Friday 28 September 2012

Heads Roll

So, two executives at G4S have fallen on their respective swords over the Olympic Security scandal, but somewhat amazingly the Chief Executive Nick Buckles so far survives. Apparently the 'independent' report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers said he was 'essential' to the business. Well maybe he is enjoying a stay of execution while he tries to persuade the government to hand over lots more cash under the terms of that breached contract. 

Somewhat belatedly I notice that as a direct result of the Olympic fiasco, Surrey Police have decided to pull out of a major joint outsourcing contract with the West Midlands force and G4S. Potentially this was worth £1.5billion and the decision has been taken despite the recent active words of encouragement from Home Secretary Theresa May. 

Personally I've also been more than surprised at such key contractual obligations being entered into by Police Authorities who only have a few months to go before being replaced by Crime and Police Commissioners. The whole issue of privatisation of police services will be bound to feature during the campaigning period prior to elections in November, with some candidates either being sceptical or full-on hostile to the notion. 

Clearly there is mounting evidence that those in authority are seriously rattled about the privatisation route for public services and the possible consequences if things go 'belly up'. It's a possibility that is just as real for Probation as it is for the Police.     

Thursday 27 September 2012

Sign of Things to Come

I have to say that I share the somewhat ironic observation that the new minister with responsibility for probation is already "calling for tougher community sentences."  As the Bystander Team points out, hardly novel. Actually I'd go further and say it's the usual meaningless soundbite formulated by the MoJ press office for public consumption. 

What is more interesting though is that the MoJ can't even get Jeremy Wright's title right, wrongly describing him as 'Minister for Probation'. He isn't. He is Minister for Prisons and Rehabilitation. Note the not-so-subtle difference. Jonathan Ledger, General Secretary of NAPO says:-

"Jeremy Wright is to be known as the Prisons and Rehabilitation Minister with Probation relegated to a bullet point in his responsibilities. It would appear to be a signal of intent from the new MoJ regime."

"Obviously, the absence of its name insults the Probation Service and all those who work for it by reducing it's status - no matter its proud history of changing lives and protecting the public."  

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Got To Be a Better Way

I've been a bit remiss of late and admit to not having followed diligently the second series of 'The Lock Up' on BBC1. The main reason is it's on a bit late for me, but I did find myself staying awake last night for the last in the current series. Filmed over many months in the custody suite at Priory Road police station in Hull, these films provide some sobering and sometimes harrowing scenes which I suspect most ordinary members of the public remain blissfully unaware of. 

Invariably during night shifts, most of those arrested arrive significantly under the influence of alcohol and the behaviour can range from the amusingly incoherent to the violently uncontrollable. In this particular episode it takes emergency assistance from all available officers in the whole police station to subdue an enormous Pole having a violent fit whilst withdrawing from the effects of alcohol. 

Disturbing to watch though this was, like many others I suspect I found myself most concerned about the young woman carried in whilst still sat in her wheelchair. Suffering from Cerebral Palsy, she is under the influence of alcohol and very well known to the staff. She has been arrested for breaching her ASBO by virtue of behaviour towards her neighbours and proceeds to be abusive and uncooperative throughout the booking-in process. 

When in her cell she finds various ways of drawing attention to herself including wetting herself claiming that she is unable to reach the toilet unaided. Apparently she has a long history of attention-seeking behaviour, hence the terms of her ASBO includes not to contact the emergency services unless there is a real emergency.

This young woman represents a small but extremely challenging group that society seems completely at a loss to know how to deal with. Giving her an ASBO certainly isn't going to do the trick and merely serves to ensure that she will go to prison, in this case for 6 months. What I always find astonishing in such cases is the unwillingness or inability on the part of society to spend a bit of time and effort in trying to find out why? 

Of course in the old days that would have been probation's job, but I bet we washed our hands of her years ago saying things like 'low risk' or 'untreatable.' Sure she would possibly have been  a nightmare to supervise, but you can bet she has a story to tell and she desperately wants someone to listen and take some trouble to try and understand

I know I tend to repeat myself, but it's so bloody obvious to me that the skills of a clinical psychologist would be entirely appropriate in such a case in trying to tease out the underlying issues, but I'm repeatedly told they are too expensive and a Community Psychiatric Nurse would be cheaper. Well a CPN is entirely inappropriate, no matter how cheap, but instead society seems to feel that expensive prison is much more appropriate. 

I might add that the costs and trouble for society will just keep mounting in a case like this because she is going to lose her accommodation either through more lengthy prison sentences, or eviction for bad behaviour. Why is it we can never seem to convince the bean counters that spending some money early on, and on the right things, will not only save money later on, it just might mean that people like this poor tormented and disabled woman could lead a happy and contented life. 

Thank you BBC and 'The Lock Up' for bringing this kind of issue to wider attention.          


Tuesday 25 September 2012

Public Sector Good, Private Sector Bad

So, according to David Skelton of Policy Exchange and writing in today's Guardian, 'public sector good, private sector bad' is a lazy mantra and needs to be replaced with 'competition and localism good, monopoly bad'. He is writing about electronic tagging and making the point that the current monopoly of three private providers is delivering a crap and expensive product, in stark contrast to provision in the United States.

Chris Miller, former Assistant Chief Constable who used to speak for the police on tagging matters seems to agree:-

"What we have been given instead is a sclerotic, centrally controlled, top-down system that has enriched two or three large suppliers, that lacks the innovation and flexibility of international comparators, and that fails to demonstrate either that it is value for money or that it does anything to reduce offending."

Actually I'd go a bit further and say that the present system isn't working at all in that the contractors fail on a regular basis to prosecute breaches. Casual conversations with people tagged as a condition of bail routinely confirm the suspicion held by the police that breaches go unreported. The reason is quite straightforward and it is all to do with money. It costs a contractor a considerable amount to send a representative to court each time, so they often don't bother.

The Guardian 'Comment is Free' article is based on a report 'The Future of Corrections' by the Policy Exchange think tank and in advance of the tagging contracts for England and Wales coming up for renewal next year. G4S was no doubt relieved to have recently won the £13.5 million contract for Scotland and in spite of the huge Olympic contract debacle.     

I love the argument in this report that better value for money could be obtained if tagging services were commissioned locally, 'according to local need' and with supervision handed over to probation. Yes, that's because probation already bear the cost burden of prosecuting breaches when tagging forms part of a community order. I bet contractors would love to just hand over responsibility for all breaches to the public sector, while they pick up the fee.

And what's this nonsense about competition and locally commissioned services?  

"Without our proposed injection and localism, tagging will, for another decade, fail to fulfill its potential to tackle crime and rehabilitate criminals." 

For a graphic example of what can happen with 'local' commissioning, take a look at equipment procurement in the education sector and highlighted in last night's BBC tv Panorama programme. It's utterly shocking to see where government policy on devolving decision making can lead us because schools aren't businesses. 

Oh, and since when was tagging about rehabilitation? How exactly does a tag work its magic on an offender? It's about punishment and restriction of liberty, end of! 

Naturally that cheer leader for private enterprise the CBI are determined to champion the cause for public sector breakup and have also published a report claiming a £22billion saving if more public services are privatised. Whatever, I'm clear that there's ample evidence to support that lazy mantra 'Public sector good, private sector bad.'

Monday 24 September 2012

We Reap What We Sow

I suppose it goes without saying that all politicians are liars, the trick being either not getting found out or failing that, being able to get away with it. What I find most interesting about the now notorious outburst by the government's Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell directed as it was towards the police in Downing Street, was his reaction in the first place. 

All of us who visit prisons on a regular basis are well used to officers wielding their power often seemingly arbitrarily, but we're wise enough to realise that arguing is utterly futile and we just 'grin and bear it'. But if you are by nature a bit of a bully, and I guess Mr Mitchell's school nickname of 'thrasher' gives some indication as to why the prime minister feels his attributes are perfect for the institutionalised role of government Head Bully, your true character just pops out.

Lying seems to be the default position for politicians and clearly Mr Mitchell thinks he can just carry on accusing the 'boys in blue' of lying and hope to get away with it. Not in my experience, and as it happens in this instance I think the officers are being completely truthful.

I think most of us would have realised that coming clean from the outset was the best policy, no matter how toxic the language used, but once again a politician demonstrates those very familiar traits many of our clients possess - poor thinking skills and an unerring ability of not always acting in their own best interests. I would recommend a Thinking Skills Course, or similar.  

Friday 21 September 2012

Psychiatrist or Psychologist?

Why people do things, especially extremely nasty and distressing things, lies at the absolute core of what probation is all about. I think most people would accept that it's only when we fully understand the reasons for certain behaviour that we can begin to help that individual to alter their behaviour and stop reoffending. Indeed this sound principle of trying to understand lies at the centre of our modern criminal justice system and eventually gave rise to the notion of courts routinely requesting Pre Sentence Reports precisely in order to better understand.   

Obviously with experience and training probation officers quickly become adept at this core task, but sometimes the behaviour is so outside 'normal' parameters, it necessitates expert opinion. Unfortunately this is where the problems start, basically because of a widespread failure to understand the difference between psychiatry and psychology. They are very different disciplines, the former concerned with mental health and the latter dealing with abnormalities of thinking. Psychiatrists broadly deal with mental illness, whereas psychologists try to understand what lies behind certain behaviour.

Because every person is unique and thus do not easily fit into 'boxes', so it is with various behaviours. Sometimes it's impossible to decide what expert opinion might be more appropriate in a difficult case, psychiatric or psychological? In an ideal world, in some instances both would be extremely useful, but this is where another problem arises, that of cost. Expert practitioners in both disciplines are very expensive in my experience and thus courts are becoming increasingly loathe to request either, let alone both.

In the recent very sad case of Sarah Louise Catt, having benefited from a psychiatric report that found no evidence of mental illness, we will never know why the sentencing judge 'saw no need to order a psychology report' before handing down a sentence of eight years for what many would regard as a very strange and worrying act. There was much reported from her past to give cause for concern. 

I think in cases like this it is particularly unfortunate because, in my experience at least, it becomes almost impossible to obtain or fund such expert opinion post sentence. Although many prisons have psychology departments, they are mostly staffed by trainees and heavily over-worked generalist supervisors. 

In short, the absence of expert reports at the time of sentence not only robs the sentencing judge of often vital insight into a person's reasoning for committing an act, it also robs future supervising probation officers of the same insight that could greatly assist with the offenders rehabilitation.    

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Social Policy - My Arse!

A glance at the stats shows that another blog has flagged up a post I wrote last week about payment by results entitled Smoke and Mirrors. As is invariably the case with the internet, I found myself inexorably drawn into what this other blog Guerilla Policy is all about. It turns out that it's an initiative to try and stimulate a different way of designing social policy by the novel method of asking people that might be affected, or are in some way involved professionally.

I have to say my immediate reaction is one of immense scepticism, and especially when I learn that 'open policy' is officially endorsed by the current coalition government. You see the track record isn't good and I'm getting older and grumpier all the time. Despite having a strong belief that everyone has the capacity to change, in probation we also have a mantra that says past behaviour is a strong indicator of future behaviour.

Actually, when considerably younger and greener, I held onto the naive belief that because the probation service was so close to the 'frontline', we were able to act as an invaluable conduit straight back to government via the Home Office as to what social policies were and were not working. Clearly I was naive enough to believe that it was a two-way dialogue and not simply a command and control system that has got steadily more powerful under successive governments.

It's quite ironic really as I can't help noticing what store the people behind Guerilla Policy place on the computer as it was precisely the widespread introduction of this device that enabled central control by management to flourish so completely, turning our formerly small and benign Head Office into a vast and sprawling micro-managing command bunker.

Before I get too excited about this supposed new way of developing social policy, I feel I need a few answers to some questions that have been nagging away at me for years. How is it that I can go to the pub with some of my mates and over several pints of the landlords finest we can solve most of this country's pressing social problems? How does knocking down hundreds of thousands of homes do anything for a chronic housing shortage? How does withholding money from a 'failing' school help make things better? How does closing youth clubs assist with teenage delinquency? 

You get the gist. On the day when former housing minister Grant Shapps admits he 'made a mistake' in signing-off thousands of house demolitions in Liverpool illegally, I want to hear some more real explanations and grovelling apologies before I can begin to believe in a better way of making social policy.     

Thursday 13 September 2012


No doubt this morning all of us, and especially those of us involved with the criminal justice system in this country, will be coming to terms with the astonishing revelations from the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and the resulting fulsome apology to the victims families from prime minister David Cameron. 

It will be recalled that all normal judicial processes had failed utterly to get to the truth and it is only because of the tenacity and determination of the victims families that virtually all official bodies felt obliged to finally come clean and hand over 400,000 documents to the Panel. Only the Sun Life Assurance Company refused, along with Liverpool Law Society.  

The full ramifications of the whole sorry saga will continue for years to come, but at least and at last we all have no alternative but to finally appreciate the sheer scale of the disaster and the consequent appalling cover-up by official bodies, most crucially South Yorkshire Police. So I suspect I might not be alone in turning to the police for their reaction.

Not surprisingly the current Chief Constable has been quick to make a fulsome apology, whilst both distancing himself from any knowledge and stating how different things are now. A previous Chief Constable says he did his best to tackle the culture of secrecy, but had no knowledge of the cover-up and smear campaign.

Somewhat understandably, senior officers serving at the time are not available for comment, so we must turn to self-appointed and hugely popular spokespersons for the police such as Inspector Gadget. Normally quick to respond to current issues affecting the police, so far there has been silence. However, I note that less well known The Thinking Policeman has been quick to respond and I commend him/her for that. I quote:-

"The Hillsborough tragedy might be one best left off topic for many but I will say my piece regarding the Bishop of Liverpool's report.

I can understand the demand from the families of victims that they want answers as to how their loved ones died. I can understand that they want to apportion blame. Personally, I don't doubt those that died were totally blameless. They would almost certainly have been in the ground some time before the crush started.

I can understand the concerns about the safety of the ground before the match. I can understand the concerns regarding the emergency response after the crush. To hear that many victims might have survived had they had better medical care must be distressing. I can understand concerns that police officers statements were amended to remove criticism of the police management of the response.

What I do not accept is the key finding of the report that Liverpool fans were not the cause of the disaster. The quest for the truth regarding this incident has now reached Orwellian proportions. It now appears there were no drunken fans: no ticket less fans and the fans have no responsibility for using so much force to push their way into the ground that nearly 100 people were crushed to death.

A society where individuals have no responsibility for their actions and where authorities are now routinely blamed for failing to prevent or manage those actions is a very unhealthy society."

If this is representative of current front line police thinking on what was revealed yesterday, we really do have a much bigger problem than many of us thought. 

PS Since publishing the above, Inspector Gadget has posted his comments and an apology. 


Wednesday 12 September 2012

The Road from Crime

'Nothing works' used to be a saying in probation, but our academic colleagues eventually brought us the 'What Works' agenda. However there's a new term sweeping through our work and that is 'Desistance'. One of the significant academics researching and writing about the theory is Fergus McNeill, Professor of Criminology and Social Work at the University of Glasgow. By the way note the title because of course in Scotland work with offenders is still the responsibility of Social Work departments. 

In addition to writing extensively on desistance theory, Fergus has been largely responsible for obtaining funding for a documentary film entitled 'The Road from Crime'  by Allan Weaver, a Scottish ex-offender turned probation officer and author of 'So You Think You Know Me?'  The film seeks to answer a simple question. 'What can we learn from those former prisoners who have successfully 'desisted' from criminal behaviour and gone straight?'  Amongst others, the film features Bobby Cummines OBE, founder of UNLOCK the National Association of Reformed Offenders. In the film he explains the starting point for his desistance process:-

"I was lucky. I had a good probation officer and a good education officer in prison who said to me 'You're worth more than that' and gave me a bit of belief in myself. And also, in a way being banged up all that time, and seeing people that was kind to me, and there was prison officers as well, and people when I came out that were really supportive of me, and they were just decent people. And I saw the beauty of society, and the beauty of those people in society, 'cause my world was an ugly world. we didn't trust no-one, we injured each other - it was a violent and terrible dark place I was in and life meant nothing. But to see these people that was really there for no other reason than they was nice people - I saw the beauty of society, and I wanted to be part of that beauty. I wanted to be part of that society, not the society I was in."  

For any one interested in the subject, the film is well worth watching. As the blurb says:-

 "Allan finds a fascinating world of ex-prisoner-led mutual aid and activist groups championing a new model of criminal justice practice. Like Allan, many of the ex-prisoners find meaning and purpose in their lives by helping others to avoid the mistakes they made. They might have the answer for tackling the enduring problem of criminal recidivism." 

The full film appears to be available for download here, or alternatively I notice that a free public showing is being organised at Sheffield University on 28th September.


Monday 10 September 2012

Smoke and Mirrors

I notice that the Prison Reform Trust recently published a report 'Out for Good' that essentially makes the very sensible case for encouraging each prisoner to take responsibility for their individual release plans. Who could possibly argue with that? Or indeed the exhortation that government should ensure that all departments and local authorities help provide accommodation, training, alcohol and drug services etc. Blimey, if they did that, we'd all have a chance of being effective!

The Probation Service hardly gets a mention at all, a deliberate act of omission I venture to suggest in order to pander to the current government's well-publicised intention to farm much of it's work out to the private or third sector. Indeed it's noteworthy just how many third sector contributors there are to this report, which of course serves as a very useful showcase at a critical time in terms of government decisions relating to our future. 

Almost as a 'throwaway' suggestion at the tail end of the report is the idea of the government creating a Payment by Result contract centred around prisoners taking responsibility for their re-integration back into society. Apparently prisoners would be asked what agency they felt had been the most help to them, with further commissioning decisions being influenced as a direct result. An intriguing concept, extending as it would the notion of customer satisfaction within the criminal justice system! 

Payment by Results is the coalition government's new wonder answer to everything, in fact just like the Private Finance Initiative was to the last Labour administration. Of course the latter has proved to be an utter disaster, saddling schools and hospitals with massive debts for overly expensive buildings that are now proving impossible to alter due to the terms of the contract. 

When the PbR idea was first floated at HMP Peterborough, I was initially enthusiastic, particularly as the project was aimed at prisoners serving 12 months or less, a group for whom there is no statutory involvement by the probation service. It also envisaged the harnessing of capital provided by charitable groups as a new funding source. But so attractive is the idea proving to politicians as being the next 'magic bullet' that the idea is being rapidly promoted everywhere and before any research as to it's effectiveness is concluded. 

In effect Payment by Results is just a new 'smoke and mirrors' way to run public services. Yet another futile attempt to get more for less and not unlike the barmy dutch auctions for running railways. Go-Ahead is but the latest private train operating company to plead inability to perform under the terms of their contract due to 'changed economic conditions'. Now as it happens, that is precisely why Payment by Results will not work. 

PbR in the criminal justice system is predicated on being able to prove that there is a causal link between agency intervention and a reduction in criminal activity. Just that in itself is a bit of a nebulous construct to prove of course, but assuming something can be fudged, it just might 'work' during a period of falling crime. In such a scenario, all can bask in the glow of claiming that PbR does in fact deliver. The trouble is that all agree crime is actually rising due to the economic downturn. In such circumstances it not only becomes a tad difficult to claim success, it also becomes nigh on impossible to make any money. 

I'm reliably informed that at HMP Armley in West Yorkshire, the much-vaunted first PbR within a public sector prison has comprehensively faltered because all the third sector partners pulled out of the 'beauty' parade, so convinced were they that there was no prospect of making any money at a time of rising crime.          

Saturday 8 September 2012

The Drug War

As I write this, there's only 3 days left according to the BBC i-player website in order to catch the last of the recent run of 'Toughest Place to Be a....' This episode follows a senior nurse from  the A&E department of Royal Preston Hospital as she spends time working in a public hospital in Ciudad Juarez, close to the Mexican US border. 

Apart from having to adjust to working in a casualty department devoid of all the modern equipment common throughout the NHS, nurse Maria Connolly has to come to terms with the relentless flow of human misery that the War on Drugs delivers to the hospital daily. The President of Mexico declared war on the drug cartels in 2006 and as a result in this one city alone, 10,000 people have been killed since 2008.

In heart-rending detail, what this programme makes clear is not only the utter futility of this on-going war, but it's inexorable escalation whereby armed guards not only have to escort ambulances, but also have to be stationed in the hospital itself. Civil society is clearly breaking down in this once pleasant and thriving city with ordinary law-abiding citizens being forced to abandon their lives and move out. 

This story on the BBC website today about a boy turning up at his Mexican school with a loaded gun points to yet another deeply worrying aspect of the War on Drugs, namely that of widespread police corruption. With so much money to be made from the illegal drugs trade, not surprisingly law enforcement officers cannot be trusted. I cannot fail to notice that when police raided the boy's house, his mother was arrested 'but a man had managed to escape'

There simply has to be another, more intelligent way of dealing with the drug issue or the pernicious tentacles of the international drug gangs will simply become ever more widespread, and particularly in a time of economic uncertainty.             

Friday 7 September 2012

You Might Be Interested in....

Having taken the plunge several years ago and bought my first books on the internet from Amazon, I well remember being hugely impressed that regularly thereafter visits to their website always began 'Hello Jim - You might be interested in the following ....' and invariably, as if by magic, I was! 

Yes of course I know it's not magic and just all clever algorithms with past behaviour indicating future behaviour, somewhat spookily reminiscent of probation practice. Anyway, to pinch the idea, I thought I'd point any interested readers in the direction of the Worksforfreedom website and some fairly recent writings by a probation officer of similar vintage who retired in 2010. 

Regular readers might have noticed that Mike Guilfoyle regularly comments on this blog and shares many of my own feelings in relation to the way things have gone. Having regard to what I've been writing recently about recall, I was particularly struck by these words :- 

"I was instructed to take out a breach and subsequent attempts to meliorate this fact appeared to place my 'intransigence' as indicative of what was colloquially referred to in probation service parlance as an 'Old School' ideological resistance to taking enforcement action! Maybe there was a barely sublimated desire to ensure that the straitjacket of National Standards was in the best sense of the word subverted. Especially when nagging doubts arose that skilled professional judgement and the exercise of discretion should so easily be subsumed for bureaucratic convenience. The Probation Service has put its staff and the way it works into boxes, yet those like this young man whose positive behaviour did not fit so neatly into any box had proved that he had the capacity to change. I was always stronger on relationship building than process management when working as a probation officer."

I'll drink to that!

Thursday 6 September 2012

Recall - What's the Problem?

Once again the very popular website Prisoners Families Voices has returned to the thorny issue of recall. There's no question that numbers being recalled to prison for missing probation appointments have rocketed over recent years. A quick glance at the website will show just how strong feeling is about the issue, which on the face of it is surprising because it is quite straightforward. You get released automatically from prison part way through a sentence and one of the licence conditions is to report when required to probation. Missed appointments = recall - simples!  

This has always been the case for as long as I can remember, so what's the problem? Well again a quick glance at the complaints on PFV shows clearly that the reason so many appointments are missed is because the experience is viewed as utterly useless. We all know about the '5 minute interview' when the guy's mate doesn't even turn the engine off. Nothing meaningful can happen during this most fleeting of 'tick box' experiences and I think as a result it's quite understandable that clients say to themselves 'sod that for a game of soldiers - I'll not bother'. 

But that's not all. It's about the way clients are increasingly being treated nowadays by the modern probation service. Time after time the complaints on PFV revolve around endless changes of officer. Ever since the transition from the days when probation officers saw all clients, to the current position whereby they only see high risk cases, a lot of the others have been getting a raw deal in my view from a pool of ever-changing probation services officers. It's not their fault, but management have allowed a situation to develop whereby cases are merely seen as needing to be 'processed' in terms of making sure they report so as to achieve targets, but with little or no encouragement as to anything more constructive. 

I know I could be accused of making sweeping generalisations, but there's no doubt in my mind that for many, particularly low risk clients, the quality of engagement with the service is just not good enough. The complaints on PFV speak for themselves. Common sense says no meaningful work can be undertaken if a client keeps seeing different officers and the focus of attention is merely on just getting them to turn up. In such circumstances I can quite see why clients are disinclined to report than engage in a process that seems pointless. I think I'd be inclined to do the same, so angry would it make me feel.

I'm actually going to go a bit further and suggest that some officers actively strive to encourage non-reporting by subversive behaviour. I find it deeply offensive to be suggesting such a thing, but sadly I have rather too often witnessed the glee with which non-appearance is greeted. Of course recall 'gets shot' of a client for a period. 

So, in essence I feel the complaints being aired fairly regularly on the PFV website are justified and as a result deserve a comment from somebody who represents the Service nationally. Unfortunately I'm not at all sure who that person might properly be. That in itself is an extremely unsatisfactory state of affairs of course. But I'm sure senior people read this stuff on a daily basis, so I wonder if we can tempt any to put their head above the parapet for a response?         

Wednesday 5 September 2012

A New Term

It's September, school is back and politics has resumed. In some people's eyes Prime Minister David Cameron has proved he's not a mouse, ignored his Liberal Democrat colleagues and moved his government further to the right.

It was widely reported that Ken Clarke put up a spirited case for staying as Justice Secretary, but I guess in the end even he had to admit that every innings has to end sometime. It's a shame because there is a case to be made for a degree of continuity in office and Ken was widely respected as a thoughtful minister, refreshingly having absolutely no need for political ambition.

I have to say I know nothing of the new minister Chris Grayling, other than we now have a Lord Chancellor who is not a member of the House of Lords, and the first incumbent who is not a lawyer either. The general feeling seems to be that somewhat ominously he's going to be 'tough on crime'. We've been here before of course and regular readers will be aware that I believe much of the mess we now find ourselves in is the direct result of criminal justice having been treated as a political football in furtherance of the popular vote. Margaret Thatcher did it and so did Tony Blair. This appointment looks unhappily like David Cameron is intending to tread the self same path.

But, somewhat unusually for me, lets try and be positive. For all his good points, Ken Clarke was still intent on shaking the whole of the probation service up and privatising vast chunks of it. However, since he set out on that path, a number of things have changed. G4S, the darling of the security privatisation world, was utterly humiliated by the Olympic contract and Lords reform is now firmly off the agenda.

In the case of the former, politicians and the public suddenly became aware of what might happen if a security company didn't perform for any reason. In dealing with public safety, disaster always lurks around hidden corners and government has to be mindful of a plan B. I wonder what the army would be like as probation officers?

In the case of the latter, history shows us that it is often the unelected Upper House that provides the best, thoughtful debate and effective opposition to crazy government plans, and not the Queen's Loyal Opposition in the House of Commons. Democrats may hate the thought, but if it wasn't for the ermine-clad great and good in the Upper House, many more disastrous pieces of legislation would be on the Statute Books.

The government is poised to announce imminently what is to be done with the probation service following the two consultation exercises put in train by Ken Clarke. Lets hope that new boy Chris Grayling decides to stand back and have a long hard think as to whether it really is a good idea to smash a fine public service such as the probation service and hand it over to private security companies who may or may not deliver according to their contracts.      

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Time for Reflection - Again

To my amazement it's this blog's second anniversary. I'm genuinely surprised because along the way many a time I've struggled with writers block, together with an overwhelming sense of my just repeating myself. But then, typically when I'm down and think it's all been said, something comes along and I can't seem to stop myself just getting it all off my chest.

Of course it's a cliche, but writing has proved to be very therapeutic. I don't know if it's ever apparent, but I often find myself laughing out loud as I type, so empowering does the process feel. The blog has taken me to some surprising places both intellectually and emotionally. Almost without exception the feedback has been both touching and thought-provoking. I can well understand how lonely an author of a book must feel once it's published and all the friends and family have finished feeling obliged to read it and pass comment. It just goes into a big black hole it seems to me, unlike a blog that grows and develops dynamically. The 'hit' counter keeps telling you that someone, somewhere might actually be reading it. With nearly 400 posts, I think I've possibly written that book I didn't think I had in me.

I never really expected to get much in the way of private e-mails, but contact from clients, former clients, relatives of clients, victims, worried and confused individuals together with numerous authors, trainee journalists and other media types has been both revelatory and taxing. It was a serious shock I can tell you to receive an e-mail from a former Chief Inspector of Probation only some twenty minutes after publishing an admittedly complimentary piece about them. Funnily enough, no follow up e-mail was forthcoming when some months later I had a pop at them. 

Actually I've been pondering the whole thing about endorsement and acknowledgement recently - or should I say conspicuous lack of. Considering there is still so little out there on the internet about probation, I think there continues to be a role for an independently-minded contribution from an 'old school' officer like myself. More than ever, I conclude there's plenty of scope for carrying on with an unofficial view of the whole probation landscape, and in contrast to the new breed of officially-sanctioned facebook pages, tweeting and blogging that's trying to influence public opinion. The elephant in the room will be sticking around for a bit longer yet.

Still a relative newbie, I'm extremely gratified to have collected over 140,000 hits in two years - they can't all be friends and family, so thank you once again dear reader, wherever you may be.        

Monday 3 September 2012

Google Searches

It's always fascinating to see what text people are putting into the Google search engine and as a result arrive at this blog. Here are some that caught my eye recently:-

What do probation officers like to hear?

That's very easy to answer - the truth. I once had a very difficult denying life sentence murderer who kept on saying "How will you know when I'm telling the truth?" I used to say in reply - "I just will. Try me and see!" In my experience the truth is fairly easily spotted and only when we know the whole story can we be of any real help.

Coping mechanism on probation

What do you need a 'coping mechanism' for? We've heard it all before. Virtually nothing will shock or surprise, so just relax, answer our questions and co-operate. Remember, there is always the possibility of early discharge and you never know when you might be seeing us again in the future and really need our help if your plans for a crime-free life go awry for any reason.  

Excuses for probation officer

My advice is invariably don't try excuses as we've heard them all, including the sudden and unexpected death of relatives, in the absence of some compelling supporting evidence that is. It's not that we're heartless, we're just suspicious and get funny feelings at the back of our necks when being told rubbish.

Funny stuff to say to your probation officer

Well I don't recommend pissing them about as that's almost certainly going to be counter-productive. Flirting or just being a smart arse falls into the same category. As to making them laugh, you could always try anything that begins "I was thinking about what you said last time, and have decided to:- stop drinking/go straight/pay my rent/stop hitting people/never use drugs again." That sort of thing said out of the blue might raise a hollow laugh, especially if said without any effort at faking sincerity. I once overheard something that made me laugh. One client to another in reception "Of course most of 'em are wankers, but he's ok."    

How can I change my probation officer?

Always a good one this - "with the greatest difficulty!" There seems to be a myth amongst prison staff especially that any prisoner who feels they haven't got a good probation officer, can just request another. Not so, as such requests are usually dealt with in the context of the prisoner attempting to be manipulative. There are always exceptions however, for instance a female prisoner requesting a female officer. So-called 'personality clashes' get short shrift and in my experience no amount of campaigning through MP's or Home Secretary in the old days proved successful.

Are probation officers mean?

A very good question. Until relatively recently, we all had access to a sum of money called the Befriending Fund and sums up to £10 could be dispersed entirely at an officers discretion and without prior management approval. This could be for food or travel other than in relation to reporting for instance. Larger sums were routinely provided following discussion with a manager and for example often paid for a nights bed and breakfast in an emergency. I guess it goes without saying that this funding facility was an extremely useful 'tool' at our disposal and encouraged good working relationships between client and officer. Needless to say it was abandoned when it was felt it did not sit well with us becoming less welfare-orientated. Even so, when I started it was routine for officers to disperse other sums from their own pocket, and my hunch is that this practice may continue, but as far as I know is never discussed publicly. My feeling is that it is not good practice. 

Sunday 2 September 2012

More on Sex Offending

The Archbishop of Canterbury's recent announcement concerning child sex abuse in the Diocese of Chichester will have surprised many, including professionals, not least because we all thought every public body had well-established procedures in place for safeguarding children. I guess the Church of England thought that as well, until that is the findings of this internal report made their way to Lambeth Palace. 

The inquiry by the Archbishop of Canterbury's office concluded that the West Sussex diocese has "an appalling history" of child protection failures, with "fresh and disturbing" allegations continuing to emerge.

It is to be hoped that this situation is far from typical and Church authorities must be absolutely dreading the uncovering of similar and widespread systemic failures to that found in the Roman Catholic Church. In an unprecedented move, and no doubt in order to send a signal through the whole Church, Lambeth Palace will now oversee clergy appointments and the protection of all children and vulnerable adults in the diocese amid concerns that safeguarding procedures remain "dysfunctional." 

The report went on to say that the abuse had been made worse by the "very slow" way the diocese recognised concerns and failed to act with "rigour and expedition". This is the key point for me really. Yes the inquiry found that, despite it being Church policy to have every cleric CRB-checked every 5 years at least, 138 hadn't. But this is a red herring in my view and merely a bit of a bureaucratic sop to the public.

It's obvious that CRB checks are out-of-date as soon as issued and reliance on this procedure alone can encourage a false sense of security. In the final analysis, everyone in any organisation involved with children or vulnerable adults has a legal and professional duty to be alert to any behaviour that is worrying or inappropriate, and act immediately.   


Saturday 1 September 2012

Methadone Deaths

The Office for National Statistics have recently published figures for drug-related deaths and although those for heroin show a marked decline, somewhat bizarrely those connected to the so-called treatment have rocketed. The 2011 figures for heroin or morphine overdoses were 596, compared to 791 in 2010. In 2008 there were nearly 900. 

According to the ONS, these figures reflect a reduction in the total number of hard drug users in the UK, together with a 'heroin-drought'. This shortage, caused mostly by poor weather conditions in Pakistan and disruption of supplies from Afghanistan, has led to heroin supplies drying up on the street and made finding any of high quality extremely difficult. 

Conversely, if the disease is not killing people, the treatment certainly is. Methadone deaths have risen from 355 in 2010 to 486 in 2011. It will be recalled that the Chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Dr Clare Gerada, recently re-assured Russell Brand in his tv documentary that methadone prescribing was 'the gold standard' in drug treatment. In reality it's just a cheap treatment option and many people tell me much harder to withdraw from than heroin.

As an aside, I found it fascinating how the discovery of the substance came about in 1937 as a result of a German military search for an opiate substitute. It will be noted that they decided not to use the substance due to the significant number and character of side-effects, a situation confirmed to me on a regular basis by current users. 

PS Since publishing the above, I've been looking around further on the subject and found this response to an article in the British Medical Journal from 2009. In addition to highlighting just how dangerous methadone is, the author mentions something I was loathe to as possibly being in bad taste. They ponder the possible perverse incentive of such a treatment policy "as death is without doubt a drug free state."