Friday 8 December 2023

Being Probation Admin

Poverty Wages

For the second year in a row, the woeful 3 year Probation Service pay deal is about to be overtaken and eroded by increases in the National Living (FKA Minimum) Wage, which is set to rise to £11.44 per hour from April 2024.This is when the entry Scale Point for Band 2 staff is currently set to increase to a whopping £21,250... except that will in fact be £750.56 less than the legal minimum, with an effective hourly rate of £11.04.

Of course, the Service will have to respond, as they did last year, to shamefully increase Band 2 pay to that legal minimum. But what a disgrace it is, that we are now a service that is consistently paying poverty wages. Tragically, even those staff looking at progressing to Scale Point 2 in April 2024 are facing an effective hourly rate of £11.48 (£22,086 per annum). How are we supposed to recruit our way out of a staff retention crisis when our vital reception and admin staff - the backbone of the service - are offered such a paltry sum?

Meanwhile, the voluntary 'Real Living Wage', to which over 14,000 businesses nationwide are signed up to pay their staff, is set to rise to £12 per hour in April 2024. Then there are also other local Living Wages, such as in Oxford where that is set at £12.49 per hour and has over 100 local employers accredited.

So what incentive is there to join Probation, or to even stay? I imagine there are lots of jobs paying those £12+ rates that don't involve getting yelled at by distressed clients, or where perhaps you'll have colleagues that aren't all stressed and burning out.

And where are the Trade Unions in this? Where are the reassurances that they're on the case and are holding the employer to account? And why not use this as a bit of point scoring? No doubt the reason is that they too, are ashamed at how their 'hard fought' pay deal has turned out...

Please, to all Band 3s and upwards - appreciate and value the Band 2 staff that you have in post. They are doing a hard job in hard times and are not getting the renumeration they deserve. And if they go, it's unlikely there will be a queue of people looking to replace them.

Fingers crossed that the next pay deal negotiators set their sights a tad higher than the bare minimum.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Being A PDU Head

Perspectives on an Inspection

In 2022 the dreaded phone call came from my manager. They told me that a difficult year was about to get a lot worse because HMIP were coming to my PDU. The relief from my colleagues that their PDUs had not been selected was enormous.

The inspection could not have come at a worse time, the workload was increasing and the staff levels decreasing. the enormous amount of work to prepare for the inspection, on top of all the other work was ridiculous. Unfortunately the final case sample was mainly cases held by very inexperienced PSOs, who had been thrown in the deep end to sink or swim. Consequently very few cases in the sample were from experienced (and excellent) practitioners.

We had some alert cases but the whole inspection actually went quite well. As with Ruth Perry there was a session where questions were fired at me by the Inspectors to answer on the spot. That did not go well because many of the questions were about matters outside of the PDU or issues they had only just uncovered that I wasn’t aware of and I felt I was being tripped up and I was really on the back foot. Information got back to the Head of Operations who started to question my responses to the questions - why did you say that? Go back and correct it!

The feedback session at the end went fairly well, and I went away feeling that we would get a good outcome, particularly under the circumstances of rising workloads. Like Ruth Perry I counted down the days to receiving the report, which was delayed. I finally got the draft for corrections and I felt like the bottom fell out of my world. The outcome was terrible. I couldn’t think how I could face the team to tell people that are working so hard that we had been found to be so poor. Would people leave when they saw it, why would people stay?

Personally I felt humiliated, the report included some personal criticism of me, and I couldn’t see how I could have any credibility to carry on with my job and look people in the eye. I wondered if I would get sacked or moved.

I had to hold on to the findings in the report for weeks before I was able to share it with the managers and then have to face the PDU. They were really disappointed and couldn’t understand that you put everything into the job, work huge amounts of overtime, help people get back on track but it’s not enough.

After the initial horror came the work to develop an improvement plan, and the constant sense that I was being punished with extra work because everything was my fault.

I appreciate people reading this might think we get paid to shoulder this sort of thing, but PDU heads are people, and these inspections are traumatic and devastating in the main. We have to put on a show of holding on to the positives and try and move forward, but the tremendous blow after 30+ years in the service nearly broke me, and I know I’m not the only one.


The author wanted to share the perspective of PDU heads on Inspections following the determination of the Inquest into the death of Ruth Perry that the Ofsted inspection contributed to her death.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Being An AP Manager

In trying to continue the recent theme and finding myself trawling through back numbers, I came across this contribution from last year:- 

I’m an Approved Premises Manager and I ensure that all of my team follow the advise, assist and befriend motto. Of course fundamentally we are a risk management facility but if you are responsive to the needs of the resident the risk management element often supports itself. For example- When a resident lapses, rather than immediately withdraw a bed, I meet with the resident and we collaboratively put a plan of action in place. My team then work with resident to implement the plan, adding extra support in place like going with them to drug/alcohol appointments, CA/AA meetings in the community and putting on additional 121 relapse prevention sessions in the AP.

It still blows my mind however that there are a pool of POs who as soon as they find out a resident is struggling want to recall them straight away without even giving them a chance to get back on track.

Now as I said earlier, of course if situations like this mean that risk is entirely unmanageable then recall needs to happen, but I find in 9/10 of situations it really doesn’t. I’ve noticed we get a far better response from residents if they can see we are trying to help them succeed. It saddens me that for some this approach seems to be diminishing.

Monday 4 December 2023

Being On Licence

Probation - what's the point?

I’ve just completed 27 months of probation supervision following my release from prison, and I don’t really know what to make of it. Of course it was much better than being in prison, but I can’t see any real benefit that arose from my time on licence. In fact it probably made my mental health worse.

From August 2021 until November this year I dutifully travelled to a Probation office most
months, often meeting a COM who I had never seen before and would never meet again. On each visit they’d ask if I had taken drugs, had a problem with drinking, had any relationship problems and whether I’d committed any new crimes. My (truthful) answers were always “no”, but I always wondered under what circumstances someone would say “yes”.

During my time on licence I moved house twice, so I experienced Probation in
Buckinghamshire, South Wales and Gloucestershire. Depending on the area practices differed a lot. As a low risk offender Welsh Probation were mostly happy to speak to me on the phone, while Gloucestershire insisted on a home visit followed by in-person meetings. Staff seemed stretched. At times I’d arrive for an appointment with no idea who I was meeting, and whoever happened to be available would see me. On one occasion in Gloucestershire I realised that no one had booked my next meeting, which was soon to be overdue, and so I had to call the office twice before someone was able to make an appointment for me.

The best COM I had was a smart, capable young woman who supervised me for almost
a year. She was helpful, supportive and even used her personal network to help me secure more paid work. This summer she left the Probation Service to become a Clinical Psychologist. I’m sure she’ll be a success at that too.

However, after every meeting my mood crashed. At home I’d draw the curtains, and sit
quietly, assembling and painting toy soldiers, just as I had in prison. I’d often take days to
recover. If it hadn’t been for my beautiful dog, Marmalade, I’d not have left the house at all.

Why did I react like this to such an innocuous meeting? I’m not alone in having such a
response. I often talk to men I was in prison with. Feelings of stress, fear, tension and
depression are common before and after Probation meetings.

There’s a contradiction inherent in the relationship between a Probation Officer and the
people they supervise. As much as individual Officers may be kind, patient and compassionate, they will always represent a threat to the people they supervise. People on probation, even those who are complying with every rule and requirement, live in fear of recall. We worry that at any moment our freedom will be taken away, we’ll be dragged back to a 10 foot by 6 foot cell surrounded by pain and despair. The Probation Officer, and the Probation Office symbolise the power of the state to imprison us again.

I would encourage Probation staff and managers to be conscious of this power dynamic,
and the potential to further traumatise people who’ve survived our prison system. Where
possible, phone or zoom check-ins are much easier for those on probation to cope with. If there’s no risk requiring attendance in person then perhaps a nationwide standard remote contact would help.

I recognise that regular in-person meetings with the same Probation Officer have a value
as changes in mood and appearance may provide an experienced Officer with warning signs. But really, what are we achieving by having a different officer meet the person on Probation each time, spending five minutes asking standard questions and then waving them on their way? It felt like box-ticking, the kind of administrative activity organisations perform to ensure no one can be blamed if things go wrong.

I still don’t know what to make of it. 27 months, one COM who actually sticks in my
memory. I feel that a good, functioning Probation service would care for its staff, retaining them and ensuring that offenders have a consistent relationship with the officer supervising them. That might actually do some good, reduce reoffending and provide meaningful work for the Probation staff.

David Shipley is a former prisoner who now writes and speaks on prison and justice issues. He is currently researching the probation service for a piece of investigative reporting and would love to speak (anonymously) with current or former Probation Officers.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Lets Look At Napo

It's been some time since I've said much about Napo and that's for a variety of reasons. I didn't attend the AGM and conference and somewhat unusually, I didn't have a lot to say about the motions up for debate because to me the absolutely key issue was a campaign to get probation out of the clutches of HMPPS command and control and the dead hand of the civil service. So where did that feature on the list of motions? Nowhere, apart from Wales where Napo Cymru got their act together as I outlined here. 

Lets remind ourselves of what the 2022 AGM produced for the current years Operational Plan:-

National Executive 

  • Fight for our professional integrity and our professional status by working with other Criminal Justice partners and unions to maintain our professional standards in Courts; fight the changes to the Parole process and fight to reinstate our ability to make recommendations; support staff involved in open parole hearings; continue to fight Offender Management in Custody (OMiC) especially the line management of probation staff by prisons; and campaign to take us out of the Civil Service in order to regain our independent professional status (Resolution 7)

  • Napo will redouble our demands for Probation to be taken out of the civil service, and unshackled from the Prison Service. Napo members will write to their MPs making this position clear. The NEC will draft a suggested briefing note and letter, and Napo will engage in a press and communications exercise, responding to each of the inevitable future “poor” and “needs improvement” inspection report making this position clear (Resolution 9)
Pretty feisty stuff and clear cut. Fast forward to AGM 2023 and had it not been for Napo Cymru putting forward a spirited motion making the case for probation in Wales being fully devolved, the absolutely key issue of divorce from HMPPS wouldn't even have been discussed at all at Nottingham! 

Thank goodness for the the valiant efforts of Napo Cymru and their unstinting campaigning and assiduous political lobbying. I would venture to suggest that Napo England has much to learn from their efforts and should they bear fruit post the general election and a new UK Labour Administration, probation England is going to look pretty stupid as a totally isolated example of how not to do it. Sadly, Napo will look even more irrelevant than many feel it has already become. One can only speculate how the union is regarded by the MoJ and the HMPPS command and controllers! . 

So, this is what the new 2024 Operational Plan has to say:-


Maintaining Napo’s high profile in successfully campaigning, promoting and communicating Napo’s policies and values. Organise the re-instatement of a national, amalgamated public Probation service and keep Cafcass as a public service, both with sufficient resources to guarantee jobs and service delivery. To work with unions, relevant organisations, MPs, Assembly Members, peers, parliamentary groups and others as appropriate in relation to wider public service campaigns.
  • Actively, urgently and persistently campaign for the devolution of Probation in Wales, focussing these efforts on the Westminster Labour Party, demanding that the devolution of Wales Probation is included in the UK Labour manifesto for the next General Election (Resolution 19)
National Executive Committee 
  • Raise awareness of the impact of staff shortages on serious further offences, highlighting this is increasingly through unsafe working practices and negotiate with the employer the circumstances in which Corporate Responsibility will be applied (Resolution 5).
  • Call on the MOJ and government to put immediate measures in place to alleviate dangerously high workloads and address recruitment and retention with a decent pay rise (Resolution 6)
  • Review recommendations in respect of possible industrial action when reports are received from Officers and Officials in respect of the formal One HMPPS dispute; the recent call from the outgoing HM Inspector of Probation for an independent enquiry into the state of Probation; the Lord Chancellor’s announcement of the early Release scheme and the removal of Divisional Sex Offender Units, which is detrimental to the public protection, the wellbeing of case managers and the communities we serve (Resolution 7)
Pretty feeble and mealy-mouthed I would venture to suggest. But the last reference provides a good example of why probation needs to be out of HMPPS completely. Lets look at what the position is regarding Divisional Sex Offender Units and indeed the MoJ/HMPPS track record on this important and key area of probation work. We've had the scrapping of the much maligned Sex Offender accredited programme; removal of funding for Circles UK; intended scrapping of the DSOU's; no sign of much encouragement of initiatives such as the Safer Living Centre in Nottingham, and then I spotted this from a notice of a forthcoming NOTA training event in Leeds:-
"This training is not available to staff of His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service who use their own programmes and toolkits."

Now NOTA are an extremely well respected outfit that have been around a long time in the field of work with sex offenders:- 

NOTA’s Charitable Objectives are to advance education for the benefit of the public, amongst members of the profession or persons working with or providing services for people who have committed sexual abuse or others having a legitimate professional interest in the field, and to promote or assist in promoting research into the skills associated with the professions who work with or provide services for people who have committed sexual abuse and into the efficiency of existing skills and practices, and to disseminate the useful results of such research for the benefit of the public.

Why on earth are probation staff forbidden from attending? In the past we were encouraged to join NOTA and attend events. Methinks it's a perfect example of control freakery from HMPPS, an organisation that is rapidly demonstrating it is unfit for purpose.

Friday 1 December 2023

That Bloke From Napo Again

Since we all learned the sad news of Mike Guilfoyle's passing, all who knew him will have no doubt been reflecting on their encounters with the staunch defender of the probation ethos. In addition to his 20 years as a frontline practitioner, Mike was a prolific author, speaker, raconteur and eulogiser for everything 'probation'. It was inevitable that our paths would cross almost from the very beginnings of this blog, and he remained a staunch supporter and contributor in a variety of ways right to the end. 

I particularly have fond memories of our regular wide-ranging conversations over a beer or several and his vast back catalogue of stories, anecdotes and informed reflections will be much missed, along with his turn of phrase and well-crafted use of the english language. 

Many will no doubt recall the 2014 Napo AGM at Scarborough when, as usual, Mike was proposing a motion and happily he very kindly provided me with a transcript of his somewhat revealing speech, containing as it does a strong hint as to why he ceased practising:-   

"Chair, Conference - Mike Guilfoyle, Professional Associate Member, Greater London Branch.

Colleagues, just before I left Probation in 2010, a Senior Manager described my relationship with the service as akin to a 'marriage that had broken down due to irreconcilable differences'. My retort was that it was more like an 'enforced separation occasioned by unreasonable behavior'. A politically driven and bewilderingly stupid bureaucratic target mania meant that processes trumped people. What now of the totemic achievement of Trust Status, ostensibly set up to liberate probation from the suffocating prison-centric carapace of Noms? An association that has since proved to be, as this union knows all too well, a truly unmitigated disaster for probation. Although in spite of these enforced changes and NOMS bullying culture, probation still performed!

My late mother used to say 'I know that something's amiss in probation when I see one of Michael's letters in the papers'. Indeed former General Secretary Judy McKnight once paid me the accolade of being an 'indefatigable letter writer' intent as I was in rebutting in letters and debate some of the lattice of half-lies and MoJ speak that has so soured the probation landscape. And I take some wry satisfaction from the belief that at the MoJ there is a fusty sub-office entitled 'replies to Mike Guilfoyle'. At one MoJ presentation a civil servant in an audible whisper to a former Justice Minister and with weary familiarity noted after I had asked a pointed question on TR, 'it's that bloke from Napo again'..

Conference, I arrived late for AGM yesterday (missing Ian's Keynote Address) as I was being sworn-in as a newly appointed Magistrate. Greater London colleagues please note that I will be sitting on the SE London bench. Due notice having been shared, but I can promise you that I will continue to unashamedly champion probation at every available opportunity.

At the reception following the swearing-in ceremony, a magistrate colleague asked 'who is speaking up for probation these days?' I hesitated for a moment, 'of course this union with its many parliamentary, academic and high profile supporters'. The now defunct Probation Association in its valedictory report 'A Parting Shot' provides a grim timeline leading up to its own, dare I say it predictable, demise. Aside from a snide reference to Napo, and some self-serving, supine observations noting without a hint of irony the positive engagement of probation trusts in securing thus far an almost unruffled passage for a politically driven TR timetable.

It is important to acknowledge the principled and fearless contributions from a handful of PA members in the fight to save the Probation Service. How could such an untried, untested and uncosted and unevidenced ideological experiment pass with such little vocal dissent? I note the MoJ's Stalinist gagging clause, but what a truly shameful collusive silence in the destruction of the service has shrouded the PA's dismal epitaph. The paper does however provide a tally sheet of pivotal questions which should send out a clear message to politicians to think again before rushing into a hasty CRC share sale. If this is allowed to proceed will those with the power and influence look back and recoil when they fully appreciate the true consequences of TR? Will these reforms reduce reoffending? Has the CRC bidding process enabled funding to be released for those serving under 12 months? Is the Payment by Results mechanism now just a specious loss leader? How much have these reforms 'really' cost? What has been the lasting effect on staff professionalism, engagement, morale and motivation?

Colleagues - you are now at the sharp end of this pernicious TR process. The service and union are at an existential moment. We know that Chris Grayling has nothing but withering contempt for all those who he sees as a hindrance to his dismantling not only of an internationally recognised Probation Service but a decent, accessible and humane Criminal Justice System with a veritable origami of private providers perched to feed off the carcass of an already fragmented service. With a contract culture displacing any semblance of public accountability, just how many Judicial Review's can he afford to lose before he bows out? If ever the designation of defender of justice was so poorly served in one office holder. And as for Lib Dem Justice Minister Simon Hughes stating at his party's Conference 'Day in, day out we are holding Ministers feet to the fire on justice issues' - seems TR has yet to flame up!

With the run-in to the 2015 election now months away and the prospect of further targeted draconian public sector cuts in store, whatever the political stripe of the party in power, this union, in spite of its recent travails, remains a bulwark and bastion in defence of a publicly owned and accountable Probation Service.

With the planned share sale now in December it will need to summons together its most resolute fighting strategies to challenge and defeat TR, raise a deafening cacophony of noise to resist the potentially irrevocable sale of CRC's to new (read single contractor dominant) commercial providers, cloaked by confidentiality and seemingly immune to public scrutiny, with profit the only driver, with rehabilitation being downgraded, a significant rise in Electronic Monitoring at the cost of more human interventions, and warehousing and processing becoming the name of the game?

This motion aligns itself with what Napo is already doing, it simply seeks to reaffirm and reinforce the need to critically question, challenge, call to account and record all responses from those politicians supporting the implementation of TR in the forthcoming election that it remains ideologically unworkable dangerous dogma and also serve to remind those now unthinkingly doing the bidding of politicians in the MoJ of the undoubted risks that when you decimate a professional probation service, things start to go wrong and this whole sorry TR mess crashes. The confidence of victims, communities, probation staff and partners, courts and users will take a very long time to repair.

Colleagues, it's that bloke from Napo again this time saying,
Conference, I move..."


The motion was of course about TR and the impending part-privatisation of probation by Chris Grayling. It was particularly blistering in relation to the collusion of probation leaders at the time:-

"This AGM views with considerable interest the valedictory report from the Probation Association (PA) ‘A Parting Shot -The Questions Remain’ published in July 2014. Colleagues will note that although the report offers a critical timeframe of the progress of the Ministry of Justice's Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) programme. The PA, with few honourable exceptions, offered little effective opposition to the unwarranted privatisation and abolition of a public probation service and maintained throughout this period a shameful collusive silence to TR, best captured in this tell tale quotation from page 7 of the NOMS Annual Report 2013/14: “progress could not have been achieved without the positive engagement and support we have received from Probation Trusts."

As was often the case, the motion was seconded by Mike's long term friend and colleague Chris Hignett, whose reflections published yesterday by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies I thought are particularly poignant and rounded:- 

"Travelling back from Cambridge and that year’s McWilliams lecture, Mike Guilfoyle regaled us with another of his great passions: Ladywell Cemetery, its occupants and their histories. So encyclopaedic was his knowledge that, despite the train having to return to Cambridge when two-thirds of the way to King’s Cross and set out again, Mike’s discourse never faltered.

Mike was a great talker and had so much knowledge because he was also a great enquirer and listener, qualities that made him a fine candidate for his chosen profession of probation officer. Of course the probation service of which he was so proud, serving in Middlesex until amalgamation and many years in all, has been severely distorted since.

At least a part of the motivation for his regular contributions to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website was the hope of keeping the original idea of probation as a social work and justice agency alive. Advocacy for his clients and care for their well-being was at the centre of his work, as so many of his vignettes made clear.

But compassion of this kind, built on the injunction to advise, assist and befriend, inevitably led to disagreement with an increasingly unsympathetic management. Fortunately the lay magistracy recognised his humanity and desire to serve, and in more recent years provided a new home for his compassion and energy. His talent for individual support found fresh impetus, working as a mentor for the Longford Trust.

Enthusiasm for keeping abreast of the concerns of Napo and the criminal justice system more generally saw him as a regular speaker at Conference and perhaps, most intriguingly, the poser of apposite questions at any number of meetings, lectures and talks where these topics were to the fore.

As a consequence he had an amazing array of contacts, whom he could and did approach to be speakers at union branch meetings. He loved reading and regularly produced book reviews for the Probation Journal, realising, incidentally, how this enterprise could ensure he received desired texts almost by return of post.

Together with his appreciation of which organisations provided decent refreshments at their annual bashes, these small perks offered some reward for his diligence and the opportunity for this writer to get to the terrace of the House of Commons and meet many impressive people.

Indeed Mike’s generosity as a companion and loyalty to the causes he adopted are what I shall most miss. For others I suspect his love of football, of which in earlier days he was a keen player and always a fierce supporter of Manchester United, will probably be as important, while pride in his family and their extraordinary achievements will trump all of the above.

He was never a conventional preacher but his faith, to which he remained steadfast throughout his illness, enabled him to be amused at his pre-occupation with the Cemetery. His example wonderfully demonstrates that the role of the missionary, police court or otherwise, is capable of constant and enlightening reinvention."

Chris Hignett

Thursday 30 November 2023

On Being a Client

So far this series has covered POs, SPOs, PSOs PQiPs, so in an attempt to keep going, here is a clients view from February 2015. I wonder if anything's changed over the last eight years? 

Guest Blog 22

“Go ahead and judge me, just remember to be perfect for the rest of your life”

At the invitation of Jim, I am writing a guest blog for the site looking at the experience of probation from the client’s point of view and touching on some of the points made in various recent posts about the probation service.

I wish I could say that my experience of probation has been a positive one but it has, unfortunately been anything but. This applies to probation both inside prisons and outside in the community. To date I have had five different offender supervisors and four offender managers in four and a half years. Just one of those individuals, an offender supervisor, was what I would deem even competent at the job and who treated me as a human being and did anything to help. The rest have left a lot to be desired on a professional level. This, to me is a shocking indictment that lays bare a crisis in the probation service that seems not to be touched on at all by anything I’ve read in the media or on blogs and goes far beyond the current reorganisations and the chaos thereby caused. The attitude of a large percentage of probation staff towards clients appears to be, at best, unproductive and, at worst, offensive and potentially a breach of legal rights.

At the end of the day, all of the OM’s and OS’s, bar the one mentioned, have treated me as nothing more than a crime statistic; an attitude everyone who has been in prison gets heartily sick of because it appears to be the default setting of the majority of prison staff, that is when they aren’t treating you as a really really stupid child.

Absolutely none of my OM’s and OS’s have bothered getting to know me as a human being or have attempted to find out what my background is (no PSR was done so there is nothing in my file about my background). I apparently came into being the moment I was imprisoned and everything that went before is completely irrelevant according to these various OM’s and OS’s simply because it is not in the file. If it’s not in the file apparently it doesn’t exist. Quite how I managed to get through life to my late 40’s apparently not existing is perplexing.

On a personal level, I find this attitude highly offensive, not the least of which is that a crime statistic didn’t commit any crime, a human being did. I am the sum of my experiences and if you do not understand where I come from you will not be able to understand what I did or where I am going or what I need to get there.

On a more esoteric level this complete lack of interest in me as a human being is really disturbing. How can anyone possibly help me to lead a law abiding life, help me reduce my risk of committing crime and help me turn my life around if they have not the slightest understanding of me as an individual, as a human being or even any interest in getting to know that human being? All the assessment tools in the world will fail to accurately predict my actual risk or my actual needs if you do not engage with me and ask those very basic questions that for some really bizarre reason simply do not get asked. Ever. These are:

What caused you to offend in the first place?

And what would stop you from reoffending in the future?

I know the answers to those central questions. Absolutely no probation officer does because they simply haven’t bothered to ask these questions. Therefore every single OASys or other assessment that has ever been done of me is a waste of paper because these central and essential questions have not been asked. This is clearly a major failing in the system and appears to be directly due to a total lack of interest in the offender as a person.

“But we have no time to get to know clients” I hear many voices wail. Really? You don’t have the time or the interest in making the time to get to know the client? Just consider that there may well be a lot less breaches of licence and community sentences and a lot less offences committed by people on licence if you did.

If you really did have a genuine interest in getting to know your client and this attitude was built into all interactions with a client this would raise your ability to accurately predict risk and identify needs and problems as assessments would be based on actual fact and accurate information rather than guesswork, assumption and personal bias. You’d also build up a relationship based on trust and mutual respect which could only be beneficial for everyone involved. On a personal level I’m far more likely to be open and honest and forthcoming if I believe that that person has a genuine interest in me and is someone I can trust to act in my best interests and who works with me not against me. I can’t see that this would be any different for anyone else.

I would suspect that any offender if asked would be able to tell you, based on their actual experience of probation, what they understand the role of a probation officer is. We also understand what it SHOULD be and the huge gulf that exists between the two. Theory and practice simply do not meet.

Shouldn’t one of the central tenets of a probation officer’s role be to get to know and understand the client and what their needs actually are (as opposed to what their perceived needs are) so that you are able to tailor any challenges and interventions to the actual, real, tangible needs of the client? If you don’t bother to engage the human being and get to know the human being and only go by what is in a file (which is quite often completely inaccurate with incomplete information and in some cases information that is so wildly wrong as to verge on defamatory) how can anything you do possibly be argued to be of any use, relevance or applicable?

What follows on from this is absolutely no probation officer actually understands what my needs are and makes decisions based on an assessment of what they think my needs are which bears zero relation to what the needs are. They certainly don’t understand my needs better than I do - after all I am the one living my life and not my PO. I live my life every day; they see me once a month for 20 – 30 minutes and an awful lot less than that when I was in custody. I am not stupid (in fact I have more qualifications and a much higher IQ than my current OM). I am perfectly capable of analyzing my behaviour accurately especially after having undergone several years of very productive counselling both in and out of custody. I know myself and my needs far better than my current OM who has never made the slightest effort to get to know me as a human being in the two years she has had my file. She wields enormous power over me and clearly relishes being able to wield such power over people leading to what I can only describe as the most dysfunctional relationship I have ever had with anyone to the extent that I feel physically sick with stress and worry in the 48 hours before each monthly meeting.

Challenging me, which Jim has said is the role of probation (whatever happened to befriend and advise?), is a fruitless exercise because the challenge is being made without the proper knowledge behind it. I have already identified the problems, the needs and yes, the wants, which to be frank are often completely indistinguishable from the needs. I know what needs to be put in place to help me get back on an even keel and lead a law abiding life. My PO doesn't because she has never bothered to get to know me in any way in the past two years. Our “conversations” degenerate into total farce as a result.

In fact, nothing any PO has ever said to me has been in any way helpful, reasonable, viable or useful in terms of either analyzing my behaviour, challenging it or providing help and support as to the way forwards because they have pretty much zero knowledge of me as a human being, of the way I think and how I view the offence. Of course this may be down to PO's who are simply bad at their jobs and who really shouldn't be working in probation just as there are a significant number of prison officers who took the job so that they can legitimately bully people and shouldn't therefore be in the job.

Ironically considering challenge is supposed to be a central feature of the probation relationship, I've noticed that PO's don't like to be challenged by clients over anything even when the client is wholly justified such as when a PO breaches a client’s legal right. Why? It’s a very hypocritical stance to take. If someone is able to challenge me about my failings, I am certain able to and will turn round to judge them for their failings whether that be a failure to do the job properly and in accordance with the law or whether that is an actual breach of my legal rights. If I am expected to take responsibility for my actions so is the PO. It’s hardly unreasonable to expect that a PO does their job in accordance with the law and the provisions laid out in the various PI’s at the very least, leaving aside anything else and I very much doubt anyone would disagree with me on that. Yet simply because someone is a probation officer this apparently gives them leave to never accept responsibility for any of their actions. Being a PO does not mean that you have some magical get out of jail free card that excuses and are absolved of any failure of responsibility. Stones and glass houses and all that.

I agree with Jim that the relationship between client and PO shouldn't be about winning popularity contests but there is a huge difference between winning a popularity contest and actually treating clients as human beings who have a brain and use it. What the probation relationship should be about is building a genuine meaningful relationship where there is trust and respect on both sides. Where the PO has a genuine interest in the client and in helping them with their actual (as opposed to perceived) needs and the client genuinely does their best to comply with their licence and lead a law abiding life you will have a meaningful, productive and beneficial relationship. It’s not rocket science but it does require that both parties in that relationship invest the same level of commitment into making the relationship work and it isn’t left to just one party to do so. Which appears in the minds of the PO’s and also management to be the sole responsibility of the client.

I’ve had some interaction with management due to being forced to file a complaint about my PO. I was very patronisingly informed by a senior manager that it was MY responsibility and mine alone to build a productive relationship with my OM. Excuse me? Any relationship is a two way street and both parties in the relationship need to put in the effort to build a productive working relationship not just one party. We’ve all had at least one relationship in our lives where we did all the giving and the other party did all the taking and know how destructive that relationship was. But apparently management does not consider it part of a PO’s role to make any effort to build a productive relationship with a client because they have made it abundantly clear that my OM has no responsibility at all to make any effort to build a productive working relationship with me. No wonder there is no interest from the OM in doing this.

Unfortunately my experience is far from unusual. During the time I was inside and since release I have talked to hundreds of people who have first hand experience of the probation service. Sadly, very few of them have had positive experiences of probation because of the way probation officers both inside and outside of prison treat their clients. Oh the client may tell you to your face when they leave supervision that you’ve helped them and no doubt some of them will genuinely mean it. But far from all of them.

Most of them are probably telling you what you want to hear. Just as 99% of those going on offender behaviour courses tell the course facilitators what they want to hear. Sorry if this comes as a surprise. I’ve seen so many offenders literally blow sunshine up the ass of the course facilitator and their probation officer simply to be able to progress/get parole/get probation off their back and not mean a single word of what they are saying.

They are simply playing the game because that is what the system is all about at the end of the day. Just like the judicial system is not about finding out the truth of what happened but about which side plays the game the best, progression through prison or probation in the community is not based on understanding why you committed an offence and putting in place concrete and productive steps to ensure you don’t reoffend, it’s about keeping probation happy with your answers by telling them what they want to hear and fulfilling the tick box mentality that appears to exist throughout the sector even if you don’t mean a word of it. This also strikes me as a wholly dishonest way of running anything. Ticking boxes, fulfilling criteria, hearing what you want to hear seems to be more important than building productive working relationships with human beings. Absolute madness.

Prisons do not work in cutting or reducing crime no matter what Michael Howard and Chris Grayling like to think. Probation does not work either. Sorry to burst the bubble. I’m pretty sure that the recent statistical reduction in people reoffending whilst on probation has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the probation service but is more likely to be a direct result of people doing what needs to be done themselves to get their lives straightened out.

Until the whole ethos of probation changes, probation is going to fail as a service. I honestly can’t see how reporting to a kiosk once a month is going to be any less advantageous to either client or service provider than the current system is because the current system is failing clients for the most part. In fact for a lot of people it may well be more productive. I’m aware that politics and political rhetoric and agendas have overtaken probation and changed it from its original goals and ways of working but that does not excuse the change in attitude of either probation management or probation staff towards clients which has apparently occurred over time.

I do not know what the answer is nor whether the changes that are occurring in the system will make it better or worse but I can categorically state that probation will continue to fail clients for as long as the majority of PO’s fail to see or treat clients as human beings.

Probation Client.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Fool Me Once, Shame On You:

Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me

Those with long memories will recall the electronic tagging scandals of the past when the dead and a false leg were tagged as part of a massive and systematic fraud committed over many years by both G4S and Serco. Well, the hapless HMPPS have decided both companies are now rehabilitated and each has been rewarded with brand new contracts, as reported here on the Civil Service World website:- 

HMPPS says ‘lessons have been learned’ as Serco and G4S bag electronic monitoring contracts

Deals worth up to £450m come almost a decade after firms admitted overcharging government to the tune of £170m. The boss of HM Prison and Probation Service has told MPs that lessons from past experience with electronic tagging contracts have been learned as Serco and G4S have been awarded new deals worth up to £450m.

The firms wrongly billed the Ministry of Justice for tens of millions of pounds under electronic-monitoring contracts first awarded in 2005. Sometimes multiple charges were made in relation to the same offender, in other cases charges were made for offenders who were dead.

G4S repaid the department more than £100m after details of the overcharging scandal emerged in 2013; Serco repaid £70.5m. Both firms removed themselves from the procurement process for the “next generation” of electronic monitoring devices. G4S subsequently returned to supplying electronic tags to government.

Investigations by the Serious Fraud Office resulted in Serco being fined £19.2m plus £3.7m costs and G4S being fined £38.5m plus £5.9m costs over the scandal.

Earlier this month Serco landed a £200m MoJ contract to deliver electronic-monitoring services in England and Wales for six years to May 2030. The deal will be worth an additional £75m if two one-year extension options are exercised. G4S was granted a £175m contract to deliver monitoring technology, which includes devices for location monitoring and alcohol monitoring.

In a letter to members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, HMPPS chief executive Amy Rees said the service’s approach to the new contract arrangements had “been informed by previous experience and lessons learned, as well as government best practice”. She said specific supplier “accountabilities, roles and responsibilities” had been set out in the respective contracts agreed with Serco and G4S.

“During implementation of the new service, both suppliers will be required to report on progress and risks through an implementation board,” she said. “This board will oversee delivery of the integrated implementation plan and ensure risks are appropriately managed through the various phases of transition. The implementation board will report into a service delivery board, chaired by the head of EM operations, where ultimate responsibility for holding suppliers to account and dealing with any issues will take place. This will ensure there is senior-level oversight of progress and risks.”

Rees’ letter was prompted by a recommendation in PAC’s Transforming electronic monitoring services report last year, which called for HMPPS to set out how it would handle risks in the programme once suppliers had been appointed. The letter was dated 27 October but was only published yesterday. The Serco and G4S contracts were announced on 8 November.

Rees said that as field and monitoring services supplier, Serco would act as service integrator and be responsible for the running and management of the end-to-end service. She said that in addition to their individual contractual obligations, Serco and G4S had also signed a separate collaboration agreement setting out clear expectations on behaviours and ways of working.

“Both suppliers will appoint a suitably senior lead officer who will be specifically accountable for ensuring their respective teams adhere to the requirements set out in the collaboration agreement,” she said. “These leads will attend the service delivery board.”

Published in October last year, PAC’s Transforming electronic monitoring services report detailed a litany of concerns about HMPPS and MoJ’s handling of tagging.

Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier said the current system was “outdated” and at “constant risk of failure”, while the report flagged £98.2m wasted on the scrapped Gemini case-management system, which MPs described as “high-risk and over-ambitious”. MPs also criticised the MoJ and HMPPS for failing to rigorously evaluate whether tagging reduces reoffending before pushing ahead with a £1.2bn programme to expand it to another 10,000 people. As of March last year around 15,300 offenders were tagged, according to the report.


Of course tagging is seen by politicians as a 'silver bullet' and cheaper way of punishment for much criminal behaviour, alongside community service as part of so-called 'tough' community sentences as alternatives to imprisonment. However, it does nothing to address rehabilitation, but that's just indicative of politicians never understanding what's involved in that. 

Anyway, there's a chronic shortage of prison capacity and I notice the Sentencing Council have launched a consultation on the whole subject and this must surely be the opportunity for some serious submissions on the central role a reformed probation service could play from PSR through to proper, meaningful supervision. Reported here on the BBC news website:-

Courts to issue fewer short jail terms under plans

Courts could soon be handing out more rehabilitative community sentences, rather than sending people to jail for short terms, under radical new plans. The Sentencing Council for England and Wales says judges and magistrates should think more about sentences that are proven to reform offenders. The plans tell courts to think twice about jailing women because of the impact on children. The plans, years in development, come amid a prison overcrowding crisis.

The council is the official body that advises all criminal judges and magistrates on how they should sentence criminals fairly and consistently, following rules set out by Parliament. The new consultation covers the principle of choosing community sentences, such as unpaid work or drug treatment programmes, or prison.

For almost 30 years the trend in sentencing has meant that more criminals have been sent to jail and for longer periods. However, academic studies show that community sentences do more good in rehabilitating low-level offenders than prison. In the major consultation, the council argues that if judges and magistrates conclude that an offender potentially deserves to be jailed, they must first pause and consider if a community order would actually be more effective at achieving rehabilitation, one of the key purposes of sentencing.

"Increasing academic research has covered the importance of rehabilitation in reducing reoffending," says the council. The Council believes it is important to reflect the findings."

The document suggests that judges needs to take extra care in assessing the lives of offenders from specific backgrounds including young adults, women, people with dependants, people who are transgender, ethnic minorities or people with addictions, learning disabilities or mental disorders. Crucially, before judges jail a woman, the council says they must consider the harm that could be caused to a pregnant woman's unborn child.

"A custodial sentence may become disproportionate to achieving the purposes of sentencing where there would be an impact on dependants, including on unborn children where the offender is pregnant," says the council. "Courts should avoid the possibility of an offender giving birth in prison unless the imposition of a custodial sentence is unavoidable."

That highly significant guidance comes after the death in 2019 of a baby whose mother went into labour unaided in a cell. The proposals also tell judges for the first time to consider whether older women who commit crimes may be experiencing changes in their mental health caused by the menopause.

Sentencing Council chairman, Lord Justice Davis, said the existing guidelines were among the most important in use. "The revised guideline updates and extends the current guidance," he said. "It reflects new information and research in relation to young adult and female offenders and findings from research on the effectiveness of sentencing."

Tom Franklin, head of the Magistrates Association, said it welcomed the "robust emphasis on alternatives to custody. Magistrates want effective community sentences and more information about their impact on the people who are given them," he said. The consultation runs until 21 February next year on the Sentencing Council's website.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

What's the Recipe Today, Jim?

Yes, it was a long time ago - google it if it means nothing. At three in the morning, I often find myself pondering on what to publish that just might be of interest and keep a discussion going. We could run with any number of possibilities on the academic front, but experience tells me they generate little interest and are just too long for reading on a smart phone which is mostly how the blog is accessed nowadays. That's a shame of course and not how it used to be at the start. 

Overnight I see a regular contributor has brought to my attention an academic work from 2015, Privatising Probation: Is Transforming Rehabilitation the End of the Probation Ideal? by John Deering and Martina Feilzer - apparently the blog gets about a page for having  "meticulously documented the implementation of TR". Well, that's good to know because one of my intentions was to provide an audit trail for future historians when researching the background and reasons for the demise of probation. 

Naturally I looked back through the archive and noticed that the authors gave extensive evidence to the Justice Select Committee in 2018 and ended with this:- 

In our view the cumulative effect of the changes to probation’s corporate values, the divergence of values between practitioners and government and the recent dramatic changes to governance and organisational arrangements, may have already started to affect practitioners’ sense of self-legitimacy. This, in turn may have a long-term corrosive effect upon probation practice and its wider legitimacy. An important aspect of self-legitimacy is the extent to which practitioners feel that they are enabled and supported by their organisation and that they internalise the values represented by their organisation (Bradford and Quinton 2014). In our view, the current situation means that the self-legitimacy of many practitioners is, at the very least, in some doubt. This in turn may lower morale and foster discontent with the quality services provided to those under supervision. If practitioners come to feel that the service provided to supervisees is not what it had previously been, this may have a negative effect on their feelings of being the holders of legitimate authority.

There is evidence to suggest that practice is already changing and that probation provision is becoming increasingly fragmented with clear differences emerging between NPS and CRCs, different CRCs owners, and different regions (HMIP 2016a). In our view, considerable damage has been done to some individual probation staff’s sense of being a member of a ‘collective of professionals doing an important job well’ (Ugelvik 2016).


Well, as we now know, their concerns have sadly been proved to be well founded and it's interesting to note the miserable path to where we have now arrived, and evidenced by the weekend outpourings on OASys, was well established even back in 2018:-

"An important aspect of self-legitimacy is the extent to which practitioners feel that they are enabled and supported by their organisation and that they internalise the values represented by their organisation (Bradford and Quinton 2014). In our view, the current situation means that the self-legitimacy of many practitioners is, at the very least, in some doubt. This in turn may lower morale and foster discontent with the quality services provided to those under supervision"

A few days ago, under pressure, I cancelled an appointment to visit a vulnerable, traumatised woman in prison, in order to get ahead of the "performance" priorities. I didn't seek authority for this decision, and when I mentioned it to my manager, it was nodded through. After an afternoon battering a keyboard, and hitting every performance target I had, I came home feeling... like a bit of me had died. Lord knows how my client feels, I don't, seeing as I wasn't there.

Monday 27 November 2023

The Need For Probation Reform

Yesterday's spirited discussion of OASys confirms in my mind the almost complete disregard and contempt the thing is still held in throughout the probation service and indeed well beyond. How it came about, was imposed upon us and is still outrageously consuming vast quantities of practitioner time to virtually no effect whatsoever some twenty years on should be a cause of great shame and embarrassment to all. 

But that's just so typical of what happens as a result of centralised bureaucratic control in the form of HMPPS. If anything of use can be salvaged from the wreck probation has become under civil service direct command and control, a way must be found to get it out of their grip and back to local control and operation, free from the toxic influence of HM Prison Service.

Having got that off my chest, here is a blog from charity Revolving Doors confirming just how necessary proper probation reform is:-   

Presumption success is dependent on probation reforms

Revolving Doors’ Policy Manager Kelly Grehan spent 20 years working as a probation officer. She explains why the recent proposed presumption against short sentences will have limited success without reforms to a struggling Probation Service.

In my twenty years as a probation officer, I saw the damaging effects of short prison sentences. Instead of deterring crime, these sentences often entangle individuals in a cycle of crime and chaos, depriving them of housing, employment, and vital support services for substance use and mental health issues. The BBC’s recent drama Time poignantly illustrates this: a minor crime escalates into life-altering consequences, spurring further offences, trajectories I have encountered throughout my career.

As part of a wider package of measures to address the crisis of prison overcrowding, the Government are proposing a presumption against short sentences. This is a welcome move which we have long called for. However, I hold grave concerns about the severely depleted Probation Service’s ability to supervise individuals effectively without setting them up for failure. Over recent decades, poor legislation has seen the Probation Service go from being a service which prioritised rehabilitation and resettlement to one consumed by risk management and little else.

It is a fact of life that people leading chaotic lives miss appointments – often for reasons that are aligned to why they are in the criminal justice system in the first place. Sometimes they cannot afford travel to their appointments – a growing problem in a cost-of-living crisis, with Probation Centres now more spread out as lots of buildings have closed and been amalgamated. Others have neurodiversity issues, problematic drug and alcohol use or mental health issues. These are all things that make compliance with orders difficult. Around 5,000 people on community orders are also homeless.

Traditionally, Probation Officers had a lot of discretion about breaching people. There was some room for understanding when people missed appointments. But, as the service, which was originally set up to ‘advise, assist and befriend’ those who had committed offences has become more risk averse, the service has seen recall and breach become the default position – not necessarily for new offences but for other breaches of the expectations of their Orders.

In 1993, fewer than 100 people were in prison following recall. By 2023, over 12,000 were. At the same time the number of people sentenced to Community Sentences has plummeted. This is widely thought to be down to sentencers losing faith in them, post Chris Grayling’s part privatisation of the Probation Service in 2014. Although the Service was re-amalgamated in 2021 it has continued to perform badly – only one area has received a ‘good’ grade from the Probation Inspectorate since the Service came fully back into government control.

This week, talking about his plans for a presumption against short sentences, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk told the Telegraph non-compliance would not be tolerated, saying
“You breach court orders at your peril. And if you do so, you can expect no mercy... they have a very clear choice, comply, or go to prison.”
All evidence shows that what people who are trapped in the revolving door need is help and support to address the causal factors of their offending. Seeing attendance at appointments as the only measure of success, as the Minister’s new measures seem to, is destined for difficulty.

It does not need to be like this. Over 15 years ago I was a Probation Officer supervising Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTOs). These were Orders given to people whose problems with drugs was linked to their offending. Everyone on the Order had twice weekly drug testing – but crucially failing a drug test was not linked to any punitive measures. Testing people twice a week, separate to my supervision session with them meant I got to know the people I supervised and could support them, alongside a local drug project. A doctor and Nurse also joined the Probation team, providing prescriptions and helping people get access to treatment to address their wider health needs.

In short – this was a holistic, treatment- based approach to dealing with drug-related offending. Significantly those on the Order returned to Court regularly for Reviews – often reserved to the Judge who sentenced them. Showing the progress, they were making to the Court was hugely motivating for those on the Order. The reviews also gave judges an insight into the challenges of recovery.

Of course, those on the Order often missed appointments, vanished for several weeks and/or relapsed. However, this was seen in the context of their recovery journey. The order generally continued, often to changed behaviour. It is hard to imagine such an Order being used now.

I worry that nothing has been learnt from the disaster that is Post Sentence Supervision (PSS). Under changes introduced in 2015, anyone leaving custody who has served two days, or more is required to be supervised in the community for a minimum of 12 months. Previously they would have had no involvement with the Probation Service. This move has had a devastating effect on prison numbers. 8,357 people serving a sentence of less than 12 months were recalled to prison in the year to December 2022. Many of these are for non-compliance, rather than new offences. Far from PSS offering people a way out of offending it has trapped many in the revolving door, whilst burdening Probation Officers with extra workload, seemingly to little benefit for those on the sentence or society at large.

I had hoped that the negative impacts of the Post Sentence Supervision might underscore the need for a re-evaluation of the purpose and effectiveness of our current approach. But it seems this was naïve.

At some point we need to stop and reassess what Probation is for. Rebranding efforts to project Community Orders as stringent measures have inadvertently transformed Probation into a predominantly punitive agency, leaving overburdened staff entangled in administrative tasks rather than providing essential support to those under supervision.

If we are ever to end the revolving door of crisis and crime, we need to look at solving its causes. I hope the Minister’s words in The Telegraph are simply part of an effort to look tough, and that some evidenced based support systems will finally be reintroduced to those subject to Community Orders. That is how we will end the revolving door of crisis and crime.

Kelly Grehan


Kelly is our Policy Manager. She works to coordinate our influencing and communications relating to policing and diversion, sentencing and probation, resettlement, multiple disadvantage, and systems change.

Before joining Revolving Doors, Kelly spent nearly two decades working for the Probation Service, before working for Members of Parliament in the House of commons. She has also led on work on Women and Justice in the Fabian Women’s Network.

Outside of work Kelly is a councillor, charity trustee and runs a small community organisation. She also spends far too much time listening to podcasts, trying to read books and has a secret love of the TV show Neighbours.

“I love the fact Revolving Doors works with people with lived experience to bring systemic change. Having worked on the frontline with those going through the justice system and having experienced frustration with the way the system is set up I feel very privileged to be able to work with our members to ensure their voices are heard.”