands arranging contracts for a lot higher day rates.

  10. Dear 18:44 I also work at LondonCRC and you have said it perfectly. I am approaching my 15-year anniversary as a London PO and I am ashamed to be a part of this organisation.

    I have lost the energy to keep fighting - I am known as the "challenging one" because I have never been afraid to ask management to explain the anomalies and downright failures in their decisions. I use the MTCNovo policies themselves to challenge the management lazy approach that has led to poor frontline provisions.
    So, for example, if this new "Plan, Meet, Record" is meant to encourage us to have meaningful interactions with service users (which surely is the whole point of probation anyway and the way professional staff work when we have the luxury of time!) why is my SPO now issuing me with a "management instruction under threat of disciplinary action" to waste time entering appointments onto Microsoft Outlook and my mobile device when I already have this system entered within the MoJ nDelius required recording system. Why too am I being told to 'just cancel' service user appointments in order to attend performance meetings to sit around in her tiny office looking at an Excel spreadsheet? Surely, actually meeting with the people we work with is the whole point of performance (ironically, the most recent 'just cancel that appointment' command was for a new case that she went on to as me, 'when will you lock the initial sentence plan eOASys?'). It just makes no sense!

    We are working in a demoralising environment and do not have line management support. The comments at 18:44 are absolutely spot on

    I actually feel like I am in an unhealthy relationship with London CRC and I am making my exit plan - with a very heavy heart, because I actually LOVE the frontline probation work I do - both with the clients/service users and colleagues, but it is either I stay and get sick, or I leave to ensure that I can be psychosocially healthy.

    1. Thank you! You are spot on - all energy and enthusiasm is being removed. There is absolutely no direction from senior management. Decent, knowledgeable, passionate staff are being forced to move on. Like you, my exit plan is being made. Until then, I will fight. I will challenge. Stay strong and look after yourself.

  11. O how true at 20.04

    I was recruited for NPS. Nearly a year on and still not in place. 17 years qualified. I withdrew my application this week because I need to get on with my life. I am agency and valued by colleagues for my knowledge and skills and I value them as colleagues. What an absolute crock of s**t the recruitment process is now it is in the hands of civil serpents. Never experienced anything like it. They couldnt even get the advert right on the website and none of the candidates realised there would be a test prior to going before the board and that was the start. I could go on but i wont. The sooner the recruitment process is devolved back to the NPS Local area the better.

    My colleagues and our senior are disappointed I will not be on permanent staff but completely understand my position and are highly pissed off with the recruitment system.

    The absolute killer is the 'no-reply' emails you are sent. How disrespectful is that? No facility to ask a question or to have diversity respected
    Just upload this and that...a disgraceful way of treating professionals. The civil serpents employed by shared services are a lottery. If you get a helpful one. Great. But most of them could not find their own backsides with both hands and ad for the getting process..tje cause of all this. Don't get me started.

  12. Sorry the last part of that should read..
    The vetting process..the cause of all this...

    Apologies. It has been a long day.