Monday, 29 January 2018

Guest Blog 68

Probation reborn? The rise of Liaison and Diversion

I have been putting off a guest blog for some time. I didn’t want to write a pessimistic piece about the demise of a once useful service. After all, the morale of many ex-colleagues has to be considered as they continue to toil in Probation offices. I left the NPS voluntarily in August and it has taken me a long time to reflect and find an optimistic tune about Probation.

I left the NPS to focus on a social enterprise I set up with two colleagues in the Summer of 2014, at a time when I realised that maintaining any control of my career meant finding a route out of the Service. Although I had previously been working in the West Yorkshire Probation Trust under excellent leadership I had, since qualification in 2001, realised that the government were never going to give Boards, Trusts and now NPS and CRCs the true independence to find innovative local solutions to our “stubbornly high re-offending rates”, or indeed just help the very vulnerable individuals who make up Probation caseloads. 

My belief had always been that staff mutuals were the way to go - maybe not for whole areas like West Yorkshire, but at least for those parts of it that we then called ‘interventions’ such as programme delivery, specified activities, community service and maybe even APs. I found considerable support for this idea amongst West Yorkshire leadership, although perhaps my inexperience did not make me the right person to take this forward. And as it turned out my suggestions were not well timed either as Chris Grayling very quickly moved to remove all control from Probation professionals, whether they were in leadership or operational roles. Many fine leaders and professionals have been cast aside, and valuable good will squandered.

Our fledgling social enterprise, Safer Lives, started slowly as we built up the necessary contacts to make it succeed and also had to balance it against our commitments to the day job in Probation. We support men arrested for sexual offences during the period of their investigations. We had noticed that men coming onto Probation caseloads for offences involving the accessing of indecent images of children were spending up to 12 months under investigation and that by the time they made it through court they were often sullen empty people. 

Once we had secured permission from West Yorkshire Police and started working with these clients we realised that they were not just men with terrible online behaviours, but they were also highly suicidal. Operation Notarise (started in 2014) arrested approximately 750 people, and at least 24 have taken their lives, with more inquests still not finalised in coroner courts. That is at least one in thirty being lost to suicide! So our work focuses on suicide prevention and changing long-term behaviours. We are starting to grow, into all of Yorkshire and Humberside, as well as Greater Manchester and Merseyside, and have supported around 200 men so far.

What is interesting about this work is how receptive the clients are. They are desperate for help and to change their ways. This may be indicative of the profile of this group and their state of absolute desperation, but the work seems to very effective in its aims. Men come through our processes and support with a new found ability to speak to us and to their loved ones about their needs and emotions. Hopefully this, alongside the more structured parts of our interventions, will help protect them from the destructive behaviours they were previously involved in.

Recently we have been working more collaboratively with Liaison and Diversion Teams. Most in the Probation field will remember liaison and diversion projects being small initiatives set up some years ago. Each project was different but they all offered support and advice in magistrates courts with the intention of offering people in crises and with vulnerabilities, including mental illness, routes into treatment in the hope that short prison sentences could be avoided. As I recall, in my city this small initiative was staffed by a CPN from the local prison’s Mental Health In Reach Team and someone who worked out of the DIP office. 

More recently though, through joint funding from NHS England and the MoJ, national pathfinder pilots were set up to provide the possibility of a more comprehensive service based in police stations to work with a wide range of vulnerabilities in people entering into their custody suites. This coincided with the NHS rolling out improvements in police custody healthcare provision.

One of these Liaison and Diversion Pathfinders was set up in Wakefield because they already had an established and respected scheme that centred on trying to support young people who were coming into contact with the police, and trying to prevent them from entering into youth custody. My understanding is that all the pilots were contracted out, and for those of us with recent probation experience, this is where our hearts might sink. But in Wakefield the contract was given to the local authority whose YOS workers were already established in the earlier scheme. In other pilots local NHS trusts were given the contracts. How sensible.

These pilots have been successful, and now L&D services are being rolled out nationally. Only this week we attended a meeting with service managers in the North West - all experienced CPNs working for a local mental health NHS Trust. They seemed to naturally understand the work and the vulnerabilities and needs of the client base. It was no surprise that they all reported very good relationships with staff in a local Probation office where they are co-located. Their professionalism and insight was clear from the very start of the meeting.

My brother who is also a community CPN and has always praised Probation staff as ‘having their heads screwed on’ in a world that is led by headless chickens. He is perhaps a bit of a maverick, just like the excellent Probation Officers I experienced during my training in Halifax Probation Office. During that training I recall many useful conversations with a CPN who would visit weekly to hold consultations with staff and meet with mutual clients. What a great relationship between the NHS and Probation it was! I am sure there were similar examples in many probation offices of the time.

I really hope that those external relationships can be re-established with the NHS through Liaison and Diversion teams, or by other means. Our experiences of L&D services in West Yorkshire, and now in the North West, suggest to me that the spirit of Probation is not dead at all, but is being ignited in L&D teams up and down the land. A significant number of the Wakefield team is made up of people with deep Probation experience, and their job is not dissimilar to how I saw mine in the earlier years of my Probation career - not spending endless hours trying to rescue clients personally, or in enforcing national standards until my eyes bled, or in tedious back covering exercises sold as assessment - but in providing kindness and a bridge into other specialist services who were finding it hard to engage or even find these clients. ‘Hard to reach’ is how these services described these clients, but Probation was often the pathway to them. This is what L&D services are doing - they are made up of experienced staff who facilitate clients into more specialist community provision - drug services, mental health, housing, debts and advice services. The difference is that they are doing it pre-conviction and getting to clients when they are most needy and often most receptive.

In my final years in Probation I was experiencing a growing relationship with co-located NHS staff, but not with the CPNs whose ethic and attitude I had valued dearly. It had moved on to NHS psychologists who I personally and individually liked but whose benefit I was doubtful of. The introduction of psychologists into NPS Probation practice through Personality Disorder pathways seems to me to be hopelessly misplaced. Of course, they are there to advise about the working relationships and approaches to be used with the most difficult and intransigent ‘offenders’, most of whom are blocking the prison system on IPP sentences. But it seems to me that their ‘formulations’ merely amounted to telling me to build stronger relationships with my caseload - something I felt I was already good at but was being frustrated by increasing difficulties getting to prison visits other than through video-conferencing screens. 

For an experienced Probation Officer this consultancy felt like teaching grandma to suck eggs. This PD consultancy is a very expensive resource, especially when the only actual input into client facing work is in the MBT or Discovery Projects where clients don’t seem to turn up. Maybe Probation staff should be giving the psychologists consultancy on how to engage clients? But, isn’t all this rather counterproductive? Surely, this NHS money could be better spent building links between L&D services, CPNs, prison healthcare teams and Probation?

I would wish to encourage Probation staff and their political masters to be open to greater co-working and integration of justice and health services, even if this means the contracting out of some Probation practice. Had CRC contracts been given to staff mutuals with a NHS and local authority presence (as in Teesside) I wonder how much opposition there would have been?

My vision for a future Probation service is very much like the office I walked into as a trainee in Halifax those years ago. Probation officers with a dedicated but individual spirit who managed their own practice with adequate supervision, and ably managed by competent leaders who were open to CPNs, experienced debt counsellors, offender housing projects and the voluntary sector coming into the office to work alongside staff. Probation needs to be flexible and responsive to local and client needs while remaining accountable to its communities. So why not hand contracts back to newly formed Trusts, or to staff mutuals, and why not instill greater co-working with health services and the true voluntary sector by invigorating mental health, drug and alcohol treatment requirements that are properly funded through joint health, justice and local authority pathways?

It is not a huge exercise in visionary thinking to imagine how integrated services with a public service ethos could be the way forward. If the work were ring-fenced to bodies with public accountability I wouldn’t mind it being contracted out at all. It isn’t too far from the Probation Trust model, but with some of the MoJ puppet strings detached.

Finally, let me say that despite always being proud to call myself a Probation Officer, I never quite felt that it was organised properly, and Probation was too protective of its own work to accept true collaborative working with other agencies and sectors. And it has now taken me leaving the Service to feel that I am doing the job I had applied to train for in 1999.

Andy Green


  1. Initial thoughts of "that's great" and "good for him" and "what a great sounding social enterprise" swiftly moved on to "what's the governance for this type of work?" and "who regulates it?".

    Whilst too much control demo MOJ got us to where we are now with probation and the associated problems, without proper oversight social enterprises like the one described (I'm not saying the actual one described which sounds well run) could cause more harm than good.

    From wellmeaning individuals who are unaware that their actions may be harmful / increasing risk to those with a more sinister agenda. The client group is in many ways vulnerable and needs to be protected.

    Andy, what is the regulation and governance around the type of social enterprises you describe?

  2. Hi. Good questions.

    Let's first remember that the highly regulated and quality assured Probation and prison SOTPs have been evaluated after very many years to show some evidence that they were making matters worse, not better. And now Horizon has arrived after seemingly no rigour at all. But your questions are still highly valid.

    When we set up we had to meet with the then West Yorkshire Police Super-intendant in charge of Service Governance. We submitted some documentation that included our credentials and the quality assurance process and measures that we had assigned to our own work. Also the relevant business insurance and a description of how we worked with clients. We were asked lots of questions, largely around our experience, qualifications, training and whether we worked with clients in groups or not (we don't) because the police did not like the idea of men networking (though we work individually with men because we believe it is more effective, not because of any risks of them networking). The Super took it away to an Ethics Committee/ Effective Practice Board or something similar, and we got approval.

    There is very little regulation of social enterprises, and not much of charities. But as we have expanded into new police areas we have met with the relevant police hierarchies and reassured them of our credentials. We rely on the police giving our information out at point of arrest.

    We have not quite managed to get the culture of evaluation that we would like, but we have had no suicides that we know of and lots of personal testimony of how we have helped clients. Manchester University has submitted a joint funding application with us to further research the suicides amongst this group. As for re-offending we aren't really in a position to measure this, but I can see no way we could be making matters worse. We are not teaching men to find more images, and we are using tried and tested exercises but on a very individual level. The clients are gushing about our work, they want to help us afterwards, and we are now using a focus group of ex-porn users to help WY Police toward a better prevention tactic.

    There is lots of anecdotal 'evidence', but maybe the most reassuring is that when men who have done our short programme come through to Probation on sentences the Officers remark about what a high level of insight and victim awareness they have compared to those who have not worked with Safer Lives. For those who will go on to do some structured intervention in prison or probation they are more prepared for it.

    Most of our clients are low risk on RM2000 and probably on ARMS also, so they won't get structured intervention in Probation (and what evaluation has been done on that?). And we are careful not to over treat men - it's really an exercise in getting them to speak about their emotions - very few are able to do this before they start - but we structure it in such a way that helps them to understand their behaviour better - and all the men are appreciative of getting a better understanding of 'why they have offended' whereas Probation now seems to be shying away from facilitating men's understanding of this.

    To be honest, I think our programme works, and works very well, and the reason is that it is not in groups and we have men who are super-keen.

    We have also had quite serious offenders coming to us after they leave prison because they are low on RM2000 and Probation will not put them onto a group. They want interventions and we will offer it to them, but again it is light touch around emotions, emotional regulation and gaining an understanding of what needs being were met through offending.

    The bit that will rankle is that the men pay for it themselves. We can reduce fees for those who struggle but we are not funded yet, although this may change. We would like to make it available to everyone, no matter what means. The way to funding is not through charitable trusts but probably through the NHS and a drive to reduce the suicide rate.

    1. Thanks Andy, I appreciate the response.

      For me the concern is when you say "There is very little regulation of social enterprises, and not much of charities."

      Is there a requirement for the basics for example to have DBS checks in place? Mandatory safeguarding training? How would a social enterprise link in with statutory bodies?

  3. My experience has always and without fail been that the "oversight " has been the problem. Either too timid, or lacking the vision or self seeking career building. Maybe "oversight" is not what is needed, but a form of counterbalance provided by equal co workers who can help the practice to develop.

    1. Yikes! I think we all do things out of self interest, but maybe we have some sense of social good as well. I wish I get more oversight. I've not had supervison for over six months and then it was about targets.

    2. Oversight?

    3. A pub worker has been paid at least £10,000 for his "job" at Nottingham Prison - despite never working there.

      The man accepted a prison officer job but did not start his training. Despite this, he has been receiving a monthly wage for more than a year.

      The man believes it reflects "severe mismanagement of the system" at the prison, which has been described as being in a "dangerous state".

      The Prison Service told the BBC it "apologised for the error".

    4. Meaning there aren't as many prison officers as claimed?

  4. We are effectively a partnership, and we usually work in pairs with plenty of counterbalancing and oversight. Our experience has been gained through the facilitation and management of SOTP in the community, and me as a long term offender manager having worked in the community and prisons. I am losing several thousands of pounds each year by doing this so not exactly self serving career building. Maybe in the future, and I look forward to it.

    I didn't mean this blog post to be about our work, more about commissioning of Probation services and the involvement of health.

  5. Andy..

    I've had a lifelong relationship and significant problem with drugs. Without getting on my soapbox, I harbor more then a little resentment at government policies that have criminalised addiction, grown a criminal industry worth billions, and killed thousands annually by failure to regulate. My problems are very different to those that you work with.
    However, my problems have brought me to the doors of many social enterprises over many years. I've even been employed by a couple.
    All have been set up with the greatest intention by people passionate about helping people and making a difference to the communities they operate in and society as a whole.
    But without exception they have all gone the same way.
    It's funding that becomes the problem. The first year, the second year goes good, then others who've watched what you do come along with new sales pitches that claim the same delivery model and more and can do it for less. It becomes harder to stay afloat, and the funding bodies themselves that gave the original funding also need to be diverse and fund different enterprises. They have to be seen to be sharing it about.
    Some funders may even adopt the model for themselves if it's seen to be successful, and bring it in house.
    As it becomes harder to get funding and survival becomes a struggle which becomes the primary focus and changes the whole sentiment of the operational model.
    Survival first. Clients second. After all no survival, no clients.
    I commend your enthusiasm, your commitment to the cause, and I wish you all the good luck in the world, but social enterprises, in a free market world, have a great many struggles that eventually strangle them.
    Good social enterprises need central government funding if they're to survive.


    1. Sorry. Posted my comments without seeing post @8:41.
      It's given me a whole different complexion to my thinking on your project.

      "The bit that will rankle is that the men pay for it themselves."

      Just being brutally honest, and not saying it's wrong, but that raises a number of warning flags in my mind that I need to give further thought to.


    2. Seems to me that Safer Lives is a commodity you can have if you can afford it. In effect it creates a two tier pre-court service. Presumably the sentencing court will be made aware which defendants have participated in the scheme. Maybe this will mitigate sentencing for those who can afford to engage with Safer Lives.

    3. Well yes. Not the words I would use but we charge every client who sees us, although we make considerable adjustments on the ability to pay. Our maximum charges are half those of the respected national charity who do work that is similar.

      We continue to seek funding from elsewhere to make it a free service (at least for those who struggle to pay or who can't), but in the meantime there is merit in supporting others not to take their lives and not return to accessing child abuse. As I mentioned in the blog, 1 in 30 arrested during Operation Notarise took their lives. For those families affected by the arrest of a family member I think our fees are reasonable to help try safeguard the family from a suicide.

  6. Yes 'Getafix', the Lucy Faithful Foundation might be thinking that of us. Hopefully not. But your wise words (as ever) are heeded.

    Anyway, I have clients the rest of the day, so I will pop back into the blog tonight.

  7. Completely off topic, but could someone please help?
    Been looking at Companies House for info on the new MoJ Facility Service Company, who's director is listed as

    Andrew James Skene EMMETT

    But he's also listed as a resigned director of every CRC.
    I don't understand why.

    1. he's the Executive Director Finance, Her Majesty's Prison & Probation Service; he will probably have been the co-director with responsibility for finance, alongside Grayling, when MoJ created & owned the 21 CRCs prior to the sale at £1 a pop. Its an administrative thing.

    2. You might also notice there are a series of CONEW numbered companies that were created in July 2017 - presumably these are empty shells waiting to be filled as & when something else goes tits up & MoJ/HMPPS need an escape pod.

    3. A bit of digging shows that Gov Facility Services Ltd was incorporated as a shell company in a similar way in Nov'17 as SNRDCO3283, and morphed into Gov facility Services Ltd on 10 Jan 2018.

      "Be Prepared"

  8. Will it be the taxpayer who loses out? Or perhaps the private company?
    From the BBC.

    Every person receiving Personal Independence Payments (PIP) will have their claim reviewed, the Department for Work and Pensions has said.

    A total of 1.6 million of the main disability benefit claims will be reviewed, with around 220,000 people expected to receive a higher award.

    It comes after the DWP decided not to challenge a court ruling that said changes to PIP were discriminatory against mental health conditions.

    The review could cost £3.7bn by 2023.