Tuesday 31 May 2011

Prison and the Phone

Ever since mobile phones became ubiquitous, prisoners have been keen to have them in their cells for all sorts of reasons, including keeping in touch with home. It's strictly against prison regulations of course but the numbers currently being smuggled in are staggering. Of course it tells us a lot about prison security and helps explain why drugs are so freely available. If the system is so weak and so many staff can be corrupted by the potential money to be made from the illegal phone trade, there is no hope of stopping drugs getting in. 

It's a worldwide problem with no easy technical fix. Yes signals could be jammed, but that would mean the Governors phone not working either and the extent of the jamming might well extend outside the prison walls and affect other equipment. In California the trauma of discovering that notorious murderer Charles Manson had a mobile and was 'phoning all over the 'States has prompted the prison authorities to consider installing technology that 'captures' all mobile signals and only allows through those authorised. 

Here in the UK we look likely to go down the rather more low tech and novel route of installing phones in cells. Serco who are the company that run HMP Lowdham Grange have been so impressed with the experiment that they intend to put phones into all five of their prisons. They say that bullying and phone smuggling have both reduced significantly and there is little evidence of misuse. Numbers have to be pre-authorised and I presume that the facility to record conversations exists if found to be necessary.

It will be interesting to hear if the charges are reasonable as this has been a regular complaint about the BT pin number system currently in use in state-run prisons. The contract is due to expire this month but I can't seem to find out who the new operator will be and if the charging structure will improve. I also think I'm right in saying that HM Prison Service have yet to conduct their own experiments with in-cell phones. As with all these issues of communication between prisoners and the outside world, the right balance has to be struck between allowing positive use for support and family benefit at the same time as preventing criminal activity. 

Saturday 28 May 2011

Westminster's Change of Heart

Well it looks like the City of Westminster have had second thoughts about their proposed bye-law that would have criminalised those homeless people that sleep rough in the vicinity of Westminster Cathedral piazza. However it seems as if the council still intend to try and stop the free distribution of food, soup and drinks in the area, but aim to achieve this in 'consultation' with providers.  It looks as if they will have to contend with the opposition of London Mayor Boris Johnson though. Controversial as ever and a regular thorn in the side of many fellow Conservatives, he says he is 'not opposed to soup runs' if they are part of a broader homelessness strategy.

I know I'm a cynical sort of chap and I'm aware there has been some concern within Catholic circles that the Church has been silent on the issue, in stark contrast it has to be said to the incredible furore that has let rip over the change of name of a local pub.

The very odd and secretive Yorkshire brewer Samuel Smith have been giving their pub the Cardinal a protracted 'make-over' and in the process have brought a storm of protest about themselves mostly from the Catholic community. The problem is because the managed house will revert to it's former name the Windsor Castle and regular imbibers from the Cathedral are concerned not only about the name change, but also the future of the considerable Catholic memorabilia that has accumulated over the years.

There has been a petition, the Archbishop himself has been interviewed on the radio and Catholic heavy weights such as Anne Widdicombe have spoken out vociferously. All to no avail it would seem, but the contrast between responses to the two separate issues couldn't really be more striking.  

PS. I'd love to think that the Cathedral's silence on the subject of homelessness was connected to this - but fortunately I spotted the date!

Friday 27 May 2011

Rubbish In - Rubbish Out

A couple of comments on here recently by a magistrate made me realise that it might be instructive if I explain how court Pre Sentence Report's are written nowadays, or should I more correctly say 'generated'. Because of course they are all produced from OASys, but this has never been explained either to judges or magistrates. Just for clarification, I am talking about what are now termed Standard Delivery Reports for either the Crown or Magistrates Court.

Many years ago these were called Social Enquiry Reports which I think pretty well described what they were about. Following a guilty plea or finding of guilt, the judge or magistrates requested a report from a Probation Officer before passing sentence. They wanted to know something about the person, their home situation, any problems, why the offence was committed, what the likelihood of repetition might be and finally a suggestion as to a possible sentence.

An absolutely core part of the job requiring a high level of skill, insight, perception and communication ability in being able to convey an often complex story in a cogent fashion and all in about three pages of A4. I have to say one of the best parts of the job in my view. But before I leap straight in, I need to explain how they used to be written and before the introduction of OASys, the Offender Assessment System, first in paper format and then in electronic form, the so called E-OASys. 

All reports start in the same way, namely at least one interview. This is normally conducted in the office, or in an interview room at the local remand prison if the defendant is remanded in custody. In the case of the former, normally three weeks are allowed and in the case of the latter, normally two weeks. An additional home visit used to be the norm, but this has generally fallen by the wayside. An essential pre-requisite is a full copy of the prosecution disclosure, including statements and a complete print out of previous convictions from the Police National Computer. In complex cases involving any areas of concern, it would be my practice to conduct additional interviews and contact other agencies with knowledge of the defendant. This not only serves to test the person's motivation, it also adds to the report being more authoritative.

In the very early days, reports were handwritten or possibly dictated to a shorthand typist in the luxury of your own office, but for many years my practice was to use a small portable dictating machine, typically whilst pacing around a quiet interview room. Once transcribed, it would be corrected and tweaked, ready for signing and sending off to court. There were a number of forms to complete, which increased over the years of course, but essentially that was it. A skilled officer, in an emergency, could complete the whole task from beginning to end in about two hours. Many a time I have been dictating either long into the night at home, or very early in the morning before dropping the tapes off at work. Productivity was high in my view and each report was prepared with pride in a job well done.

Things started to go wrong when the paper version of OASys came along. A massive document amounting to some forty pages, it had to be filled in before you started writing the PSR. There were seemingly never ending questions to be answered about education, employment, drug use, alcohol, relationships, accommodation, offending, mental health etc etc etc, but all linked to possible risks the person might pose. To be absolutely frank, when introduced I could not believe that no thought appeared to have been given as to how long it would take to fill in. I once asked the Chief at an open forum if she had any idea how long it took to fill in and she admitted she didn't. "How long does it take Jim?" she asked. "About three hours" I replied to gasps of "and the rest!" So at one stroke the time to write a PSR more than doubled and our productivity halved. Not surprisingly, for busy probation officers, the temptation was to write the PSR first and sometimes forget to do the damned OASys. Disciplinary action followed of course. 

But even this option disappeared when E-OASys was introduced. Now you have to be tied to the damned computer in order to fill the electronic version in and it does not let you start on the PSR until it has been completed fully. In my experience this takes between two and three hours even for an experienced officer and in the process numbs the brain completely. There's no longer any option of working at home. You have to complete the process in a noisy open-plan office, in between seeing clients. As a consequence, there is precious little intellectual energy left in order to move on to the PSR itself. But this is the really clever bit - you push a button labelled 'create report.'  

I believe there is a saying in computing that goes something like 'rubbish in - rubbish out.' If you are a sentencer, ponder on that statement next time you are reading a full SDR. As you try to make sense of it, consider the following:- 'why does it seem so formulaic?' or 'that's the fifth time the author has told me they have a drug problem' or 'it does seem repetitative' or 'it doesn't seem to say anything constructive' or 'surely there's a word missing here?' or 'that doesn't make sense' or 'I'm sure that contradicts what it said earlier on.' You see, no matter how careful you've been in completing the OASys in full grammatically correct sentences and not text messages, the computer still has difficulty welding all the information together into a coherent, intelligible whole. But then that shouldn't be too surprising should it? After all 'writing' is a human activity requiring a degree of intelligence.

If you are reading an SDR and any of the above appears familiar, then what you are reading is the result of a modern day computer-generated OASys PSR, complete with a silly little graph or chart. All reports have to be completed in this way, but it's something probation management have been loathe to explain to sentencers for some reason. It might possibly be because of another little annoying aspect of the damned system - the inability to make any corrections because OASys locks the document once completed. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to be a Court Duty Officer, realising there are major errors in a report, but powerless to correct them because it's locked. Pre-OASys, last minute alterations were easily made at court on a remote computer terminal - but not any more, so reports are regularly submitted riddled with wrong or misleading information in addition to missing or mispelled words.

Now before anyone is tempted to say 'oh our reports aren't like that'  I will explain why that is. Officers like myself, who might have been around for some time and believe in doing a good professional job for the Courts and the benefit of our clients, at the point when the report has been computer-generated, throw it away and start again. 

Can you see why so many of us are stressed and depressed? The work load has doubled for conscientious officers who take pride in the job. No one likes filling in pointless bureaucratic forms for no purpose, and OASys does not even deliver the sound assessment of risk it was designed to do. As a method of writing PSR's, it beggars belief that people of sound mind thought it was a good idea. How can a computer be expected to write a report that makes sense, but more importantly make a cogent and convincing argument for a particular course of action? Well the answer is simple. It can't of course. Management have slowly begun to realise this and hence the now widespread use of vastly inferior Fast Delivery Reports. You see the real benefit of FDR's is that they don't require OASys in order to be completed. 


Thursday 26 May 2011

A Missed Opportunity

On Tuesday 17th May, Jonathan Ledger of NAPO and Mathew Lay of UNISON gave their evidence to the House of Commons Justice Affairs Committee. Unfortunately there is no video available due to a failure to switch the cameras on, but a transcript of uncorrected evidence can be found here.

It will be appreciated that this enquiry into the Role of the Probation Service comes at a critical time and offers a real opportunity to influence key decision makers. In addition to all the uncertainty over contestability, reduction in funding, public confidence in sentence enforcement, and the future of training, there are also major issues connected to workload, face-to-face client time, stress, sickness and morale. An absolutely key factor in all the latter issues is OASys, the Offender Assessment System.

So when asked about OASys, this was the golden opportunity for the unions to tell the committee 'how it is.' This is what they said in response to a question from Claire Perry:-

Matthew Lay: There is a lot of support for OASys from practitioners, and we have had dialogue in the past about whether that could be made more user-friendly and some of the processes could be adapted to make it more streamlined. But I think there is generally support, particularly amongst our members, for the concept of OASys and what it delivers in terms of effective risk management and analysis of that risk.

Jonathan Ledger: I think this has already probably been said to you, but using it is quite cumbersome for staff. That is certainly the message we get. I would have to be frank with you. Within my union, there is quite a divided opinion about the value of OASys. Sometimes it is a generational view, it has to be said, where the debate takes place; those who have grown up with it more probably like it more. It has value in terms of what it sets out to do in terms of risk management and assessment, which is fine. But the process by which it is used, the time it takes and certainly where it is encountered electronically has been cumbersome. Again, that links into those familiar statistics you have about the amount of facetoface time staff have with offenders.

Jonathan Ledger: We touched on this earlier with the discussion about OASys. We said it does provide the basis of something that does that job. But, again, it has a bureaucratic impact which affects the amount of time, and then this goes back to your earlier question about the amount of face-to-face time people can spend with those they are supervising. Every day, individually, people and the individual team level local managers are making decisions about where to prioritise time and focus. A lot of people have been very concerned that a sort of "tick box" approach to people coming in for supervision is not acceptable, but workload pressures sometimes created that situation. We do not support that. We think that is an indictment of some of the pressures on the service.

So there we have it from the Unions involved. OASys is not very 'user-friendly' could be 'streamlined' is 'quite cumbersome' has a 'bureaucratic effect' oh and divides opinion on 'generational' lines LOL.

Later in Jonathan Ledger's evidence he confesses that he's been away from front-line practice for some considerable time. I'd like to make a serious suggestion to Jonathan, Mathew and all members of the Justice Affairs Committee and it's this. Arrange to visit a probation office and sit in on a first client interview in order to complete an OASys assessment, preferably for the purpose of writing a Standard Delivery Report.

I must stress that it is vital that the whole 'brain numbing' process is observed from start to finish in order to get a true and proper feel as to just how useful and effective a tool OASys is. I think this just might demonstrate why there are serious issues with morale, workloads, stress and sickness levels in the Probation Service.   

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Time to Speak Up

Regular readers will be aware that this blog has been following the Justice Affairs Committee of the House of Commons as it takes evidence for their wideranging enquiry into the Role of the Probation Service. As part of this process they are canvassing views from far and wide and in order to assist have set up a forum that is open until 21st June.

"The Justice Committee is setting up this web forum to hear the views of probation staff, and others with experience of probation and offenders in the community, on the challenges currently facing probation services.

The Committee would like to hear about the impact of recent reforms to probation services stemming from the creation of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), including the establishment of probation trusts, on the people who have day-to-day contact with offenders in the community.

Views are also sought on further reforms proposed by the current Government, including the development of a system in which probation trusts would compete with other providers from the voluntary and the private sectors.

The Committee will use the information gathered through the online forum, alongside written submissions and evidence given by experts in oral evidence sessions to make recommendations to the Government about its policy on probation. Quotes from the forum will be used to support the Committee’s final report and recommendations."

I have to say that I'm normally quite cynical about so-called consultation exercises, especially when the questions seem to be framed in a particular way or are narrowly defined so that wide-ranging responses are discouraged. This feels a little like this, but potential contributors will have to make up their own minds. It's never discouraged me from giving expansive views, but then you have to decide if initiatives like this serve any purpose at all. At the very least I find it can make you feel better and in the pub you can say with some pride that you have done something other than just moan. 

The forum can be accessed here, but only until 21st June.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Martin Narey's Thoughts

The House of Commons Justice Affairs Committee have recently taken evidence from Martin Narey, the former Director General of the Prison Service and later first Chief Executive of NOMS, the National Offender Management Service. Readers will recall that he resigned from NOMS when it started going pear-shaped and has been in charge of Barnardo's for the last six years.

I've always admired Martin and think he generally talks sense, but I find his explanation and defence of the introduction of so-called 'end-to-end offender management' astonishing and naive in the extreme. He told the Committee that he knew that Probation Officers were not treated with respect by staff in the Prison Service, so he thought this could be addressed by giving them "authority and influence" over the management of offenders whilst serving the custodial element of sentences. 

You will recall that under the NOMS structure (which was of course a takeover of Probation by the Prison Service) Probation Officers were rebranded as 'Offender Managers' and they supposedly assumed control of the prisoners passage through the prison system. So the person who knew least about how the prison system worked, that was based in an office miles away from the prison, would be expected to chair sentence planning meetings, often by video link due to travel restrictions, made up mostly of people who held a completely differing professional and cultural background and in the process attempt to arrive at meaningful decisions. The concept might at first glance have sounded brilliant, especially that bit I recall about 'breaking down the silos' but in practice it's proved a complete disaster, not helped by the inadequacies of OASys and the failure of the replacement joint IT system C-NOMIS.  

He went on to say that the success of NOMS had been predicated on a deal being struck between the Attorney General and Home Secretary that would have effectively put a cap on the prison population, but the then Labour government bottled out. He explained that in all the years that he was running prisons and enjoying increasing budgets from Jack Straw for training and drug treatment, he was not able to spend more per head overall because increased prison numbers swallowed all the increased resources.

Not surprisingly he was scathing of the Prison Officers Association as being the last "untouched and unreconstructed union" that only really started to change when he introduced some competition in the form of private prisons. He feels that any public service that is not open to competition is likely to be run badly and thus fully supports contestability being introduced into the Probation Service. Astonishingly he feels that even "imperfect competition is better than none at all." In passing he effectively said that he never believed the figures supplied by the Probation Service for completed Unpaid Work hours.

Martin bemoaned the immature level of debate about sentencing policy in this country and harked fondly back to the days of Douglas Hurd in Margaret Thatchers government who coined the phrase "prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse" the effect of which was to talk the prison population down by 4,000 to 39,000. He felt that in his view Ken Clarke was on the right track and that the inexorable rise in prison numbers had to stop. 

Finally, he stated categorically that in his view the use of reconviction data as a way of measuring success or failure was "almost completely useless" and that reoffending rates using proxy indicators such as accommodation or employment were instead the key in helping to assess improvement.

Monday 23 May 2011

Andrew Bridges Valediction

Once started, it can be difficult keeping a blog going, so once again I'm grateful to regular reader Mike for pointing me in the direction of something useful to read. Many will be aware that Andrew Bridges recently retired as HM Chief Inspector of Probation and as a consequence he was invited to give a valedictory lecture at Oxford University last week. Entitled 'Probation and Youth Offending work : A tribute to those who do it well'  it is a fascinating and illuminating reflection on a lifetimes work that will cheer practitioners and inform outsiders in equal measure.

It's really good to hear that he remains in awe of colleagues "who've got what it takes to influence other people for the better by the way they talk with and listen to them."

Mr Bridges is most critical of what he describes as a 'greedy and lazy' press for perpetuating a two-dimensional debate about an essentially three-dimensional issue - namely offending. The argument has never been as straightforward as 'hawks verses doves.' On the topic of prison working or not, he makes the point that age is the critical factor. The longer a person can be kept out of prison, the more likely it is that their offending will stop. On the other hand if they go to prison early, they are more likely to offend for longer.

The nature of our work means that we are in the business of explaining often reprehensible behaviour, whilst at the same time constantly reminding people that this is not the same as excusing it. It's refreshing to hear Mr Bridges explaining that probation work is simply "doing the Right Thing with the Right Individual in the Right Way at the Right Time." Easy to say, but difficult to do of course, he goes on to explain the three key purposes of the work as seen from an Inspectors point of view:-

Firstly, through compliance and enforcement, ensuring that the individual serves their sentence.
Secondly, engage them with a range of constructive work that enables the individual to become measurably less likely to offend again in the future.
Thirdly, by monitoring the behaviour of the individual, take reasonable action in order to minimise that persons Risk of Harm to others. 

He goes on to confirm that the relationship between practitioner and client is key and that a degree of discretion is important. He feels there has been far too much proscription over recent years. In discussing various initiatives in practice, interestingly he feels these are more to do with the enthusiasm of the staff than the nature of the work. He felt that although new initiatives might deliver improvements in early years, this then tails off as staff enthusiasm wanes. This may be part of the answer, but I suspect it's also something to do with appropriateness of referrals. In the early days of an initiative the referrals are probably right for the individuals concerned, but as the project becomes more mainstream, the temptation of management is that it might work for ever larger groups of people.

On the subjest of management, it's really heartening to hear the former Chief Inspector pondering aloud that there were probably too many managers and rather than helping to deliver improved practice, they too often spent most of their time conferring with other managers. He went on to say that his inpectors often reported that officers being interviewed as part of the inspection process frequently stated that the experience had been 'the closest to proper supervision in years.' Oh dear. 

This has only been a brief canter through some highlights of what is a fascinating reflective piece and is well worth reading in full.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Restorative Justice

Going back to the days when Probation Officers wore dual hats as Divorce Court Welfare officers, they have been involved in processes variously termed mediation, reparation and conciliation. Nowadays, within the Criminal Justice System, the broad philosophical aims behind these titles has become generally known as 'Restorative Justice.' 

It is the process by which victim and perpetrator are able to meet in a carefully controlled manner. In the case of the victim, it affords the opportunity to meet the individual responsible for the crime and to learn about them and their motivation and for the offender the opportunity to meet the victim, understand the effect their behaviour has had and take responsibility for their actions. Unlike the court hearing, which necessarily focusses on the offender, this meeting seeks to 'personalise' a criminal act by the involvement of the victim in a process that is designed to be therapeutic and healing for both parties. 

The aim is that the victim will be assisted in coming to terms with the anger and grief associated with the effects of the offence and for the perpetrator to understand the distress and harm caused by their actions. Each assists the other in the jointly shared aspiration of creating no further victims. It is a process that requires careful preparation and mediation by skilled practitioners and may prove unsuitable in many cases. 

It should go without saying that it has to be felt appropriate for both parties and that the victim does not feel in any way 'pressurised' to take part. Of course it's equally important to assess the motivation of the offender and it's in this regard that the process is derided in certain quarters. All I can say is that Probation staff are well used to making such judgement calls and are fully aware of the possible pitfalls in what is undoubtedly a process not without risk, but the possible benefits are considerable. This recent article from the Guardian describes a typical restorative justice process.

So far opportunities for victims to interact with offenders is limited, not least due to the cost of such initiatives, but Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has signalled his support and it's widely understood that the forthcoming sentencing reform bill will contain measures to fund an increase in provision. This is certainly good news in my view.   

Saturday 21 May 2011

Justice Affairs Committee 9

For those really keen and eager, the proceedings of the Justice Affairs Committee from 11th May can be viewed here, but in all honesty I wouldn't recommend it. The new Chief Inspector of Probation was hardly inspiring, but I did learn that she has succeeded in getting a terminal installed at Swindon probation office that gives access to the Police National Computer for a trial period. This has been a bone of contention for some time and I'm sure the police won't be happy about it, indeed just as they were dubious about allowing probation access to ViSOR, the National Dangerous Persons Database. It's an essential prelude though to probation being able to guage and assess re-offending by current and previous clients.

Following on from the lack-lustre performance of the Chief Inspector, the Committee went on to hear from senior representatives of the Probation Association and Probation Chiefs Association. I thought they put up a reasonable case for how badly NOMS is treating us, particularly over the current awarding of Community Payback contracts, but disgracefully dodged answering the question about the effectiveness of OASys.

I guess that shouldn't be any great surprise though because I think I'm right in saying that Sue Hall, Chief Executive of the West Yorkshire Trust, was part of the development team. OASys is one of those subjects that is treated in a similar way to the Emperor's clothing. 'It's working perfectly well and is a vital element of end-to-end offender management' and the top man is fully dressed. In reality it's been a disaster and amongst other things, responsible for a dramatic reduction in productivity by the Probation Service.

Having sat through the whole two hours for the benefit of this post, the impression left is just how inept and ill-informed many of our elected representatives are, especially when on display as in committee's like this. I really thought they'd be experts able to conduct incisive and forensic cross examinations, but in reality all they seem to do is a bit of bluster, a bit of bullying and a grinding of any particular personal axe they have. But that's the democratic process for you. 

I notice the committee have taken further evidence from the likes of NAPO and other organisations and I will watch all this just as soon as time allows.   

Friday 20 May 2011

Ken Survives

Watched from the comfort of my armchair, there was definitely an eerie feel to last nights Question Time on BBC1 from the Chapel at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in London. Even though there were only a handful of prisoners present, the audience seemed unusually subdued, I suspect just by the significance of being inside a prison. As a frequent visitor to gaols over the years, I can understand that. They are frequently foreboding places and of course the Victorians were more than keen to emphasise that aspect in their design and architectural style.

Maybe that partly explains why Ken Clarke came out of the encounter pretty unscathed. He had already endured hours of torture by the media for his inept comments about sentencing in rape cases and must have been dreading further trial by humiliation on Question Time. However I suspect in truth, unlike many politicians, he has always tended towards plain speaking and mostly the avoidance of trying to score cheap political points. As a result he has a good deal of political and personal credit in the bank, whatever the views of the Daily Mail might be.

Shamy Chakrabarti of Liberty was particularly at pains not to pour oil on the situation and accorded Ken a good deal of respect, referring to him continually as Lord Chancellor rather than Justice Secretary. Even Jack Straw refrained from putting the boot in and noticeably failed to support his leaders call for Ken to be sacked. Melanie Phillips from the said Daily Mail also seemed unusually reluctant to be confrontational and agreed that Ken did contrition 'charmingly.' Ken must have been expecting much worse, but the audience listened in respectful silence to his apology which I'm sure will not go unnoticed by number ten Downing Street. 

The same can't be said of Jack Straw who once more displayed all the worst characteristics of a politician intent on using the criminal justice system for scoring political points. As one of the main architects of the last Labour governments 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' policies and hence explosion in prison numbers, he had a well-deserved rougher time from the audience. Not only does he continue to state that his policies of imprisonment have worked and he would jail even more, he scandalously blames the Probation Service alone for failing to reduce the resulting re-offending rates. Of course there is history between Jack Straw and the Probation Service as it was he who singled us out for special attention and in effect cultural purging. 

There is no doubt it's been a bad week for those of us hoping for a change in direction from the likes of yesterdays politician Jack Straw. However, it could have been much worse. There is a general feeling that Ken has succeeded in digging himself out of a large hole and will be keeping his job for some time yet. But the Prime Minister is nervous and the draft sentencing proposals are now delayed a few weeks whilst further consideration is given to them. The government is between a rock and a hard place though. The proposed increase in the discount for early guilty pleas would deliver the lions share in reduced prison places. Without it, savings have to be made some other way. Has David Cameron got the courage and political skill to back his Justice Secretary fully or not?      

Thursday 19 May 2011

Another Fine Mess

Politics is a funny old business and seems to be more about luck than judgement. There was poor old, already-beleaguered, Ken Clarke thinking he'd got his sentencing plans signed off on Monday, only to find on Wednesday that he's going to have to back track. It was entirely his fault of course in not being rather more careful in choosing his words judiciously during a radio 5 live interview that ended up discussing rape.

This is a very contentious issue at the best of times, but he has now almost certainly sealed the fate of the plan to increase the discount on guilty pleas from 33% to 50%. It always was a policy designed to be a money saving measure, in terms of reducing court time and prison places, but one that arguably had other consequential benefits. No doubt in choosing to use rape as an example, Mr Clarke was intent on explaining that such an increase in the discount on offer would have the benefit of not only increasing the number of convictions for rape, but also obviate the need for many victims to relive their experiences in open court. All very laudable he thought, but now destined to become an historical footnote due to a few ill-chosen turns of phrase.

Sadly the opportunistic alliance between the likes of the Daily Mail and Labour leadership now means that in all probability the draft sentencing bill will be delayed and watered down. David Cameron may well be very unhappy with his Justice Secretary and even some of his plans, but the issue remains as to how you save a shed-load of money at the same time as convincing the wider public you are not being soft on crime? Today's editorial in the Guardian makes it clear why Ken may keep his post for some time yet, but it will be very interesting indeed to see what he chooses to say later today when he appears on BBC1's Question Time from HMP Wormwood Scrubs.       

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Time for Lunch

I didn't know this, but apparently it's a common cynical view that justice depends as much on when the judge last had a snack as anything else, and it seems the proof is here. Some research conducted in Israel on Parole Board decisions seems to show that the likelihood of release being granted depends on the length of time since the judge had a snack. The graph is remarkable in demonstrating a high release rate soon after breakfast, but then tails off significantly as lunch approaches. Following lunch, the release rate returns to what it had been in the early morning, but similarly tails off as the afternoon wears on.

Of course there could be other factors at work here, including just plain fatigue. Reading files and making important decisions on complex cases cannot be easy. Writing up the reasons for refusing Parole requires less words than explaining why Parole is being granted, so possibly the explanation is to do with fatigue and not food. The researchers acknowledge this and so the phenomena may not be as straightforward as might appear at first glance, but it does make you think doesn't it? I've got a funny feeling that when hanging around in court for a case to be heard, more often than not it's been a positive outcome towards the beginning of the day rather than towards the end. Anyone else noticed this? 

Tuesday 17 May 2011

What Do We Do With Dave?

Episode 2 of 'Strangeways' on ITV 1 proved just as shocking and depressing as the first in highlighting the sad case of Dave. Refusing to conform by insisting he couldn't walk and regularly soiling his bed, he resolutely insisted that he needed to be in psychiatric hospital and as a way of getting there became ever more determined to cause the prison system as much trouble as possible.

What struck me was that no one seemed able or willing to spend any serious amounts of time with him trying to get to understand him and his problems. He was in effect just a management problem interrupting the smooth operation of an institution. On the medical wing the staff spent much time discussing whether he was mentally ill or not. Indeed there was much talk about other prisoners possibly having mental health problems, but absolutely no recognition that the problems might be psychological or emotional.

I find this surprising given the huge increase in psychological provision within the prison system over recent years, but possibly the explanation is that they are focused on risk assessments, rather than the need to deliver talking therapies. I think that virtually all the highly disturbed prisoners I've seen in this TV series would benefit enormously from such a therapeutic approach, but that requires particular skills that so far has been conspicuously absent. 

Dave's future is bleak indeed, because when 'Care in the Community' was ushered in as a replacement for the large institutions that would have had a place for him, the money and replacement community services never materialised. I'm positive there are lots of Dave's in the prison system. Ken Clarke knows this as well and we wait with interest to see how he intends to get his colleagues in other departments to 'step up to the plate' and take responsibility for the likes of Dave. Draft legislation is due any time soon.

Monday 16 May 2011


I heard an interesting thing the other day. A member of the Parole Board speculating as to why over the last 10 years the release rate of Lifers had halved. He felt it was possible that members had heeded very public and negative comments by senior politicians, or that they'd simply become much more risk-averse due to public concern over notorious cases that had gone wrong. But he actually felt that the reason was connected to the increase in the number of negative recommendations from Probation Officers.  

I find this so depressing to hear, but sadly completely understandable when we reflect on what has changed over this 10 year period. There has been the introduction of OASys the Offender Assessment System and a differing ethos within the Probation Service. To put it bluntly, officers have changed. Each year there are less and less social work trained officers well used to exercising high degrees of judgement and discretion and an increase in those newer officers who have never known any other approach to risk assessment other than the utterly formulaic method as dictated by OASys. Officers today are just not as willing, or feel able to take a risk in recommending release. This is very worrying because this group has not changed in terms of the risks they've always posed. It's the way we now deal with them that has changed and not for the better in my opinion.

By it's nature, OASys is focussed on the problems, not the strengths that each individual possesses. So it really shouldn't be that surprising that when the completed document produces a comprehensive assessment of all the risk factors involved, there is often very little scope for corresponding positives with which to assist in coming to a balanced view about risk. The document is simply not configured in such a way that makes it possible to counter-balance all the risk factors and the result is more often than not negative as a result. I noticed this routinely when forced to read PSR's when working as a Court Duty Officer. Being an experienced practitioner, I knew full well that everybody has some positives to be highlighted, but routinely I found myself reading OASys-generated reports that had nothing positive to say about an individual. This cannot be right. 

It will be appreciated that it is complete heresy to publicly say anything other than 'OASys is a vital tool in assessing risk and a vast improvement on what went before.' On the other hand it's completely fashionable to say that we really were not very good at assessing risk in the past and it all needed 'tightening up.' I simply don't accept that hypothesis. We've created a monster that gobbles up millions of man-hours every year and that fails to deliver a meaningful risk assessment. It has utterly debased the value of PSR's and ushered in the routine and often inappropriate use of FDR's as a way of avoiding it. It is a system that results in more people going to prison and less people coming out via the Parole Board. In fact it's been a complete disaster. There, I've said it!

Sunday 15 May 2011

A Moment's Reflection

Every now and then something happens to make you stop and reflect. I found myself walking through the big city recently on my way home. As with most cities, there are people begging and I was vaguely aware of a bundle sat on the pavement. As a strode past I momentarily caught his eye as he peered from beneath a baseball cap. By now several yards beyond him I suddenly realised he looked vaguely familiar. Could it really be the young man I'd supervised some 25 or more years previously as a very new Probation Officer?

He'd been one of my first cases when still living at home with his mother and truanting regularly. He wasn't getting into serious trouble but in those days we took on all sorts if the courts were worried about someone. He'd suffered years of abuse from a violent step-father and would often run away from home. He'd spent some time in childrens homes and run away from them too because of the bullying. I got to know him well over the following years as his contact with more criminally intent lads inevitably meant his offending increased.

I found him bright, pleasant and engaging, but hardly ever smiled. He's the only client to have ever given me a Christmas present, several pairs of socks in a gift basket I recall. During his first spell in YOI I remember his artistic flair really came to the fore and his reputation for pencil sketching meant he was in demand by inmates and prison staff alike eager to have their likenesses immortalised for friends and family. If I think about it now, this was the only time I saw this lad happy and content. He had real artistic ability which I remember envying enormously. 

Time moved on and I eventually found myself writing reports for Crown Court and visiting him in adult prison. I remember being devastated at hearing he'd tried to hang himself and during a subsequent episode of self harm had severed the tendons in his wrist. I know he's never sketched since. He moved away to the big city and my contact ended, but I admit I used to have a look on CRAMS now and then in order to see how he was doing. Invariably it was not good. Addicted to heroin and alcohol, he had become increasingly violent and time after time couldn't settle in hostels and so was pretty permanently on the streets.

When he eventually recognised me the other day he said he had just come out from an eighteen month stretch and in classic understatement volunteered that 'things aren't good at the moment.' If truth be known, things haven't been 'good' for this person for a very long time indeed. It never proved possible to get the expert psychological assessment and counselling that I always knew he needed. Such facilities where I work are almost non-existent. Now with virtually no teeth and resigned to life on the streets, I'm relieved to see he's still alive, but also reminded of a very uncomfortable fact. Pretty much his adult lifespan has mirrored my professional career, and to what effect? One of the hardest parts of this job is accepting sometimes not being able to make a damned difference no matter how hard you try.  

Friday 13 May 2011

Some Observations 4

I've been meaning to say something about the Channel 4 series 'Secret Millionaire' for some time and the most recent episode set inside HMYOI Brinsford seems as good an excuse as any. Sadly though I thought it was one of the most uninspiring to date, even though it was highlighting the appalling levels of illiteracy amongst inmates. Nevertheless the work of the Shannon Trust is extremely important and I notice that it's Founder only died recently.

I admire the concept of introducing very wealthy people to extreme examples of how the 'other half' live and over recent years the programme has provided some really uplifting viewing in terms of highlighting work done by some inspirational volunteers all over the country. It must be coming to the end of its 'shelf life' though as there can't be that many people who are not aware of the programme and would rumble things as soon as camera's appear. I guess that's why the producers are trying some different angles, especially in placing participants in situations even further outside their comfort zone than normal. I notice that the Guardian was particularly scathing about the episode set in Middlesbrough involving deaths from epilepsy and the degree of 'manipulation'. Of course it has to be 'set up' but on balance, I think it's worth doing and succeeds in not being at all cheesy. 

The BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme has recently run two reports from inside Broadmoor Special Hospital in an attempt to show that such places are not that scary and that real therapeutic work goes on in helping patients recover. Broadmoor and Rampton are very unusual places indeed. They still both look like Victorian Gaols that were placed deliberately in isolated locations and as a consequence have struggled to overcome the problems stemming from a workforce that mostly live in the small local community, many of whom are inter-related and often second or third generation.

They may be hospitals, but the majority of staff are prison officers that just happen to be in 'mufti'. The other Special Hospital, Ashmore in Liverpool, has always had a different feel. I have never had any doubt that excellent work goes on at all three establishments, but believe me they can be scary places. Many patients will have a personality disorder in addition to a mental illness and I'm still not sure the former can be 'treated'. As with prison, some residents kill. Others are routinely violent. Many self-harm. Some will never come out, despite us being told the average stay is six years. Release from Special Hospital does not necessarily mean a return to the community. It could well be a return to prison or quite often a Regional Secure Unit. 

In closing I'll mention Louise Casey who was on BBC Radio 4 recently in her latest incarnation as Victim Commisioner. I have no doubt that there is a valuable piece of work to be done here in relation to advocating on behalf of victims and ensuring adequate resources are provided. However, I feel I have to make the point that in my experience many offenders have been victims themselves. The sad fact is that in reality victims and offenders can often be one and the same. It's this sort of revelation that only becomes apparent through so-called restorative justice when victim and offender meet each other as part of a voluntary and carefully managed process. But more of that another day.  

Wednesday 11 May 2011


Monday 9th May saw the first of a three part fly-on-the-wall documentary on ITV 1 about HMP Manchester, but better known as 'Strangeways'You will recall that this monster Victorian jail was almost completely destroyed in 1990 during the longest prison riot in British history. It's now one of only eight maximum security Cat A prisons in England and as the film shows only too clearly, can be a very scary place indeed. 

I understand that the viewing figures for this first episode were quite high which I guess proves that the general public have a fascination with what goes on behind prison walls. This can only be a good thing, especially if it helps to dispel the myths about life being cushy. Yes I know this is a Cat A prison, but it also acts as a 'local' and therefore takes all sorts, including low risk remand prisoners. The graphic scenes of slashing and extreme self harming are the worst I've ever seen and serve to illustrate just how many prisoners have significant mental health issues and should by rights be in secure psychiatric units instead. The trouble is that there are so many seriously disturbed prisoners, it's quite difficult to arrange section 47,48 or 53 transfers to hospital under the Mental Health Act. Hopefully this situation will improve as part of Ken Clarke's plan for reducing prison numbers expected to be published next month. 

The 'wedding' has to be one of the saddest parts of this episode and I take my hat off to the Deputy Superintending Registrar for trying to inject a bit of dignity and normality into what looked a pretty dire situation to me. But the main participants seemed happy enough, which is the main thing. Goodness knows what the children make of it all and seeing them being searched and scanned I really find unsettling, but has to be done. Actually on the topic of contraband such as mobile phones and drugs being smuggled into prisons, it's sobering to reflect that a good deal of it is carried out by prison officers themselves. A recently revealed internal Prison Service memo stated that a considerable number of staff were suspected of corruption of one sort or another (possibly in the region of 1,600) and in fact there is a dedicated Scotland Yard unit tasked with finding them. 

It was interesting to follow the fortunes of the Cat A prisoner in yellow who was waiting to be sentenced for driving a lorry found to be carrying a huge quantity of drugs. I thought his protestations as to innocence were somewhat feeble and "I only drove it for 300 quid and hope the judge will give me a walk out" appeared remarkably unconvincing to me. The judge was clearly unimpressed also as he handed down 15 years, reduced from 17. Even his reaction to the sentence seemed somewhat trite and the urgent request for a 'listener' smacked just a little of a seasoned inmate 'going through the motions'. By the way, you don't get put into 'yellow' as an escape risk without very good reason. 

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Justice Affairs Committee 8

The preferred candidate for the post of HM Chief Inspector of Probation is due to go before the Commons Justice Affairs Committee tomorrow morning, 11th May. Diana Fulbrook OBE is currently the Chief Executive of Wiltshire Probation Trust. Immediately following this hearing the Committee will be taking evidence from senior representatives of both the Probation Association and the Probation Chiefs Association. 

Feedback Loop

It's always good to get comments, or blogging can become a very lonely pastime. Occasionally I've been pleased to get comments from people who say they are, or have been clients of the Probation Service. I find these are particularly interesting because of course these commentators see things from a very different perspective and what they say can be extremely instructive. I hope the anonymous author of the following will not mind me reproducing their contribution here, but I feel it raises so many important issues that I'd like to try and address some of them in detail. 

"As someone who was for many years in conflict with the CJ system and spent many years in prison, I have of course been aware of the shift from the social work ethos of probation work to one of policing and I call it policing because of the nature of its enforcement and control. I have repeatedly advised fellow offenders not to trust probation officers and not to reveal problems to them for POs are not there to assist and help and will divert offenders/clients to other agencies. The fear of revealing problems is that because of the risk culture in which we live those problems can and are interpreted as possible risks. Best to avoid telling probation officers anything, just turn up on time, avoid drugs and alcohol prior to appointments and simply nod one's head and give the appearance that everything is fine even if they are not. For those on licence from prison, the worst possible outcome to losing one's job, accommodation etc. is by telling one's probation officer of those problems that they might be seen as a risk of reoffending and thus a recall to prison."

As a time-served old-style officer I find this uncomfortable and disappointing reading. I sadly recognise the sentiment and understand it, but it's still quite depressing. In my mind it begs several questions, which I have posed publicly to the author, but so far there has been no response. 

In essence the thrust of the piece gets right to the heart of an inherent contradiction that has been part of probation since it began as a statutory function of the State in 1907. Whilst the Act specified that the job of a probation officer was to 'advise, assist and befriend' there was always a concomitant responsibility to help protect the public. In my mind the square can be circled because by doing the former, the latter responsibility can be fulfilled. It may sound naive, but I've generally found a widespread understanding amongst our clients of what we are about when sometimes we have to reveal the iron fist that has always been present within the velvet glove. But sadly this comment from a former client is becoming all too commonplace and reflective of the change in ethos of the Service.

I would say that back when we were social work trained and 'probation' was an alternative to a sentence, it was probably much easier to exercise the appropriate balance between care on the one hand and control on the other. Given that the essence of probation work is the relationship between officer and client, there has to be a degree of trust by both parties otherwise nothing meaningful can be achieved in terms of rehabilitation, let alone public protection. For this reason I have always felt it essential that the officer is as straight with the client as possible, because we want them to be straight with us. This gets to the heart of the argument contained in the thesis above because it presupposes that honesty on the part of the client will inevitably result in their situation being made worse. Our task on the other hand of course is to try and demonstrate that the childhood adage 'honesty is the best policy' is true.

It's not easy, but a vital part of the job. I well remember a case of a child sex offender, having been released from custody on licence and feeling able to tell me that his partner was pregnant. I had always been straight with him in explaining that firstly any new partner must be told of his past offending and secondly what the consequences would be if she became pregnant. At every stage I emphasised the importance that would inevitably be placed by the authorities on him demonstrating a willingness to be open and co-operative. Yes the child would almost certainly be removed at birth if the couple stayed together, but that the whole process towards ensuring a safe future for the child, hopefully living together with both parents, could be viewed positively if he was deemed open and honest. 

Probation officers are generaly not stupid and are always mindful of clients feeling it necessary to lie, obfuscate, minimise, distort, evade or manipulate. Officers may give the impression of having swallowed a particular line, but in my experience it's almost invariably counter-productive and pointless if there is a good working relationship between officer and client. An officer can only help a situation if they have as complete a picture as possible. The quid pro quo of course is that the officer is straight and fair with them in return. I have previously posted examples of this to the consternation of some, but this job is anything but straightforward and there are lots of grey areas where judgement and discretion have to be exercised.  It's this aspect of the job that has become much more difficult of course.

It's simply not true that someone on licence who loses their job or accommodation would be recalled. Of course there is a big difference if that person is a sex offender, but that just means the sooner the PO is made aware, the sooner alternative accommodation can be found. Such clients have top priority. Paradoxically, failure to inform the supervising officer of a change in circumstances would undoubtedly be grounds for recall in my book. Honesty is the best policy - honestly.    


Monday 9 May 2011

Mine's a Pint

Ever since I qualified as a Probation Officer, I've been interested in trying to understand and help clients who have difficulties with alcohol. It hasn't just been that when I started out alcohol was the number one issue, it's also that I love a pint myself and the contrast between something which I regard as pleasureable and safe with people being slowly killed by the same stuff is quite unsettling to say the least. I've always been fascinated in particular by peoples differing attitudes towards alcohol and their drinking habits. In short it's led to some absolutely fascinating conversations when trying to suggest there just might be alternative drinking patterns out there, in addition to trying total abstinence, which in my experience almost invariably fails. 

As with other aspects of our behaviour, we learn much during childhood and early adulthood. As seemed to be the custom in those days, my mates and I at school were indulging in under-age drinking at several local hostelries from about age 16, and sometimes in sixth form uniform I seem to recall. At least one teacher used to join us on our regular Friday nights at the Green Dragon and would duly 'get his round in'. Of course in those days there were no 'alcopops'. Hailing from the south, it was Courage Directors Bitter and I suspect at least some of us pretended to like it as we learnt, what I would now describe, as a responsible attitude towards alcohol. We over-indulged sometimes, but worked out for ourselves if the after effects were worthwhile or not.

I now realise that I've been lucky to have come through relatively unscathed the work place culture of the 70's and university culture of the 80's where heavy drinking was routine and very enjoyable it has to be said. I say unscathed because, unlike many clients, I feel that alcohol has not proved a problem to me. I have always seemed able to control it, rather than the other way round. But then I've always regarded the consumption of alcohol as invariably an adjunct to social interaction, not something to be indulged in alone, or indeed for its own sake routinely. Nor indeed before 11am, when possibly only a small sherry might be appropriate. Or nowadays often beyond two pints, or two glasses of wine when eating. I also find that I can't drink happily in unpleasant surroundings.

What has become apparent to me over the years is that many clients have very different attitudes towards alcohol and its consumption. On many occasions I've been asked incredulously "what on earth is the point of only two pints?" Many nowadays indulge in the practice of 'pre-loading' whereby you 'neck' a good quantity of alcohol before you set out for a drinking session. Others are bewildered at the thought of returning home with any money left in their pocket at all. Yet others see no point in stopping drinking until they are incapable of standing and see no great problem in not being able to remember anything about their binge session. What sort of society have we created where this is now regarded as the norm for our young people?

During my time as a Court Duty Officer I've had to explain this sort of current cultural attitude towards drinking to an often incredulous Bench and how it may not be a 'problem' in the accepted sense of the term. Well obviously a problem in that their behaviour has landed them in court, but not an alcohol problem 'per se.' I always tend to ask routine questions such as if they have any 'shakes' in the morning? Do they wake up sweating a great deal? Do they feel better after drinking a couple of litres of cheap, strong cider first thing in the morning? Are they eating properly? Do they get indegestion a lot? Coughing up blood? Losing weight? By the time the answers are affirmative, they do indeed have a serious problem. 

Hopefully, most of our young people will never reach this stage where the body has become utterly alcohol dependent and uncontrolled cessation would be extremely dangerous. In order to reach this point there has been a growing psychological dependency. Sadly experience has confirmed that for significant numbers of our clients, life has proved so difficult or traumatic that a retreat into alcohol has afforded some, albeit temporary relief from the pain and bad memories. Such situations have provided me with some of the saddest and intractable cases over the years and can have a literally sobering effect. As a society, we're simply not geared up to provide the necessary skilled counselling to tackle the underlying issues that can often lead to alcohol addiction. And to make matters worse, some people move onto alcohol as a replacement for heroin. 

There is of course a current lively debate about how to deal with the alcohol problem in this country and much speculation that it is mostly to do with cost. I don't agree. I think it's to do with education and as with matters to do with drugs, sex and relationships, should be a topic for discussion as early as possible in schools. It's interesting to reflect now that our history teacher wasn't being stupid in supposedly not noticing her pupils smuggling a few bottles of brown ale on to the coach when we went out for the day - she was helping us to learn a responsible attitude towards alcohol. Fat chance of that nowadays I guess. 


Sunday 8 May 2011

Whatever Happened to Parole?

I see that NAPO have decided to highlight the issue of the automatic release of prisoners at the half way stage in their sentence, irrespective of any concerns about the risk they may pose. As a consequence, greater numbers are now having to be recalled within days of release. The full briefing document can be accessed from the NAPO page and it gives 'chapter and verse' on some very disturbing cases indeed. 

Of course the situation used to be very different before the introduction of that part of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 relating to the release of prisoners. On 4th April 2005, for offences committed after this date, all determinate prisoners became eligible for release at the half way point automatically. This very helpful article in the prisoners newspaper 'Inside Time' explains what the position was for offences committed prior to this date:

"The Criminal Justice Act 1991 provided that any person serving a sentence of four years or more would be deemed a ‘long term’ prisoner. Under these provisions a prisoner would serve half of his designated period in custody and would then become eligible to apply for early release on parole licence. If he were successful in that application he would remain on licence to the three quarter point of his sentence when his licence would expire. The final quarter of his sentence would be the ‘at risk’ period – a period that would only take effect if the prisoner were convicted of another offence."

As all probation officers at the time knew, this aspect of the 1991 Act was not only extremely useful in motivating prisoners to 'behave' during their sentence, it was also an inducement to participate constructively in courses and programmes designed to alter or improve their thinking and attitudes. The parole application process was taken very seriously by all concerned and necessitated full reports being prepared by probation, psychology and programme staff, to name but a few. The resulting parole dossier would duly be sent off for consideration by the Parole Board, along with the report prepared by the 'independent'. This refers to a personal visit and interview by an independent member of the Parole Board (ie not a member of the Reviewing Panel) in each case.

This system was well understood, worked well and if early release on Parole Licence was granted, considerably more licence conditions could be attached than is possible under the present system. So if it worked so well, why was it changed I hear you ask? The answer of course was connected to cost and the urgent need to reduce the bulging prison population at the time. I think something was said about the need for 'simplification' as a smokescreen and justification, but it yet again serves as a classic example of the perils of allowing politicians to meddle with the Criminal Justice System.

Undoubtedly we are now experiencing what the then Labour government would say was an unexpected consequence and what we would say was utterly predictable, but sadly there is no sign that the present government will admit there is any problem at all. The attempt at sponsoring a Private Members Bill in Parliament will get nowhere of course, but it will serve to get the subject on the agenda as we move towards an environment of privatisation. Should put the wind up prospective bidders I would have thought.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Food for Thought

I don't normally do tv cookery programmes, but somehow found myself watching a new series called 'Two Greedy Italians' on BBC1 last Wednesday. It's the latest offering of that genre where to be frank the cooking is very secondary to the characters, the stories and the fabulous landscape. After some 45 minutes, I found myself being gently seduced by the scenery, the banter between the two main characters, the classy classic car and then suddenly when least expecting it - bham - a smack in the face and work! The viewer suddenly becomes aware that our two characters are not visiting just any old vineyard and winery, but rather we have entered the utterly surreal world of drug rehabilitation, Italian style.

The San Patrignano project near Rimini is truely amazing in terms of scale, aspiration and concept. A massive 1,000 bed therapeutic residential community, funded entirely by charitable giving and the sale of some of the most mouth watering food and wine you could ever hope to sample. Throughout my entire career I have bemoaned the lack of residential drug rehabilitation beds and instead our reliance on community-based methodone prescribing. This one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn't work and is so narrow and unsophisticated in concept.

Well here in stark contrast we have an absolutely fabulous example of how the whole person can be treated in a truly holistic manner and helped to achieve their full potential as human beings irrespective of their backgrounds and in a drug free environment. Not a hint of methadone anywhere, the residents are asked to sign up to a determination to work towards a life without drugs. Quite clearly many residents have significant criminal backgrounds in addition to addictions and emotional problems, but seemingly benefit from quite lengthy stays measured in years rather than months. And who couldn't benefit from a lengthy stay in such beautiful surroundings living on fine food and wine? 

Until I saw this, I had been pretty impressed with the Clink Restaurant experiment at HMP High Down, but this Italian project is something else and I would urge anyone vaguely interested in the mostly depressing subject of drug addiction to have a look at episode one which I gather will remain on i-player until the end of May. As you watch, just absorb the fantastic attention to the design detailing of the whole facility and ask yourself if it looks like a drug rehab to you? Having recently been on holiday to Italy, I have to say that their flair and skill in design is something to behold and should put us all to shame back here. This programme shows that good Italian design encompasses more than just the fabric though. A real lift to the spirit!   

Wednesday 4 May 2011

There May Be Trouble Ahead

In order for any democratic society to function peacefully and without feeling the need to resort to violence, there has to be complete confidence in either the fairness of laws and policies or the process by which they can be challenged. Essentially the inherent unfairness of the Community Charge or Poll Tax as it became known, led to the outbreak of mass civil unrest because large parts of society could see no legitimate means by which it could be challenged. 

Am I the only person who can see some very similar parallels with what is happening in Bristol? Here we have the might of Tesco's being able to completely ignore the wishes of a large part of the local population and proceed to open a convenience store, despite months of campaigning and lobbying of the Local Planning Authority. 

Of course it could be said that the democratic process has run its course and the duly elected local representatives on Bristol City Council decided to allow the development to proceed following due consideration of all the facts. The trouble is we all know that Bristol City Council, just like every other Local Authority trying to fight the relentless spread of the supermarket giants, is basically shit-scared of the likes of Tesco's. They simply feel that they can't take the risk of having to fork out council taxpayers money on payment of costs when they will inevitably lose any Planning Appeal. So they just do what all the others have done and concede defeat.

The difference here is that a section of the community has decided to take direct action and attack the premises. Now I don't condone this in any way, just as I did not condone the Poll Tax riots that led to many people being arrested and charged with serious offences. But there is something very seriously wrong with our democratic process when some people feel that the injustices are so great that they have no other option but to commit violent acts. I know there's an argument that says it's just a protest that's been hijacked by the violent anarchists and anti capitalists, but I guess that can be said about almost any contentious issue, march or demo. Underneath I think there is a basic feeling of frustration at what looks to be a very unfair process that many ordinary people feel unable to influence and it's tragic if some become criminalised through direct action against property as a result.

But it strikes me that it may not just be that Tesco can seemingly trample over a community's wishes and manipulate the planning process with impunity. Surely there must be something more about Tesco's that can engender this degree of anger amongst the normally peaceful citizens of suburban Bristol? Could it be connected to the arrogance and smugness with which they recently announced profits of £3.5 billion on the back of policies that effectively trample over many farmers and suppliers?

Could it be the cynical way in which they slipped out the news of more changes to their infamous 'Price Check' scheme aimed at proving they are cheaper than ASDA? The announcement that the scheme was being reduced from double the difference in price to just paying customers the difference was made on the very morning of the Royal Wedding. A classic 'burying' of bad news by Tesco's PR people. The scheme had already been capped at £20 per month when many customers had proved that ASDA was indeed cheaper on many items.

Or is it somehow rooted in history? I just can't help forgetting that it was Dame Shirley Porter, the daughter of founder Jack Cohen and beneficiary of his shareholding, that became Leader of Westminster City Council. You will no doubt recall that she notoriously avoided a bill of £42 million pounds owing to the residents of Westminster as a result of 'gerrymandering' by fleeing to Israel and pleading poverty. I guess that's where the slogan 'every little helps' might have come from.

Apologies if regular readers feel this post is a little 'off subject' and displays some personal animosities. I guess it's a little of both and I blame the recent holidays. Having said that, as I write this, news is coming in that the government are intent on 'scaling back' the degree of involvement by the private sector in supplying public services. Surely such a u-turn can only be as a result of widespread public disquiet and in part illustrated by the recent TUC peaceful march?  


Sunday 1 May 2011

A Grand Day Out

Being somewhat of a Royalist and observer of people, there seemed only one place to be on Friday 29th April. In a world that is so full of cynicism and unpleasantness, it really did prove to be a wonderful antidote and if truth be known not really anything to do with views on republicanism or not. Here in Britain we really don't often seem to celebrate anything, but the mood on Friday was different. Many, many ordinary people from differing backgrounds wanted to party - and they certainly did. I heard someone on tv later in the day call it a 'march back to nostalgia' and there really can't be any other nation that knows how to do that better than us. A day like this gives us all the opportunity to see people in a different light. If you were not actually there it's really difficult to describe the good-humoured fun and banter between strangers packed together for hours and in some cases days. It really does lift the spirit.

In particular it's an opportunity to see our police in a very different light. Eventually getting out of their stab vests and high vis jackets, discarding the radios and batons and putting on proper tunics and white gloves, they seemed much more relaxed and content for an all-too-brief period. Complete with packed lunches in their brown carrier bags, they once again look the benign force of childhood memories. Of course this is entirely why the public will never countenance their routine arming, despite the clarion calls from certain quarters and blogs. Yes the 'heavy mob' were in attendance, complete with a full armoury of weapons, but that is not in anyway inconsistent with a majority unarmed force still wearing centurion helmets. The uniquely British way of policing is still something worth keeping, despite the surprise and horror from some BBC3 tv Police Academy attendees.

During a day like this it's always fun to try and spot famous people. Fortunately this young constable realised who he was addressing when none other than the Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson sidled up for a chat. I can't help noticing though that not even the top man gets a salute nowadays. Very sad, but then I'm getting old and you know what they say about constables looking young. I'll end this experimental attempt at introducing some visuals by passing a comment on 'kettling.' Yes it was fun to pretend that we were all 'kettled' on The Mall, but actually we weren't. Of course we all accepted that for safety reasons it couldn't be a 'free for all' in getting to view the balcony appearance - people would have been killed - the difference is that the reasons were self-evident and any of us had an alternative route if we had wanted to leave the area. I don't think either of these factors apply in 'kettling' proper and for these reasons the policy will have to be reviewed I feel. 

But enough of that. It was just a brilliant day out for people of all ages that ran like clockwork and in complete safety with fun and good humour involving about a million people. That isn't possible in a lot of places and the police were largely responsible for it. I for one am very grateful for that.