Friday 30 November 2012

Hope Springs Eternal

On Tuesday this week the government announced the figures for their flagship work programme designed to reward contractors if they find jobs for the long-term unemployed. You may recall that this topic was discussed at some length a couple of weeks ago when former A4E boss Emma Harrison continually told Channel 4 news that the figures they had "were wrong." 

Well of course it turns out that they were spot on with no contractor achieving the government's minimum of 5.5% of those referred obtaining employment. In fact the average achieved of 3.5% is actually less than if people hadn't been referred to the programme at all. So much for the huge success of Payment by Results then, particularly as it's being hailed as the government's answer to tackling high reconviction rates within the criminal justice sector. 

So far the scheme has cost £485 million with little obvious benefit. Contractors such as Ingeus achieved only a 3.3% success rate and A4E only 2.8%. Funnily enough Emma Harrison has appeared loathe to comment on these official figures. 

Although a huge embarrassment for government, and you can bet these figures were the subject of many recounts, why on earth should it come as any great surprise? Here we are still in the middle of a worldwide recession, with high levels of unemployment, and these work programme providers are expected to somehow magic jobs out of thin air for some of the most challenging clients imaginable.

It is of course 'mission impossible' at the best of times and certainly requires a great deal of coaching, support, perseverance and dogged determination on the part of staff in order to achieve a change of mindset in many cases. Huge numbers of those referred have been 'languishing' as Ian Duncan Smith put it, on Disability or ESA for years and have now failed the dodgy eligibility tests administered by Atos. Significant numbers would be regarded as unemployable by many without some intensive and expensive interventions which are simply not regarded as economically worthwhile by contractors paid on the present results only basis. 

The most obvious point to make in all this is that in most cases work programme contractors are not doing anything more than that formerly undertaken by Job Centre Plus staff, but at considerable additional cost to the public purse. There will surely come a time when the penny finally drops that the 'work' could be brought back in-house in view of the very poor outcomes, and save all the money being paid over to the likes of A4E. Now there's an idea..... 


Tuesday 20 November 2012

Do You Believe in Fairies?

So the right wing of the Tory Party have not been disappointed. Today Justice Minister Chris Grayling announced the demise of the publicly-run probation service as we know it. In addition to finally enacting a long-forgotten clause in the 2003 Criminal Justice Act that will provide post release support to prisoners serving 12 months or less, so-called 'custody plus', he has also decreed that supervision of 'low risk' probation clients will be put out to tender. 

Despite there still being no hard evidence that Payment by Results actually works, the whole plan to provide former offender mentors ('old lags?') at the prison gate is predicated on the touching belief that third sector organisations and charities can work their magic and thus be remunerated on a results basis. And the figures are staggering. About 50,000 prisoners are released each year having served less than 12 months. That's one hell of an army of mentors to train and newly released prisoners to motivate! Beds to find, jobs to secure and crises to sort before they get paid. No temptation to fiddle of course.  

Mr Grayling says that released prisoners will be required to attend drug projects and supervision sessions, which in itself will be an interesting concept for many offenders who hitherto have been used to just 'doing their time' untroubled by well-meaning probation staff. As a concept I have to say it has all the classic hallmarks of a half-baked policy designed specifically for political consumption. You know, like that Tony Blair idea of 'marching' miscreants to the cash point in order to pay an on the spot fine, or even the Tory 'short sharp shock' experiment so loved by young thugs.

Despite the probation service having achieved all targets set for it, we are nevertheless told that the motivation is to save money, the implication being that the private sector will be much more effective and cheaper than the public sector. Call me an old cynic, but as a humble public servant I find I have to put all this into some sort of context, especially as we've just blown £100 million on an utterly pointless election with the lowest ever turnout rate.

We discover that three vast American corporations operating in this country pay virtually no corporation tax here at all. A trader at UBS gets 7 years imprisonment for losing the bank £1.4 billion because he was greedy and wanted to keep his bonus and status. His employers had no idea what he was up to. Hewlett Packard pays $10 billion for a British company and now complains they were 'hoodwinked' as it was only worth $8.5 billion. Whatever happened to the old adage 'buyer beware?' Maybe KPMG who did due diligence can answer that one. 

Even Rangers win their tax appeal against HMRC and the Prime Minister touchingly feels that forcing all the energy companies to only have four tariffs will mean cheaper gas and electricity for all of us.

Do you believe in fairies?  

Saturday 17 November 2012

The Real Story

I sometimes despair of our news media in this country. How long is it going to take for them to cotton on to the real story about the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners? It's not the empty Gwent ballot box or the pathetic turnout or even the rejection of party political candidates, it's the massive increase in spoilt papers.

We've had a long history of spoiling ballot papers as a defiant act of civil disobedience in this country. When the news media finally get around to realising what actually happened on Thursday and tot up the totals for all police areas, I'm confident it will be a very significant number indeed. 

Make no mistake, by and large this wasn't people confused about a new election and the possibility of recording a second preference, it was very angry people determined to register their disdain for the whole charade and making that clear by comments left across the ballot paper. I know because I sat for 15 hours in a draughty school hall running a polling station and some voters seemed to be taking a great deal of time over what they were writing on their papers.

As Returning Officers have found out at the count, thousands of disgruntled voters throughout the land have left some very angry comments directed at the government. In Devon and Cornwall, the last area to declare, a total of 6,339 papers were 'spoilt' representing 3% of the total and more than were cast for one of the independent candidates in the election. If that is representative of the rest of the country, in my view it is the real story of what happened on Thursday and government would do well to take notice.

I feel I want to put on record that Thursday was a huge missed opportunity. Readers will be aware that I advocated spoiling papers a couple of weeks ago, but the idea was sadly rejected by Inspector Gadget who advocated not voting instead. Unfortunately this action merely supports the view that people were apathetic about the process, when in fact many were angry and wanted to register that anger. The spoilt totals could have been much, much higher. 

By the way, I have absolutely no confidence that the very expensive and toothless Electoral Commission will have anything remotely useful to say on the subject.   

Friday 9 November 2012


I notice that disgraced Olympic security contractor G4S has been roundly punished by the government and have not only lost the contract to run HMP Wolds, but in addition have not made it onto the shortlist for contracts to run a further four prisons.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Justice has decided to keep three other prisons in the public sector, having previously included them in the tendering process. Accordingly HMP Coldingley, Durham and Onley will not now be up for grabs, but Sodexo, Serco and MTC/Amey are still in the race for the four remaining prisons namely HMP Northumberland, Moorland, Hatfield and Lindholme. 

As the government's largest security contractor and representing 10% of G4S income, there is no doubt that this decision has sent shock waves through the company and is clear evidence that 'reputational' damage has been caused. Their share price was hit significantly and apparently the company is urgently seeking feedback as to why their bids failed. The Chief Executive Nick Buckles must surely be considering his position.

Losing control of HMP Wolds is extremely significant because it was Britains first private prison 20 years ago. Added to the recent woes associated with train franchising, it's at last becoming clear that there are major problems with so-called outsourcing and privatisation of public services generally. Interestingly it seems that shares of other companies in the sector such as Interserve and Serco fell with investors hearing of the news. Oh, and the CBI is very critical apparently, so this really is beginning to look like a watershed moment in terms of a government rethink.   

Friday 2 November 2012

OASys Won't Help

Which ever probation officer has been given the very unenviable task of writing the PSR on Ezekiel McCarthy would be well advised to forget using OASys in my humble opinion, for I'm absolutely sure it will be of no assistance at all.

Despite this, I note that the Press Association reports from the Old Bailey state that His Honour Judge Peter Beaumont, the Recorder of London, wants the man's 'dangerousness' assessing as part of an 'all options' PSR by December 4th.

By all accounts it's a tragically sad case involving 84 year-old Mr McCarthy mistaking his nephew for a burglar and as a consequence stabbing him in the liver. The nephew died three days later and the Court accepted a plea of guilty to Manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Medical reports stated that at the time Mr McCarthy had 'suffered an acute episode of delirium or confusion brought about by medical conditions linked to his age.'

So, what on earth might society feel was an appropriate way of dealing with possibly the oldest defendant ever to appear at the Central Criminal Court? How on earth might OASys, a computer programme, assist in helping determine the level of dangerousness he might pose? 

At this point I think it's worth noting that at NAPO's recent AGM in Torquay, a motion advocating a campaign for the reintroduction of the straight Probation Order was defeated, broadly on the grounds that the public would find such an argument for what was essentially a welfare-type order difficult to understand. I think it would be fair to say that the government would not be likely to be sympathetic either at the present time! 

Since famously becoming a 'law enforcement' agency some time ago, the mantra in probation has been 'resources follow risk.' I've never accepted this and in fact I'm on record as saying I think it's bollocks. A wise society would do well to acknowledge that some people's offending behaviour just doesn't fit neatly into any OASys ordained box. Sometimes there are just over-whelming welfare issues and if probation doesn't tackle them, which other agency will? 

In the past and in such cases when courts felt stumped as what to do, there was always the option of the all-embracing generic Probation Order of up to 3 years. However, such has been the move away from this kind of mindset that apparently in West Yorkshire staff are currently forbidden from suggesting the modern equivalent Community Order with Supervision only. My hunch is that the Recorder of London will deal with the case appropriately having regard to welfare issues.    

Thursday 1 November 2012


Reading the latest edition of 'Inside Time' I was particularly struck by a piece concerning prisoners in denial at HMP Wakefield and written by Paul Sullivan. The article refers to the recent HMI report by Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick and his observation that:- 

‘The most significant concern we identified at our last inspection in 2009 remained. Almost half the men at Wakefield were in denial about their offence – to some degree refusing to take responsibility for their offending. There were no programmes available at Wakefield to tackle the behaviour and attitudes of men in denial and, as a consequence, little effective work was done with them.’

Actually I'm not sure there are any programmes specifically designed for prisoners in denial within the prison system, but no doubt I will be corrected if I'm wrong. Anyway, Paul Sullivan  suggests that it is beyond the legitimate remit of the Inspectorate to be 'publicly trying to discredit' prisoners who are in denial and that by raising the issue it 'impugns their integrity.' 

I have to say this is a somewhat brave stance to take talking as it is about a Category A maximum security prison containing 750 men, most of whom have been convicted of the most serious sexual crimes it is possible to imagine. Most will be serving life sentences and therefore at such time as their tariff has been reached, judgements will have to be made by the Parole Board as to whether it is safe for release to be considered. 

Particularly in relation to sexual offending, in my experience denial and minimisation are quite normal. In order to try and effect sentence progression, and in the end to be able to afford the public a degree of protection if release is granted, it is the legitimate business of probation and the prison authorities to challenge denial intelligently, but carefully. Of course history shows that there may be some innocent men wrongly convicted, but the vast majority simply do not want to confront their offending for what ever reason. The article goes on:-

"With the removal of the need for evidence in trials for alleged sexual offences (1994 Criminal Justice Act), the payment of massive compensation to accusers (even if there is no conviction or even trial), the burgeoning of police trawling and allegations of historic abuse, for which there is no defence or alibi after many decades, and the recent concerns of helpful evidence going ‘missing’ and failure to disclose evidence that would help the defence, the window for innocent men being convicted and locked up is open wide and, despite mountainous hurdles placed in the way of any men trying to have a conviction overturned many hundreds do succeed each year, - although NOMS will not admit to having a figure many support groups keep track."

Just as we are all still coming to terms with the sheer scale of Jimmy Savile's sexual offending and historic prosecutions of others may begin, although perhaps not intended, this article appears to verge on being both naive and apologistic towards sex offenders. HMI Nick Hardwick is spot on in drawing attention to this extremely challenging group within the prison system who cannot be allowed to simply deny their offending, 'do their time' and hope to be released to possibly offend again.