Wednesday 31 October 2012

A Circular Argument

I can't help noticing that since gaining release, Ben Gunn is stirring up quite a lively debate about imprisonment over on his blogsite, whilst trying to deal with the inevitable trolls at the same time. This was always going to be a tricky exercise for any of us trying to put a slightly more nuanced angle on the age-old argument 'does prison work?'  I know, because I've tackled the issue once or twice myself, as here in December 2010 and entitled 'So, Does Prison Work?  

Actually in his recent piece Ben has brought up a specific topic I've been meaning to cover more thoroughly since briefly mentioning it here on 'Protecting the Public'. It's an organisation called Circles of Support and Accountability. As he says, the concept has it's roots in Canada as a faith-led community response to sex offenders who were serving long prison terms, but amazingly being released back into the community without support or supervision.

Sex offenders in particular are often highly isolated individuals lacking both social skills and legitimate community contacts. The idea is that each offender is offered the chance to have a small group of carefully selected volunteers, usually about six, and they form a 'circle' around that person through their time in prison and on into release back into the community.

As the name indicates, they not only offer support but accountability as well. In other words it's an additional level of supervision that is encouraged to continue long after any statutory involvement by probation or police ends. Unfortunately, as their website makes clear, the continuing Jimmy Saville revelations is leading to some public misunderstanding as to the charity's focus on preventing further offending, as well as support for former perpetrators.

It will be obvious that Circles is not a 'magic bullet' solution as it can only ever be considered an option where an offender fully admits culpability and is willing to entertain changes in their attitude and behaviour towards offending. I don't want to unduly depress readers, but in my experience this sadly renders Circles inappropriate in many cases as levels of denial amongst sex offenders as a group is significant. Equally in my view it cannot replace imprisonment as a punishment, but can play a major part in effective rehabilitation where an offender accepts their offending and is willing to cooperate.

Having said that, Circles is proving beyond doubt that this restorative justice concept is a good one for the right offender and reconviction rates are remarkably low for those who have been part of the pilot projects so far. Without doubt it is an idea that will develop, possibly into other areas of offending and it is being enthusiastically supported by all relevant criminal justice agencies.

This shouldn't really surprise us as the underlying ethos is completely in accord with the humanitarian and religious principles that gave rise to the probation service in the first place. Here in the UK it's particularly noteworthy that Circles enjoys the very active support of the Society of Friends - or Quakers to you and me.          

Tuesday 30 October 2012

What a Wonderful World

A letter in The Guardian recently caught my eye. It was from a group of academics at Swansea University quoting their research that demonstrated a convincing link between the skill of a probation officer and the reconviction rates of those being supervised. 

Absolute music to my ears, but even I'm not sure how typical Jersey offenders are, or indeed their small but dedicated team of officers. In an ideal world, if you were setting out to prove such an interesting hypothesis, wouldn't you choose a slightly larger and dare I say challenging Service to look at?  

However I did enjoy a good root around the website for Jersey Probation and After Care Service - when did you last hear the term aftercare? - and it was pure nostalgia! They are still called probation officers not offender managers, have 'clients' not 'offenders' and are still appointed as Officers of the Court. Many are social work trained and the whole Service is a blissfully OASys-free zone.

Social Enquiry Reports - yes remember them - are still written in the time-honoured way that no doubt tells a coherent story and that allows the character of both the author and subject to shine through. Oh I'm going all misty-eyed just at the thought of what life was like before OASys ruined everything. To be honest I am so envious of these officers who do not have to waste so much valuable time filling in all that computer crap. No wonder they have time to work their magic!

Please also note that Community Service is still just that and there's not an orange tabbard in sight as those sentenced labour on socially useful and imaginative projects. There is a Restorative Justice system with a 100% satisfaction rate and Youth Justice is still part of the Service. Even prisoners are allocated an officer at six months, not the usual 12 months back here on the UK mainland. 

It all seems so surreal - a Chief for a Service that in total might fill a smallish room and is allowed to jet off round the world to places like Norway and Australia in order to spread the word of probation, Jersey-style. What a wonderful world we live in!     

Monday 29 October 2012

Nice Work if You Can Get It

The Work Programme is a government flagship policy and can't really be allowed to fail. After all it was only last week that new Justice Secretary Chris Grayling was citing the fantastic success of the payment by results scheme as reason for rolling it out as fast as possible across the whole criminal justice sector. 

Unfortunately for him and the government though, Channel 4 News have got wind of the fact that it isn't working. It would appear that A4E have come no where near their minimum target of a 5.5% success rate in getting people into work on the programme. In fact it seems that, despite being paid handsomely with taxpayers money, they actually did worse than if people were just left to their own devices in order to find their own job. 

In what can only be described as a disastrous interview on Channel 4 News last Wednesday, former managing director Emma Harrison could only repeat endlessly that 'the figures are wrong' without being able to quote any correct ones. 

She was clearly unprepared for the interview and I can only assume that the current management team must have been collectively hiding behind the sofa, hoping it was all a bad dream. In what was a public relations nightmare, as majority shareholder, it turns out that she has rewarded herself a further £250,000 dividend payment since stepping down.  

Now there is a very well-known saying that 'bad figures always take longer to add up' so I think it can be safely assumed that much midnight oil is being burnt at DWP HQ in order to put as much positive spin as possible on some very crap numbers due for release shortly.           

Friday 26 October 2012

Time to Register a Spoilt Vote

My piece the other day entitled 'A Dogs's Breakfast' about the impending farcical election for Police and Crime Commissioners seems to have struck a chord, well certainly with my mates in the pub. As we all know, major issues of the day are widely discussed in such institutions, where still available, and my suggestion to spoil ballot papers on November 15th was enthusiastically received.

If my circle of friends and acquaintances can be deemed as in any way typical of other people nationwide, despite the arrival of the government leaflet, there remains widespread ignorance as to what PCC's are all about and whether spending up to £100,000 on each one was a good idea or not. There is particular anger that absolutely no information about the candidates will be forthcoming and it can only be found online or as a result of telephone enquiry.

Well it emerges that the same young policy wonks that thought up the whole barmy idea at the Tory Party think tank Reform have some more brilliant ideas as to how the remit of Police and Crime Commissioners can be extended into other areas of public life. According to their latest report, they are suggesting that PCC's are given authority over commissioning probation, fire and ambulance services. They see this as a brilliant opportunity to extend the privatisation of all these services. 

There is only one way in which we, the Electorate, can register our disdain for this whole sad miserable piece of political gimmickry and that is by taking the unprecedented step of spoiling our ballot papers en masse. 

Wednesday 24 October 2012

The Legacy

Barely a year following his death, Jimmy Savile's fall from grace has been swift and spectacular. The massive headstone has gone to landfill, the commemorative plaques and road signs have been removed, the statue will not now be commissioned and his charities are being wound up.

The truth is finally out that the idiosyncratic national treasure, a charismatic but immensely irritating loner, was probably one of the most prolific child sex abuser's of all time. It turns out that he fooled us all, but at the same time we are now beginning to appreciate that all the worrying signs were there and remarkably he did little to hide them. 

Certainly over the years Jimmy has been the subject of much discussion and speculation amongst colleagues, usually in the pub. It just didn't seem to add up. An adult male, much of who's professional time was focused on children, but who's private life remained a mystery. I don't recall there ever being any evidence of close adult sexual relationships either male or female. Despite our concerns, lengthy discussions always resulted in the acknowledgement that seemingly nothing untoward had ever surfaced. Equally, there'd been none of the usual celebrity 'kiss and tell' revelations. 

We now know that Jimmy Savile was typical of many child sex offenders in his ability to target vulnerable children and groom them, confident in the belief that he could cover his tracks because they would be too scared to speak up, or be believed. It's now becoming all too tragically clear that, as with many sex offenders, a great deal of time and effort was expended on long-term planning in order to position himself with trusted access to children and vulnerable young adults. 

Disturbingly, it now puts into perspective the true motivation for the unorthodox charitable involvement both at Broadmoor Special Hospital and Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit. In addition I must say I was completely unaware of his earlier involvement with an Approved School for girls. The fact that there is emerging evidence of sexual assaults on both boys as well as girls, together with members of his close family, means that he ranks amongst the most dangerous of predatory sex offenders. 

Classically it would seem that part of the reason that he remained unexposed was his use of threats and rewards. Newspapers and nosey journalists were threatened either with legal action or the fact that his considerable charity work would be jeopardised. Family members were silenced through the implied threat of largesse drying up in the form of gifts including houses. All these traits of manipulation, scheming, obfuscation, minimising and denial are extremely familiar to those of us who work with sex offenders. They are without doubt a very challenging type of offender for us and emotionally draining.            

It's going to take some time for the full extent of Savile's offending to be established, but the true and unexpected legacy is that the whole subject in now up for discussion and victims at last feel empowered to come forward with their stories, confident that they will be listened to. I don't just mean victims of Jimmy's unwanted attentions either. As reported by the BBC today, all charities working in this field are seeing an unprecedented increase in people making contact.

For far too long there's been a cynical view in some quarters that a number of people were coming forward to make historical claims of sexual abuse, particularly in children's homes, out of a motivation for compensation. This completely fails to understand the trauma involved in deciding to talk about past abuse. The huge step in facing up to the unwarranted feelings of shame and being able to cope with the pain that inevitably forms part of the process. In my experience it is a process never entered into lightly or vexatiously.

Any probation officer can vouch for the long-term harm and emotional damage that can be caused by abuse. Sadly it's a common aspect of many of our clients backgrounds and for some victims they never get over it and self-harming, retreat into drugs or alcohol dependency become normal. Suicide is not uncommon.  

The whole sad and unfolding Jimmy Savile story serves to confirm much of what we in probation know all too well. Sexual abuse is far more widespread than society is so far willing to accept. It features in all sectors of society and at all levels. Of necessity it is hidden and not a subject for polite conversation. There are victims everywhere and we must be prepared to listen to people if they feel the time is right to talk about their experiences. There are going to be lots more historic cases coming before the courts and some famous names. This is the somewhat surprising, but true Jimmy Savile legacy.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

A Dog's Breakfast

For those not familiar with the expression, I'm grateful to the Urban Dictionary for the following explanation:-

"dog's breakfast," which has been British slang for "a complete mess" since at least the 1930s. While no one took the time to write down the exact origin of the phrase, the allusion involved seems to be to a failed culinary effort, perhaps a burned or botched omelet, fit only for consumption by the mouth of last resort, Fido. As a vivid figure of speech meaning something so fouled up as to be utterly useless, "dog's breakfast" can cover anything from a play plagued by collapsing scenery to a space mission ruined by a mathematical error. 

Just as we're all coming to terms with the inevitable approach of the 'festive' season, voting cards are beginning to drop through our letter boxes. Surely there must be some mistake - an election in November? - we never have elections in November - it's far too cold, dark and damp for that, and besides we had elections in May as usual. So what the hell is this all about?

Well, it seems that some young policy wonks in a think tank thought it would be a jolly good idea to make the police more 'accountable' by replacing Police Authorities with directly-elected Crime and Police Commissioners. For some completely unaccountable reason, the Tory Party thought it was a jolly good idea too and so on November 15th we will be electing PCC's who, amongst other things, will have the power to hire and fire Chief Constables. 

Included in a rag bag of other powers, they will be able to draw up a 'policing plan' and be given responsibility for victim services. There are dark mutterings that their powers might be extended to involve other probation functions as well. About the only positive aspect of this whole ridiculous idea in my view is that some candidates might stand on a platform of refusing any notion of large scale privatising of police or probation functions. This is contrary to government policy of course.  

Basically the whole idea has all the hallmarks of a 'back of a fag packet' half-baked political wheeze and my guess is that with only three weeks to go, most of the population remain in blissful ignorance as to who or what they are being asked to vote for in November. The tv adverts that have started appearing won't help either. Scenes of young people committing mindless acts of vandalism just serve to remind us that it's the job of the police to deal with that sort of thing and how exactly will paying £100,000 per annum for an extra bureaucrat help?

21 million leaflets will be dropping through our letter boxes this week as well, hopefully making clear what the whole sad sorry idea is all about, but don't expect any details about the candidates because there won't be any. The government has decided that it's a 'do-it-yourself' task. If you want to know which sad failed politician or wannabe control freak has stumped up £5,000 to stand, you have to look it up for yourself on the internet.   

So, at vast expense in running a special election in November when the turnout will be derisory, voters will be asked to express two preferences for people they've never heard of, to do a job that they don't understand. It makes an absolute mockery of the democratic process. For the first time ever, I'm hearing responsible mature citizens say that they intend to spoil their ballot paper as an act of civil disobedience and in order to register their disdain for this whole miserable political gimmick.

To be honest I think this is a more honourable option than that proposed by Sir Ian Blair the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner who has publicly suggested boycotting the election. No doubt he still feels very sore about being forced into resigning by Boris Johnson the Mayor of London who famously stated that he couldn't work with him. The trouble with boycotting is that it inevitably becomes confused with apathy.     

I'm angry not apathetic about this and for the first time ever I think I'm going to join the small but growing army of 'spoilers'.  It won't have any effect of course, but it just might make us all feel better. At least when the time comes to scrap the whole barmy concept and it becomes another small footnote in the history of failed political ideas, we can say we had no part in it from the beginning, but that we had at least registered our views in some positive way. 

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Shit Happens

Continuing my theme of what the possible consequences might be for the probation service if large chunks of it were privatised, my attention has been drawn to another piece of investigative journalism by the BBC.

As a result of a Freedom of Information request to the Care Quality Commission by the Inside Out team, it transpires that 217 companies supplying care staff in peoples homes have failed to carry out any CRB checks on staff. They also failed to check if any of these employees had been disqualified by relevant professional bodies and therefore were not deemed as 'suitably qualified' as required by the relevant legislation. 

The CQC also found examples of employees that had criminal convictions, but were working unsupervised and without having been risk-assessed. Apparently Care Minister Mr Lamb described the findings as "deeply disturbing" and said that care providers "obviously" needed to be held to account by the Care Quality Commission. But he stressed individual failings did not mean "the whole system has failed." He went on "Inevitably, in all walks of life, sometimes things go wrong."  

Now I absolutely love that last bit! Things do indeed go wrong sometimes and in our line of work people can get seriously injured or killed as a result. I do hope the responsible minister can think of something rather more nuanced to say than 'shit happens' when private contractors are supervising high risk probation cases and it goes horribly wrong. Believe me, the resulting media storm is simply unremitting and unforgiving, so it's to be hoped that any private contractors are well prepared for the inevitable negative publicity.  

On a slightly different tack, I was bemused to see Emma Harrison of A4E giving an in-depth interview at the weekend in the Sunday Times. It would seem that she feels to have been unfairly treated by politicians and the media and is still smarting from the experience of being forced to resign. She just doesn't seem to understand that the public are not going to take kindly to her living the high life courtesy of huge government contracts, trousering dividends of £8.5million in one year, and all as allegations of fraud filter to the surface by her staff. But then shit happens, doesn't it? 

Monday 15 October 2012

Looney Tunes

Having recently returned from a few days abroad, I've only just caught up with what the new 'tough' Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the party faithful in Birmingham last week. It seems that politicians just can't resist the temptation of talking 'tough on crime' when things are not going well for them. 

Ken Clarke's 'rehabilitation revolution' is no more. All community sentences will have a 'punitive' element and there's to be a new hard line "two strikes and you're out" automatic life sentence for rapists and other violent criminals who commit a second serious offence. Somewhat bizarrely, the Home Secretary Theresa May announced a return to a Medieval approach to sentencing whereby the victims of anti social behaviour can select the punishment to be meted out in cases that don't go to court:-

"They will be given a list of options," said May. "They might want something restorative or punitive. They might want it to be carried out nearby or as far away as possible. But what matters is that the punishment will be chosen by the victim."

Possibly not the stocks, birching or flogging, but I guess it's early days yet for this novel so-called 'community remedy' criminal justice initiative. Apparently it's going to be organised by that other barmy development, the Police and Crime Commissioner. It's all a terrible accident waiting to happen and my guess is that the whole sad fiasco will end up being nothing but a small footnote in history, common sense having by then happily returned.  

Damien Green, the new policing minister, neatly summed up the new policy approach with a quip in very poor taste:-

"Theresa used to say she locked 'em up and Ken let them out. Now Theresa locks 'em up, and Chris throws away the key."

I'm sure such sentiments will be well received by the likes of the Daily Mail and Inspector Gadget, but it's scary stuff, so scary in fact that a group of mostly academics have at last broken cover and responded in a letter to The Guardian yesterday:-  

"Grayling correctly listed the factors contributing to offending behaviour. An over-focus on punishment, however, creates an unintended consequence - people tend to continue offending. Real results are obtained from rehabilitation and reintegration. In contrast, a disproportionate emphasis on custodial sentences is both expensive and ineffective, with political rhetoric along such lines doing little to protect the public, while alienating further those in most need of better integration into society, and making the rehabilitation of offenders more difficult."

Announcing themselves as the newly formed Independent Probation Alliance, and noting that probation wasn't mentioned once in Grayling's speech, all the signatories are well respected voices within the criminal justice field who will no doubt become a little more vocal as the fight for the future of probation and common sense gathers pace.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Highway Robbery

Strictly speaking I suppose I've been straying a bit more than usual from my probation remit, but I don't feel like apologising. The government have signalled their intention of speeding up the privatisation of core probation tasks and it annoys me greatly.

In view of this, I think it's only fair to examine what the track record looks like where the private sector have already taken over. Are there really cost savings and greater efficiencies to be had, or is it just plain political ideology and dogma, coupled of course with opportunities for some people to get rich? 

Somehow I feel in need of a bit of a roundup, just to serve as a reminder. From memory and my own sphere, there was the Mitie fiasco over their contract to supply maintenance and cleaning services to the probation estate. Then there was the well publicised case of the poorly-performing national contract for translation services to HM Courts and Tribunal Service. 

The contracts for prisoner escort haven't exactly run entirely smoothly and there is scant evidence of private contractors being able to run prisons either more cheaply or better than HM Prison Service. On top of all this, there has been recent widespread criticism of the cosy cartel of two electronic tagging contractors G4S and Serco as their contracts come up for renewal. I'm sure there must be other examples, but I did say this was from memory.

Looking at other areas, I'm reminded of the recent knowledge that surfaced from a Freedom of Information request I believe about the Train Operating Companies. Apparently they are on to a nice little earner whereby they pocket tens of millions of pounds from state-owned Network Rail, paid out in respect of train delays, but the vast majority of which is not passed on to passengers

On the same theme, it's emerged from a BBC Radio 5 live investigation that motorists are beginning to get bills from private contractors in respect of alleged damage to motorways. Sometimes amounting to many thousands of pounds, it seems that when challenged for evidence, these bills either miraculously disappear, or are drastically reduced. According to the programme, the reason this is happening is as a result of a much 'leaner' contract process.

What beats me is, why did anyone think you can get more for less under privatisation without it having an effect somewhere?      

Monday 8 October 2012

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

According to Alan Travis writing in The Guardian on Thursday, new Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is 'tearing up' Ken Clarke's proposed community punishment reforms and will use his speech at the Tory Party conference this week to prove his credentials as a 'tough' minister. Apparently he intends to 'put some bite' into the proposals, with a more punitive element in the community sentences handed out to 220,000 offenders each year. 

Not a great surprise given his track record and always a sure sign that politicians are in trouble when they start 'talking tough on crime.' He is also going to announce an 'acceleration' in proposals to privatise significant chunks of core probation work, together with more prisons. It's widely expected that disgraced G4S and Serco will be the main beneficiaries of this multi-million pound bonanza.

Now the public, and politicians of all persuasions, have come to be very familiar with the short-comings of G4S, but what about Serco? Well interestingly this story has recently emerged about their contract in Cornwall supplying out-of-hours GP services. It has admitted to providing the NHS with false performance data on 252 occasions. 

Apparently the commissioning PCT had become concerned following an investigation by The Guardian and triggered by several whistleblowers. I love this bit, the PCT was obviously so concerned that it 'asked Serco to audit itself.' Anyway they decided it was best policy to 'come clean' and admit to the fiddling of the figures. The PCT was so concerned, they asked the Care Quality Commission to investigate and amongst other things found that Serco was failing to meet four key legal requirements to provide enough staff and to ensure its monitoring of its performance was accurate. The CQC also reported staff as saying "data manipulation went back four years or more".

The article states that Margaret Hodge, chair of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee feels that the issue of fraudulent behaviour is so serious that she has asked the National Audit Office to investigate.

Readers will recall that Serco was the successful bidder for the London Community Payback contract in partnership with the London Probation Trust. They are also destined to be preferred bidders for other bits of probation that Chris Grayling wants to privatise.    

Sunday 7 October 2012


I suspect everyone who has become aware of the case will have been touched in some way by the extensive and on-going efforts to find missing little April Jones. More than ever, a desperately sad story like this serves as a stark reminder of some very difficult and challenging aspects of this job.

Now that someone has been charged with abduction, murder and attempting to pervert the course of justice, almost certainly a probation officer will be allocated right from the first Magistrates Court appearance. In an ideal world this person will follow the case right through trial to possible conviction and beyond in order to gain as much background information as possible, given the potential for a Life Sentence.

It tends to be forgotten that in addition to supervising offenders in the community, the probation service is involved in every case where imprisonment is greater than 12 months. More particularly probation officers are involved in every serious case, no matter how notorious or heinous the crime, and right from conviction. To put it mildly, this can be very taxing and stressful as they seek to challenge and endlessly search for the answer to the questions what, when and most importantly, why? 

I've always taken the view that it is good practice to 'pair' officers in extremely difficult cases both for mutual support and continuity in recognition of an increasingly fluid and mobile work force. In view of cutbacks, I know this policy has been largely cast aside, but in my view is a most unwise development, not just professionally, but also in terms of looking after the welfare of staff.  

Saturday 6 October 2012

Lies, Damned Lies and Figures

We are told that the reason for three civil servants being suspended at the Department for Transport in relation to the rail franchising scandal is 'an unacceptable error' in preparing the figures. 

Now I don't know about you, but I've always had a tendency to treat figures with a pinch of salt, working on the premise that if it doesn't sound or feel right, it probably isn't. Actually I tend to apply this philosophy to virtually all aspects of life and it seems to serve me well. If the first couple of gulps of beer don't seem right, it's probably off. If the deal seems too good to be true, you can bet it is. If the guy's story sounds unconvincing, it probably is. Of course this scepticism is particularly valid if you are being sold a particular line, or figures are being used to try and support a particular policy or political stance.

I decided not to watch the BBC1 Panorama programme a few weeks ago about older people drinking too much, probably because it was too close to home and would depress me. Apparently 1.4 million older people are drinking too much, but it was said that the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol would result in 50,000 less deaths over a ten year period amongst this group. 

Now we are bombarded with facts and figures on a daily basis, normally with some kind of political motivation behind them. Mostly they go in one ear and out the other, seemingly correct because, well we heard them via the media of various sorts and if published, surely they must be correct or at least not easily open to challenge? After all very intelligent people in government or universities have compiled them, that's what we pay these people for. 

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to have discovered the following disclaimer on the BBC website:-

"Correction 28 September 2012: The main figure in this story has been amended from 50,000 to 11,500 after it emerged that there had been an error in the calculations carried out for Panorama by the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield."

Now that is one hell of an admission to have to make and completely alters the thrust of the argument. Apparently the 'error' only came to light when challenged by a knowledgeable member of the public. One really has to wonder just how many other dodgy figures we are being fed on a daily basis.  

Many years ago I well remember having very heated arguments with my father-in-law about the supposed benefits of nuclear energy. Working as an engineer for the then nationalised Central Electricity Generating Board, he used to produce loads of facts and figures to prove how much 'cheaper' nuclear generated electricity was. So cheap in fact that when The Queen opened the first station at Calder Hall, it was seriously suggested that there would be little point in metering.

Of course we now know how ludicrous those assertions were, not least because nobody ever had the foresight or insight to raise the thorny issue of the future enormous decommissioning costs that would vastly exceed the costs of construction. There was a political imperative to build nuclear in order to obtain fissile material for nuclear weapons, but it was sold to us on the basis of a dodgy economic argument. 

And so it remains to this day, figures seemingly 'proving' how much cheaper things can be done by the private sector. You see where this post is going. Cheer-leader for the business community the CBI recently published a report entitled Open Access claiming that "opening up public service delivery to independent providers ....could achieve savings of £22.6 billion, or more." 

Not surprisingly there is widespread scepticism of such a claim and particularly the lack of transparency of the process that provided such a startlingly large figure. The GuerillaPolicy website have taken issue with this and explain:-

"For such a big claim, the research has a fairly simple methodology. The researchers (Oxford Economics) looked at 20 different service areas to determine the average cost savings from greater efficiency and productivity from outsourcing (a figure of at least 11 per cent, within a range of 10-20 per cent); applying the same calculations across the estimated £278 billion of public services which the CBI believes could be fully ‘opened up’ produces potential savings from outsourcing of £22.6 billion."

"As the CBI’s report notes, we are in the middle of the biggest wave of government outsourcing since the 1980s, with more than £4 billion in tenders being negotiated in 2012 alone in services ranging from prisons and police to defence and health. Given this, we need much more robust and reliable research about the benefits and the problems that outsourcing more public services would produce – before we outsource these services (perhaps irreversibly). The research commissioned by the CBI may or may not be a useful contribution to this analysis; the problem is that because of the report’s own lack of transparency, it’s very difficult for us to know."


Friday 5 October 2012

I Want to Tell You a Story

A couple of years ago a good friend of mine decided on a career change having spent well over 25 years in the same branch of the retail industry. They had good interpersonal skills and eventually found themselves on a 2 year fixed term contract with the Department of Work and Pensions and on the front line of a busy Job Centre.

Moving from the private to the public sector provided a very favourable contrast in pay, pension and working conditions generally, but many of the permanent staff were found to be lazy, lacking in motivation, unsympathetic to 'customers' and morale was low generally. Despite the temporary influx of 'fixed-termers' serving to highlight the negative attributes amongst many of the time-served civil servants, and excelling in 'service delivery', there was no scope to add the best of the temporary staff to the permanent payroll.

So, having decided that working with the problematic long-term unemployed was extremely rewarding, my friend had no alternative but to seek employment with one of the many private contractors delivering firstly New Deal and latterly the Work Programme for the DWP. As a consequence this person has returned to an environment of considerably less pay, as yet no pension and a bullying-style of management that is utterly target-driven. Interestingly, significant numbers of the staff were found to have exactly the same negative characteristics as at the DWP.  

Despite this, my friend remains resolutely focused on the needs of the individual. Many are former or current probation clients with multiple welfare needs both emotional and practical that must be addressed before there is any hope of them being even remotely employable. As I have discussed on numerous previous occasions, probation doesn't 'do' welfare any more, and these issues don't figure highly by target-driven private companies paid only by results. 

But, as a dedicated work coach, this person has discovered these are real people with real needs and they respond to patient, focused support and guidance as they are gently edged towards having the confidence to firstly think about getting a job and then practical help with the wherewithal to actually get a job. It takes many months of patient work, social work in many cases, but surprise, surprise, it pays off. 

But effectively it has to be done covertly because clearly there's no money and hence time allowance for what this person is doing under the current Payment by Results regime. They have to work doubly hard, driven by a very old-fashioned vocational ethos so reminiscent of probation when I started. Confirmation of this came recently when it was announced that several charity Work Programme providers have gone bust for precisely this reason.  

Every good story has a moral. Some things are simply best done by the public sector, but that sector must be well trained, well managed, paid fairly and motivated.       

Thursday 4 October 2012

Business Opportunities

I'm feeling particularly irritable at the moment and a glance at the Greater Manchester Probation Trust website just makes matters worse. Their news section excitedly informs us that GMPT recently participated in the 12th annual Criminal Justice Management conference in London:-

Greater Manchester Probation Trust (GMPT) is participating in two seminars and will be marketing its innovative programmes team and research department. Lyndy Geddes, GMPT's commercial director, said the event provides the Trust with an excellent opportunity. She said 

"GMPT boasts a number of newly developed programmes that are at the cutting edge of offender management, and we are extremely proud of the Interventions' Team and the work it is producing. I firmly believe that what has been developed by Interventions offers the best in courses aimed at tackling offending behaviour, therefore showcasing what we have created at this event will help grow our business and mark us out as a leader in our field. We all know the next 12 months represents something of a watershed for probation, but as the government's changes develop it will create a competitive environment in which we can succeed and flourish."

I guess this sort of typical imitative business-speak is going to flourish in the coming months as Trusts try and outdo each other and hence 'succeed and flourish'. Arrrrghhh! Personally, it makes me cringe and want to put as much distance as possible between myself and a 'commercial director', both physically and philosophically. 

Anyway, Cumbria Probation Trust has clearly been impressed enough to be the first to shell out for the Improving Relationships programme IR-SC.

(I understand it can be purchased direct from GMPT. Please mention this blog when making enquiries.)  

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Train Crash

Well, well, well. So that very irritating man Richard Branson was right all along. Cast as the sore loser for seeking a Judicial Review of the decision to award the franchise for the West Coast Main Line to rival rail operator First Group, the very day before a judge was due to start hearing the case, the government caves in.

It's about as embarrassing as it gets for a new minister to have to admit that the 'extremely robust process' of bidding was indeed utterly flawed and as a result the taxpayer now has an immediate bill of about £40million to pay in respect of all the bidders costs, with the whole charade having to start all over again. Even worse, all current bidding processes are now on hold and there are bound to be demands for previous contract failures to be re-examined, particularly that of the East Coast Main Line currently being run directly by the government.

In trying to absorb all this, I can't help but bring to mind several old adages such as 'there's no such thing as a free lunch' and 'you only get what you pay for.' So what the hell has any of this got to do with probation I hear you ask? Well, we are about to suffer the same fate as other key public services and be privatised. 

As I'm writing this, there are civil servants down in London at the Ministry of Justice drawing up contracts for the benefit of private companies such as G4S. How is anyone to feel comfortable or reassured that they are any better than their colleagues over at the Department of Transport in being able to fairly assess the relative merits of different bids, and especially those that have to be measured against public sector bidders? 

I seem to recall that at the time the WCML result was announced it was said the government were mightily fed up with Richard Branson for having very successfully renegotiated his previous contract due to delays in Network Rail delivering the promised WCML infrastructure upgrade. There's just that tad of suspicion that politics plays a rather bigger part in awarding contracts than the government would have us believe. 

Of course normally contract details are not open to public scrutiny and Freedom of Information requests are routinely refused on the convenient grounds of commercial confidentiality. It's taken a complete maverick like Richard Branson to cry wolf on the whole process and put it all before a judge for close scrutiny. And guess what, it would not have held up. So, as the announcement of civil servant suspensions is imminent, I'm left pondering just how many other contracts between the government and private contractors would survive such close forensic examination?                  

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Free Labour

I'm grateful to the NAPO discussion forum for highlighting a current job offer by the Hampshire Probation Trust on the Isle of Wight for a receptionist/admin officer. The only problem is the level of pay - there isn't any! :-

"Volunteer wanted - on the Isle of Wight (Newport Office) Ideal for Graduates/Job Seekers who wish to broaden their work experience. Duties will include: General reception duties; answering the telephone, taking messages, dealing with questions/queries from offenders, dealing with petty cash and offender travel claims, etc. General admin work including filing. sending letters, dead filing/archiving. Ad hoc court administrative duties."

Now most of us with long memories are very familiar with the use of volunteers within the probation service. Traditionally this was seen as a route for recruitment, not just another avenue for the mostly middle class to do something useful within their community. I know many officers started their careers as volunteers and they were a very useful resource, particularly in helping to provide for the welfare needs of clients. 

Sadly, with the move away from our welfare orientation, many services gave up on volunteers completely, only to rediscover the concept in recent time with a new focus on mentoring and former offender engagement programmes. There's also a growing realisation that retired officers can be a valuable resource, skilled and able to undertake some supportive work with clients that 'adds value' to the limited amount of time hard-pressed officers have for each case.

Again, those with long memories will remember the days when probation used to regularly take part in YTS and Work Experience programmes when school leavers were encouraged to gain their first taste of the work place over several weeks. But this is very different. 

There's no doubt that volunteering is definitely 'flavour of the month' once more in probation circles and I guess if you were cynical you would notice that it happens to coincide with a period of economic stringency and a government keen on fostering a 'Big Society'. But it takes macho Hampshire HR to take the concept to a whole new level and just blatantly try and fill real jobs with free labour

Absolutely disgraceful and I think we can expect an emergency motion at the impending NAPO AGM in Torquay.   

Monday 1 October 2012

Responsibility of the State Surely?

I make no apology for returning to the issue of privatisation because the coalition government have made it plain that they intend to go much further than the previous Labour administration and probation is very much within their sights.

Many people voiced concerns at the time when the decision was taken to abolish the Forensic Science Service and instead allow the private sector to compete with Police Forces in providing this vital aspect of our criminal justice system. Many, including myself, still feel that only the state should undertake tasks that involve a citizens fundamental rights such as their safety and liberty. 

An announcement is imminent regarding a further tranche of prisons that may well be turned over to the private sector and it's rumoured has only been delayed because of the G4S Olympic security scandal. The boundaries between the state and private enterprise is getting dangerously blurred in my view and I note with concern that G4S is the only non-governmental organisation that has access to the Police National Computer database. 

It feels morally repugnant to turn a profit arresting people, prosecuting them and ultimately incarcerating them, so the news that a man was wrongly charged with rape and held in custody for two months because of sloppy practise by a private forensic laboratory should concern us all. LGC Forensics allowed DNA samples to become contaminated due to 'unsatisfactory' practise's within the laboratory and the man was only ruled out of the investigation by mobile phone location evidence.

Who the hell is LGC I hear you ask? Well, until privatised by the last Labour government, it was the very well-respected Laboratory of the Government Chemist.