Thursday 31 January 2013

Some Observations 12

Another potpouri of bits and pieces that don't quite warrant a whole post to themselves. First off is something I heard on the radio a week or so back. I'm not usually near a radio for the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2, thankfully I have to say as I find the format extremely irritating. Anyway, Jeremy found himself somewhat nervously interviewing ex madam Becky Adams about her plans to open a brothel for disabled people in 2014. 

Judging from her website and media appearances, Becky is an extremely savvy business woman with an eye to the main chance shall we say, but I think she's definitely on to something serious with Para-Doxies. I've been concerned about people with learning disabilities in the criminal justice system getting a raw deal for some time. There is a particular issue in relation to sex offending, but also a more general one concerning help for the learning disabled in being able to appropriately express themselves sexually and locate suitable sex partners. 

In my experience agencies such as social services and hostels find the subject too difficult to address and therefore try and ignore it, but with Becky's deliberately provocative proposals for linking up sex workers with the disabled, I see some sign of hope. The whole thing brings back memories of the wonderful Cynthia Payne and her tussles with authority over the 'sex for luncheon voucher' parties back in the 70's when elderly gentlemen were given discounts if they couldn't perform, but preferred to watch instead. 

According to 'Inside Time', the Parole Board are anxious to hear prisoners views of the Parole system and have posted survey forms to each prison in England and Wales. Given the backlog of cases and consequent delays in arranging Oral Hearings of late, some of the responses are likely to be robust I'd have thought. Of course this IPP prisoner has just won damages at the European Court in relation to delays in dealing with his case. 

Not all delays are the fault of the Parole Board though. I heard of an instance recently when an Oral Hearing could not proceed because the prisoner discovered on the day that his solicitor had sacked him and had sent a substitute lawyer instead. Very poor practice in my view which left the prisoner seriously disadvantaged and understandably unwilling to proceed.

I see that the other prisoners' newspaper 'Converse' is claiming the credit for persuading the Parliamentary Justice Committee to hold a full enquiry into the increasing number of elderly prisoners within the prison system. This is a subject long overdue for scrutiny and I'm sure it will serve to concentrate the government's mind on having to provide secure supported accommodation instead of allowing this sad group to languish indefinitely within the prison estate. Just what the Justice Minister wants to hear - a good reason to spend more money, not less. The committee are calling for evidence and the deadline is 8th March. 

Finally, I think the following wise words from Stan Cohen who died recently are worth quoting:-

‘In practice and theory, stay “unfinished”. Don’t be ashamed of working for short-term humanitarian or libertarian goals, but always keep in mind the long-term political prospects. This might mean living with the uncomfortable ambiguity that your most radical work will be outside your day-to-day job’ (Stan Cohen in 1975)

Renowned for developing the concept of 'moral panic' his passing got me thinking about the riots in 2011 and Geof Pearsons' book 'Hooligan : A History of Respectable Fears'. I was at Bradford when it was published in 1983 and really wish now that I'd been rather more attentive during his lectures. This classic work meticulously catalogues periodic panics about youth behaviour over several centuries.

Anyway, somewhat belatedly, I was wondering what he would have made of the amazing events during the summer of 2011 and I discover that he was indeed interviewed for the New Left Project later that year. He confirms that it's nothing new - in fact just as he'd said previously in 2006 when we were again concerned with youth crime.    

Wednesday 30 January 2013

The Third Sector

In relation to government plans for privatising the probation service, it's not just the big boys like G4S and Serco who are circling like vultures over head, there's also the 'third sector' hoping to move in as well. Mostly made up of charities, I've touched on their increasing move into delivering public services before. In Charity Ends Where Exactly? I discuss my concerns regarding NACRO being involved in bids to run prisons. 

"I must confess I've had my doubts about NACRO for some time (The Dog that Doesn't Bark), because they used to have a distinguished record for campaigning, but I've only fairly recently come to realise that Frances Crooke of the Howard League for Penal Reform no less has similar concerns. It would seem that she fair put the cat amongst the pigeons by bringing the issue to the attention of the Charity Commission, which by all accounts lost her several friends amongst the charity world, Catch 22 and Turning Point included." 

Not surprisingly, NACRO have welcomed the government's proposals contained in 'Transforming Rehabilitation', along with the sector generally. I remain very uneasy about charities basically increasingly becoming government contractors for public services. It's not just that they are affecting our jobs, although that's bad enough, it's more that it doesn't fit well with me in terms of their 'charitableness' - they're turning into businesses surely?

One of the key organisations that speak for the so-called 'third sector' is ACEVO, the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, a sort of trade union for CEO's. It's leader since 2000, Sir Stephen Bubb, has described it thus and he quite rightly attracted the attention of the Charity Commission for the ill-considered description on his blog. 

But then he seems to like poking people and organisations, not just in the interests of his members one suspects, but his own too judging by his blog. He seems to have little regard for trustees and wants them 'professionalising' by being paid. Quite rightly the Charity Commission are having none of it for he displays all the classic characteristics of CEO's in charities that typically prefer a situation where the tail wags the dog.  

I have to say as blogs go it strikes me as one of the most utterly cringing and self-serving I've come across and in my humble opinion hardly gives a good impression of the sector. I suspect I'm not alone in thinking this as there is some evidence across the internet that others feel the same and Sir Stephen appears to be the object of some well-deserved derision in certain quarters. It's even spawned a spoof

Nevertheless the man prides himself in being a champion for the sector, and indeed he got his gong for doing so. Why he recently had the temerity to write to the Prime Minister to tell him that the 'Big Society' was effectively dead, so perhaps he can't be all bad. Seeing as his salary and that of many of his members increasingly depends on money from the State, it possibly takes balls to bite the hand that feeds you. He only got a reply from Nick Hurd though.

Sir Stephen has had probation in his sights for some time. Here he is giving evidence to the Parliamentary Public Administration Committee in 2011 on the subject of Smaller Government : Bigger Society?:-

"You only have to look at one example: crime, and the money that we spend in our probation and rehabilitation services. Only 4% of that budget is delivered through third sector organisations, and yet we know the state is hopeless at rehabilitation because more than 70% of people who have been in prison are back in prison within two years. Third sector organisations that deliver those services get records as low as 50%, so why are we not commissioning them more? I think we have to open up our public services to ensure that third sector organisations really can deliver more."

On his blog this is what he had to say recently about probation:-

"We ran it once. We can do it again.

Probation that is. Indeed it's a third sector invention and we ran it for many decades; where the emphasis was on rehabilitation; indeed "reformation" as the 1601 Charity law has it. Since it was taken over by the State the emphasis has changed and there has been less rehab work - not solely the fault of the service it has to be said but the demands of the criminal and justice system. I welcome the proposals from Chris Grayling. Opening up the service for bids by the sector can help shut the revolving door of prison, release, back in again. Half of prisoners currently reoffend within a year. Surely an indictment of our current system, not to mention a massive drain on resources and harm to communities."

l think we know where Sir Stephen is coming from. Here is a snippet from his Third Sector interview in 2012:- 

He also credits Acevo with a key role in the creation of the Future Jobs Fund and changing attitudes to full cost recovery, which he says has "sunk into the psyche of the sector". He helped to develop the embryonic social investment market by becoming chair of the Adventure Capital Fund in 2006. That’s a post he still holds, but his real epitaph will be his zeal for ensuring that charities provide more public services.

It’s an aim that has alienated trade unions and some charities that are concerned about loss of independence, mission creep and collaboration with private companies. Bubb dismisses such comments as "bollocks", saying charities have always delivered public services and generally do it better than the "crap" state.

So this is what we're up against with our third sector 'partners'. You know what, it sort of makes me want to be much more considered in relation to my charitable giving from now on.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

What About the Money?

In relation to the government's plans for privatising the probation service on a Payment by Results basis, all discussion eventually returns to that most embarrassing of topics in polite company, that of wonga, dosh or money. From the government's point of view, how to save it and from the private contractor's point of view, how to make it.    

As we know, PbR is the new wonder answer to delivering public services. The sort of wheeze that comes out of the same stable whence came the Private Finance Initiative or 'quantative easing' even where wonga was literally conjured out of thin air. All examples of creative accounting which in their various ways are the modern day forlorn attempts at the age-old business of alchemy, turning lead into gold. Almost completely untested, unproved and utterly discredited in terms of the Work Programme, PbR is nevertheless going to be rolled out in order to finance the whole 'Rehabilitation Revolution.' 

If a bit more evidence were needed about how PbR is not delivering in terms of the Work Programme, but making the contractors rich, I would suggest that last nights BBC1 Panorama investigation 'The Great Disability Scam' would reward 30 minutes of your time on i-player. Yet another supposedly top performing prime contractor 'Triage' was featured indulging in all the classic 'creaming and parking' practices at their branch in Southampton. 

Whilst I would be the first to acknowledge that finding suitable employment for some Employment Support Allowance clients is near impossible, I was shocked to see how the blind woman featured in the programme had been 'parked' when I would assess her as being eminently employable. It was also shocking to hear from the RNIB that, despite being an official Work Programme partner, they hadn't had a single referral. 

It's all about the money you see. Not worth spending time on very difficult cases, no matter what the rewards might be. Better to concentrate on the 'job ready', and although worth less of a 'bounty', at least you get paid something. It's also not worth referring on to specialist charities and have to pay them. Better to keep all the cash in-house. The programme contains yet more damning evidence that charities were indeed used in an utterly cynical way merely as 'bid candy' in order to get the contract in the first place from the DWP. 

Before leaving the subject of 'Triage' I couldn't help feeling it was a bit of a strange name for it's accountancy founder Kate Carnegie to choose as a Work Programme provider. According to their website:- "The origin of the word triage stems from the old French noun meaning quality. Today it is used in military and healthcare arenas to prioritise need."  

Now I'd say that's just putting a tad too much gloss on what wikipedia confirms as my understanding:- "Triage is the process of determining the priority of patients' treatments based on the severity of their condition. This rations patient treatment efficiently when resources are insufficient for all to be treated immediately. The term comes from the verb trier, meaning to separate, sift, or select." Oh errr - that sounds like a good description after all.... 

Now the whole point of this privatisation plan for probation is to save money, but as Russell Webster recently pointed out, 'Can we afford the rehabilitation revolution?' 

At last week’s CBI conference on PbR, many of the speakers from private industry and government made much of the differences between the two models with everyone agreeing that delivering successful outcomes in re-offending would be a more complex and challenging prospect than getting the long-term unemployed back into work.

One issue that didn’t come up was the difference between the two programmes in terms of cashable savings. PbR schemes are frequently about saving the government money by preventing expenditure (see Toby Eccles from Social Finance on why PbR schemes should be focused on prevention. "Cashable savings"  is a term which refers to improved public sector performance which results in more money in the government’s pocket. The savings from the Work Programme are immediately cashable. Anyone who is helped to find a job will immediately come off benefits and start paying National Insurance and Income Tax – a double reduction in government expenditure in the current year.

However, if 200 fewer offenders released from Peterborough Prison this year do not re-offend because of the impact of the ONE scheme, the prison won’t shut down or even close a wing. Nor will there be a need for less police officers, there will be plenty of other crimes for them to investigate and criminals for them to arrest. The fact that even highly performing PbR schemes won’t deliver cashable savings to the MoJ in the short to medium term brings me to what I see as a central challenge to Mr Grayling’s new plans:

Are they affordable?

Here are the three main challenges as I see them:
  1. The overall justice budget is being cut (as it is for every government department to balance the deficit).
  2. There will be new services to pay for as Mr Grayling passes legislation to ensure that the 50,000 short term prisoners who are released every year receive support and supervision.
  3. If there are no cashable savings to be made from reducing re-offending in the short-medium term, will the Ministry of Justice be able to make the new PbR contracts attractive enough to new providers? 

It all comes down to the money in the end. The government is scared witless that those nasty big boys like G4S and Serco with their clever accountants will rob us all blind. On the other hand the contracts have got to be attractive enough for them to bid, or the whole shambles comes crashing down before it can even get off the ground, so to speak.

In the process it might just end up costing us more, certainly in the short term, and with no guarantees it will work in reducing reoffending because the trials were scrapped and the limited evidence from Peterborough etc is inconclusive at best. You begin to get the feeling that this is all being brought in on a 'wing and a prayer', if not sketched on the back of a fag packet. Maybe it might prove a mistake to have accountants running things after all.  

Monday 28 January 2013

A Dog's Breakfast

We are now well into the statutory minimum consultation period of just six weeks in relation to government plans for privatising the probation service. It's outrageous, but here we are in a supposedly mature democracy with only 42 days in which to consider utterly fundamental changes to a public service that's been around for 105 years. 

Any sensible person can see that it's going to result in a dog's breakfast and here the internet has thrown up a thorough analysis of what the issues are and why it's extremely likely to be disastrous. Entitled 'A Briefing for Police and Crime Commissioners, Sentencers and the Parole Board' it's author is Joe Kuipers, Chair of the Avon and Somerset Probation Trust. He asks some fundamental questions posed by the plan to 'disaggregate' offender management:- 

  • There is not a neat dividing line between actuarial risk measures that refer to populations which have limited capacity to be translated to individual offenders. The current measure, the Offender Group Reconviction Scale (OGRS) has value, but only in the context for individual offenders of an assessment of more dynamic factors, which in turn may also be more ‘subjective’.  It is also clear from the comments made by the Justice Secretary that higher risks of reoffending (reconviction) cases (including burglars, etc) will be managed by other organisations than probation services. Risk of harm is somewhat more complex to assess and be ‘right’ about, and is generally believed to need the skills of ongoing and consistent offender management (OM). How will such reassessment of risk of harm be undertaken when there is a variety of OMs?
  • Most Serious Further Offences (SFOs) are committed by offenders within the lower and medium risk groups. There are clear SFO procedures for Trusts to meet. How will a range of providers and OMs meet these procedures consistently?
  • Risk for individual offenders often change and are reassessed. How will the transfers of cases be managed when offenders either become high risk or become less risky? Will providers from other sectors resist risk classification as they may then ‘lose them’ and their potential ‘financial value’? We know that the more information transfer is needed between organisations the greater the likelihood of failure and gaps.
  • Currently victim contact services are provided by probation trusts. With the splitting of OM, how many different organisations will victims need to turn to for their support and to make their input to offender resettlement plans?
  • Offenders move between Youth Offending Services and the probation service. How many providers might small youth offending teams need to liaise with without a central ‘ring-holder’?
  • Offenders move geography. Can we be sure of sufficient consistency of approach between geographies?
  • Offenders are released from HM Prison service for community supervision. How many supervising organisations will HM Prison Service staff need to liaise with to secure good information exchange?
  • There are increasing systems of shared supervision, especially between the police and probation with full information sharing, as advocated by the MoJ / NOMS. With a variety of probation providers and OMs how comfortable will the police (and potentially others) be in sharing intelligence and information?
  • Lower risk offenders are often chaotic and they do not necessarily comply with the instructions of their OMs. Public sector probation staff will have a responsibility for breach and recall. Will there be conflicts of interest between public sector probation staff and providers (being paid by results) when it comes to breach and recall? Will the courts and parole board be presented with contradictory views from the public sector probation staff and other providers in such cases? Will there need to be new mechanisms for dispute resolution between the various parties when there will be inevitable disagreements? How likely is it that the profit motive will override good decisions for the public?
  • The ‘policing role’ for public sector probation staff has been referred to by the Justice Secretary. This role appears akin to that of the NOMS’s placed ‘controllers’ in the much smaller contracted prison estate. Is this really a job for probation professionals across such a potential range of providers, or one for commissioners? How will conflicts of interest be managed and actual conflicts of view be resolved between the ‘policers’ and providers?
       The author highlights that the consultation document includes the following aspiration:-

    "We need a system where one provider has overall responsibility for getting to grips with an offender's life skills, co-ordinating a package of support to deliver better results."

      and goes on to wryly note "One might conclude that we have such a system in place already, called the Probation Service?"

  I agree entirely and we only have until 22nd February to let Chris Grayling know why 'Transforming Rehabilitation' is the perfect recipe for a dish to put before man's best friend first thing in the morning.   

Saturday 26 January 2013

There's risk - and there's Risk

I was bemused the other day to see that Russell Webster has posted a piece about risk on his blog in relation to the governments' plans for privatising the probation service. Of course Russell perfectly represents the veritable cottage industry that has sprung up in recent time in order to assist the private sector pick over the bones of the public sector. 

Written by Richard Butler and Holger Westphely of Aylesbury Partnerships, it discusses the plethora of risks involved for organisations tempted to have a piece of the action when core probation work is put out to contract on a Payment by Result basis:-

"There are 3 key reasons why an organisation needs better understanding of risk.
The most obvious is that if your business is becoming more risky then you need to be able to determine whether you are likely to be toppled over.
Secondly as contracts become more risky there is a greater need to share that risk and you'll need to know what you are passing on and who is best placed to take it on. 
Finally if you take on additional risk in a contract you'll need to make sure that the revenue is commensurate with the risk."

Although it might sound a bit scary to all us public sector types, these money guys remain bullish that it can all be sorted out with appropriate expertise, provided at a fee of course:-

'Risk' can sound like a very dry subject but all it's about is getting a better sense of the underlying dynamics at play in a contract and being able to communicate them, which can only improve your ability to deliver and compete."

So there's clearly a risk you might not make any money. But this is only one aspect of risk that prospective private contractors might lose sleep over. What about the inevitable instances when it all goes Pete Tong, belly up and pear-shaped? When that low-risk offender murders his partner with an axe or rampages through the High Street with a Kalashnikov? 

Yes I know the OASys gives no hint of any of this and his pre-cons only show a string of shop thefts - oh and a fine for not having a TV licence. The contact log is bang up-to-date (phew), he's been seen regularly (phew) and never mentioned anything about having an axe or gun (phew). But that won't stop the headlines in the Daily Mail and The Sun screaming what will be on the lips of the nation:- 

"Well you should have bloody-well known - you're supervising him aren't you?!" 

Oh, and don't forget the local MP and the telephone call from the Minister's office. They've got their careers to think of, any reputational damage and basically make sure that you carry the can. We know all about this of course in the probation service because successive government's have fostered the utterly delusional belief that risk management is a science. The world beating OASys is held up naively as a scientific method of measuring risk. It works perfectly of course, until something goes wrong. Then you just say it was filled in wrong - simples

Now Chris Grayling and those clever people down there at the Ministry know all this and they think they have a cunning plan. In order to 'protect the public' the wheeze is that they intend to make the probation service responsible for all risk management, even those cases handed to the private sector. 

Exactly how is that going to work then Mr Grayling? 

All this is succinctly dealt with in a recent blog post by a new boy on the block, 'the aged member speaks' and I'm grateful to a reader for pointing me in the appropriate direction:-  

This is an almost unbelievable proposition. The public sector retains the ultimate risk without having direct control. How is that supposed to work? Apparently, he is entertaining the notion that public sector staff will meet their private sector counterparts to review cases and if necessary move them back to the public sector if risk becomes more acute. The risks of shuffling cases from one sector to the other simply add to the risks of miscommunication and confusion between the two sectors and with other agencies. This is going to lead to tragedy somewhere.

Maybe the Secretary of State thinks that it’s only a minority of cases currently destined for the private sector where there might be an element of serious risk needing to be monitored and controlled. There are large numbers of cases in the system currently designated as “medium risk” ( that is, with the potential to commit serious harm but currently unlikely to do unless circumstances change). Falling into this category are a great number of perpetrators of domestic violence who constitute a large proportion of the current caseload supervised in the community – about 15%. Then there are the cases where risks to children or vulnerable adults are involved. Many of these don’t constitute an active, immediate risk but fall into the medium risk band. 

In the coming weeks we're going to hear a lot more about risk. I notice that Harry Fletcher of NAPO has written on the subject today in a piece for Criminal Law and Justice. Maybe readers will have better luck than me in gaining access to it though as the site resolutely refuses to let me in.

Friday 25 January 2013

'Failure Demand'

I've been taken down another fascinating avenue, this time courtesy of police blogger Nathan Constable and again featured on the 'Guerilla Policy' website. In the post 'Reform or Perform' he talks about his interest in system theory and particularly the concept of 'failure demand'.

According to wikipedia, the term as coined by Professor John Seddon, primarily in service organisations, is 'demand caused by a failure to do something, or do something right for the customer'. Somewhat understandably Nathan comes to the conclusion that most police work is due to 'failure demand':- 

"Just about everything the police deal with externally is a result of failure demand. Whether it be the failures of another agency to treat successfully a mental health patient; failure of the probation or prison service to rehabilitate an offender who then has to be caught again; failure of the judicial system to impose sufficient sanction on a recidivist; failure of an individual to regulate their intake of alcohol or drugs; failure of an individual to drive properly or safely."

Well if it's true for the police, it's certainly true for probation. We see 'customers' every day who have been failed in some way, mostly by the State, and since 1907 we've been expected to do something about it. To put it bluntly, if the State had done it's job better, the services of a probation officer might not have been required. I've touched on this theme before, as here in 2010:- 

"The thing that's always struck me about being a probation officer is that as a profession we have an absolutely unique window on our society. We are in an unrivalled position to be able to identify when things are going wrong in social policy terms, assess possible remedies and in the days when we had autonomy and freedom to innovate, develop and implement solutions. I've always felt that as an agency we were there to apply 'sticking plaster' and help patch people up who'd either fallen through the net or been harmed in some way by society; be an agent of the state providing a humane way of dealing with society's deviant citizens.  There was a time when I felt that a wise government would pay regard to such an agency that was so well informed and experienced and use that knowledge to both inform and improve social and penal policy. I guess it shows just how naive I've been when the opposite proved to be the case and the tables were turned against us - it was us that got changed.

One of the sadness's of the present situation is the difficulty we have in being able to adequately convey to new recruits the shear breadth and scope of innovations pioneered by the probation service in the past and during my career span. Supported housing, day centres, sheltered employment, youth projects, clothing stores, groups for drug users, problem drinkers, prisoners wives, family therapy, motor bike projects, intermediate treatment etc etc. etc. All this and much, much more has been stripped away from the probation service at a time when we have witnessed an unprecedented decline in the quality of some of our communities. A recent post by Inspector Gadget all too graphically illustrates the sort of world that will be familiar to many probation officers."

When we were social work trained and 'advised, assisted and befriended', if the tools to fix things for people were absent, we either developed them or pestered other organisations to provide them. But then the government decided that it wasn't appropriate for us to be helping, we should be punishing instead. Somewhat bizarrely though, we were still expected to magic rehabilitation out of thin air, but now restricted in what we could do. 

Yes we can run groups, programmes and other offence-focused work, but the same basic needs for education, employment, housing, health etc remain and many would say that the situation has become much worse in recent time. It's not probation's fault if it's felt we are failing to deliver rehabilitation. I think common sense says it's primarily the failure of the state to provide for the basics. 

Of course it's ridiculous to just release prisoners with £46 in their pocket and no support. But for those sentenced to 12 months or less, we have never been funded to assist this group, but we used to do it voluntarily. The introduction of National Standards put paid to that though. I don't think any of this is rocket science. Following on from the riots in the summer of 2010, just look what the government-appointed panel came up with in terms of recommendations - basically a plan to fix things:-

"Every child should be able to read and write to an age appropriate standard by the time they leave primary and then secondary school. If they cannot, the school should face a financial penalty equivalent to the cost of funding remedial support to take the child to the appropriate standard.

No child should be transferred into an unsatisfactory Pupil Referral Unit or alternative provision until standards are improved (unless there is a risk of immediate danger). 

Every child should have the skills and character attributes to prepare them for work, when they leave education.  

No offender should be placed back into a community on leaving prison without wraparound support, otherwise the community is put at risk.

No young person should be left on the work programme without sufficient support to realistically hope to find work. Government and local public services should together fund a 'Youth Job Promise' scheme to get young people a job, where they have been unemployed for one year or more.

All families facing multiple difficulties should be supported by public services working together, not in isolation. This will require joining up help for the 500,000 forgotten families."

To be honest I think I could add quite a few more things to the list that the State could fix. But I guess it's a start.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Some Observations 11

I'm reminded of the old lady who kept most things. Having died and house clearance in full swing, a box was found carefully labelled 'string - too short to keep.' In that spirit, these are bits and pieces that I can't quite spin out to full posts.

Do you remember the 'probation officers being replaced by machines' story last year? Well I'm grateful to a reader who has pointed me in the direction of a recent edition of 'Private Eye' which reports that trials of the biometric reporting machines in Bexley and Bromley are being seriously hampered by a lack of suitable participants.

Apparently only 117 low risk offenders have been identified, thus making the £70,000 machines look a tad expensive and not good value for money compared to human beings. I'm told that management in London are blaming 'union resistance' for hindering roll out of the machines.....

I note that the police are actively looking for a prisoner, Brian Grady, who recently absconded from HMP Prescoed, a Cat D open prison in Monmouthshire. Nothing especially noteworthy in that, except that local MP David Davies has seen fit to bring the matter up with Home Secretary Theresa May. Amongst other things, he obviously feels that the original 11 year tariff for murder and robbery was 'extraordinarily lenient.'

I have to say that this guy must have made exceptionally good progress to have secured a place at an open prison by his tariff date, but of course now the politicians are only too quick to pour scorn on the risk assessment 'which was clearly wrong.'  Yes, that's because it's not a bloody science and we don't have a crystal ball. Something must have happened to 'spook' the guy and he's decided to take off. Changes in risk levels can be swift and without much warning. Private contractors considering bidding for probation work, take note.

Talking of Wales, I notice that they are mightily unimpressed with Chris Grayling's plans for privatising probation. It looks like the Welsh are going to try and make a strong case for devolving responsibility for probation to the Assembly in Wales. If this is successful it will leave just England on it's own because Scotland has long had differing probation arrangements and the Northern Ireland Service was devolved. 

Finally, I'm pleased to see that the No 10 e-petition against privatising the probation service now stands at over 13,000 signatures. Naturally I'd urge all readers to spread the word amongst friends and family. A good cross section of the public signing-up would send a powerful message to Mr Grayling that this is not just about probation staff looking after their jobs. 

Wednesday 23 January 2013

In Defence of Probation

There's nothing quite like having to eat some humble pie. Having to admit that you might be wrong about something. A post I read yesterday morning has been nagging away at me ever since. 

Posted on Guerilla Policy and entitled 'The Connected Society' it serves to confound my Luddite view of twitter. The author, Laura McInerney, is an educationalist and in this one short post describes how a group of disgruntled headteachers were able to use conversations on twitter as a springboard to a campaign that now has the ear of government. She gives other examples and summarises thus:-

"Individually none of these actions is earth-shattering, but by using the internet in this way frontline workers will cumulatively better hold the government to account than in the past. The Big Society was a great soundbite and a good start for promoting volunteerist spirit. Now it is time for frontline workers to take up the mantle and use the Connected Society to actually create, implement and scrutinise in order to get better social policies."

This is highly encouraging and I know is basically the raison d'etre of the Guerilla Policy website. But would it, could it work for other groups? Nurses, social workers, police officers, probation officers? 

It strikes me that schools and hence headteachers have been given a degree of autonomy in recent years and are not subject of a vast controlling bureaucracy bearing down on them in the same way as other professions. Yes there is the dreaded National Curriculum and increasingly punitive inspection regime, but no over-arching national management structure that seeks to enforce obedience. (For instance, I was interested to see that NOMS HQ have decreed that work computers and e-mail addresses cannot be used for voting in the No 10 e-petition.) 

However, I've recently found another example of a public service profession getting organised from the frontline, and they are youth workers. I'd almost forgotten about them, wrongly assuming that the life blood had been completely squeezed out of them years ago. Even though patently a vital service, it is disgracefully not a statutory function of Local Authorities, and many services have disappeared from view during periods of increasing spending cuts. But an open letter and subsequent conference in 2009 spawned a campaign entitled 'In Defence of Youth Work'. 

What this group stands for makes very interesting reading. For 'youth work' substitute 'probation' in the following:-  

"Youth Work, in common with other educational and welfare state services, is today showing the impact of three decades of intrusive Thatcherite and New Labour management aimed at controlling workers' day-to-day practice more and more tightly. Paradoxically this has been underpinned by a 'market' ideology which has 'freed' the economy and powerful financial institutions of virtually all state controls.  The result is that Youth Work is close to being forced to abandon this distinctive commitment.  It can all too easily accept the State's terms, to side with the State's agenda.  Profound changes are taking place, which should be resisted."

"Our definition is at odds with much that passes for Youth Work today.  Successive governments in the neo-liberal era have sought to introduce the norms and values of the market into our work.  Attempts have been made to impose the very antithesis of the Youth Work process: predictable and prescribed outcomes.  A range of policies push us ever nearer to becoming little more than an agency of behavioural modification.  The top-down imposition of an integrated workforce will harm occupational specialisms like Youth Work and damage the responsiveness of services for young people."

Strong stuff indeed, with some alarming parallels with our own situation I venture to suggest, but I have no idea how successful this group has been. I do notice though that a video and book were part financed by two trade unions, Unison and Unite. Of course we have NAPO, a trade union and professional association. 

But it's not quite the same thing, being essentially traditionally organised bureaucratically and democratically through a branch structure. I've been a member throughout my career, but I know from experience how many colleagues have felt alienated and intimidated by the structure. A traditional union has difficulty being fleet of foot and NAPO is only now trying to fully embrace the opportunities afforded by new media. 

The forum pages are cranky and little-used and I suspect many would-be contributors feel too intimidated to venture into print for fear of being branded politically unsound in some way. Very sad certainly, especially in the middle of the current crisis facing us. I suspect that if we are to get a similar 'In Defence of Probation' group, it's going to emerge spontaneously via Facebook or bloody twitter, not through a union initiative. 

Tuesday 22 January 2013

The Case for Change

With all this talk about the impending demise of the probation service as we know it, I thought it might be interesting to see who is in favour and what their reasoning might be. How well argued the case for change was. 

An internet trawl located this piece written a year ago and penned by an anonymous inmate for the prisoners newspaper 'Inside Time'. It makes fascinating reading from what might be termed a 'consumers' point of view:- 

"The government’s plan to privatise the Probation Service-or at least parts of it-should be welcomed by every one victim of its incompetent staff. The recent self-serving statements by the usual vested interests of those opposing privatisation is typical of many probation officer’s detachment from reality, including the truth, so often lacking in reports they prepare on prisoners and those requested by the courts for pre-sentence hearings. In its statement, the Probation Chiefs’ Association, at no time say why in their reports (and any other work for that matter) are to be preferred over those written by privately-operated probation services. However, they give no reason why they shouldn’t be good, if not better in terms of accuracy, than those written by public-sector probation staff.

Just as some people are totally opposed to privately-operated prisons solely for doctrinaire reasons, the same irrational thinking applies to probation bosses. While happy to mouth parrot fashion the usual warnings about “profit making”- as though profit was something unseemly- probation officers are happy personally to profit from the inefficiencies of their present out-dated working practices because it keeps them comfortable in a job. In truth, they fear the demanding degree of personal responsibility and accountability which private sector operators noticeably impose on their employees.

Presently, when things go disastrously wrong, when probation reports (rarely produced on time) are more works of fiction than fact, when all too subjective “professional opinion” is the sole determinant of whether a person goes to jail pr remains incarcerated, then such failings are too readily swept under the carpet. A privately-owned service would be more critical of such failings because it is far more performance based. It is quality and not quantity which determines this higher level of professionalism.

Performance means being judged on successes which include reducing re-offending and not just resorting to the knee-jerk expediency of re-calling a person to prison. Presently, this is regarded totally as a failure by the prisoner to abide the terms of his parole licence. But to what extent does it really reflect the probation officer’s inadequate supervision? For them, it is always the prisoners fault."

Really warming to the theme, the author goes on to heavily criticise probation officer's judgements where risk is concerned and advises all inmates to study their OASys closely and to complain vociferously if they don't agree with it. By the way, I'd certainly endorse this piece of advice, not least because most OASys assessments on prisoners are in fact completed by prison officers nowadays. The article continues:- 

"But carrying on regardless isn’t an option in the face of the present economic situation. Unlike the string of amusing “Carry On” films, there is nothing funny about money squandering, self interested time-serving entity which masquerades under the collective title of the “Probation Service.” Of course, in defending the present status quo, the rent-a -quote mouth pieces representing prison chiefs and their subordinates will prattle out the usual dire hell and brimstone warnings against the self evident need to inject a competitive element into the provision of a probation service.

This is nothing less than would be expected from any public-sector monopoly. It’s one which believes the already over-burdened tax payer owes them a living. Yet, if they are really that good at what they are doing, why not form their own privately run operation? As if- cows really would fly because before these people put their money where the mouths are. To continue chucking money at a public sector monopoly which long ago confirmed its inability to deliver in an accurate, timely and cost-effective manner is a mug’s game. Now is the time to prove the critics wrong.

The same concerns were expressed about privately-owned prisons. Sadly for its critics there hasn’t been a Strangeways-type mass disturbance - despite much wishful thinking by some POA members. In fact, so successful has the private sector been that the government now plans to have a total of 42 prisons run by various companies; a massive increase on the 11 so far privately operated. For taxpayers and prisoners alike, it’s a win-win situation. The former save money and the latter enjoy a more relaxed and liberal regime. Much has already been learned from the way the private sector can operate cost-effective prisons with greater efficiency. Therefore, prisoners should welcome the same benefits to be offered by the probation services eventually privatised throughout England and Wales.

And the sooner the better."

Not a ringing endorsement for the present publicly-run probation service then, but as I recently reminded a reader, due to the nature of our work, we do not enjoy universal support. I particularly like the author's whole-hearted encouragement of privately-run prisons:- "For taxpayers and prisoners alike, it’s a win-win situation. The former save money and the latter enjoy a more relaxed and liberal regime." So, there we have it - one very happy customer indeed. 

Fresh from cosying up to G4S, former prisoner Ben Gunn doesn't have a fundamental issue with the privatisation of punishment and is quite sanguine about the rise of the likes of the private security giants. I think we can assume what his views are regarding the current probation debate:- 

"Not everyone is as sanguine over a future where giants such as G4S dominate. Probation officers in particular are taking to the streets in mass outraged mobs….Well, putting down the recall forms long enough to hack out a tweet or two, at least. And the objections seem to be wildly ideological, reducing to “private=bad, public=good”. And crazy libertarian that I am, such ideology doesn’t interest me one bit.

Public services are rarely better than private ones – if at all. The people who make up the organisations can be as lazy, useless or professional as anyone in the private sector. The difference is, a lousy public sector organisation that fails to deliver doesn’t go bust, it just keeps wasting the public’s money. If a private company consistently did badly, it would go bust and open the way for a new competitor.

The criminal justice landscape is changing and ideological objections seem to be futile. It is a fascinating time, where adaptation and flexibility may signal the survival of the best old ideas and practices and the demise of the useless.

Adapt or die. And I’m adapting like hell. And sharing space with G4S is a portent of very fluid times."

But what about a view not so close to the consumer end as it were? How about from the No 10 policy end of things in the form of Ian Birrell, former speech writer to David Cameron and writing recently in the Guardian. The piece entitled 'Chris Grayling takes one step forward on probation, then one giant step back on jails'  although mostly concerned with the spectre of a new Titan jail, touches on privatisation of probation:-

So this week it was gratifying to see the justice secretary announce his genuinely held desire for a "rehabilitation revolution". As he said, it is madness to carry on with the same old systems in the hope it might lead to different results. He plans more supervision, mentoring and help with substance abuse for short-term prisoners, who have the highest rates of recidivism. Hugging hoodies remains the right idea.

Grayling is sensibly extending payment by results – rewarding private bodies and voluntary groups able to prove they can make a difference. The probation services, while often wrongly maligned, will benefit from competition – although there are justified fears that a handful of private behemoths will sweep up the contracts while failing to improve services, as in some other parts of the public sector.

The case for PbR and decimating the probation service covered in just one sentence and one naive belief that we 'will benefit from competition'. 

Monday 21 January 2013

Tide is Turning on Drugs

I guess Tim Hollis, the soon-to-retire Chief Constable of Humberside, felt there was no harm in firing a broadside at his political masters at the Home Office before he hung his hat up. He speaks for the Association of Chief Police Officers on drug matters and feels the time has come to move responsibility for drug policy back to the Department of Health, ironically from whence it came. He feels that continuing to wage a 'war on drugs' alone is not working and another approach is necessary.  

It will come as no surprise that such a sensible suggestion has absolutely no support from the Home Office or indeed right-leaning outfits like the Centre for Policy Studies. But not surprisingly the British Medical Association are pretty keen on the idea and have recently published a report Drugs of Dependence : the Role of Medical Professionals that makes a strong case for treating drug issues as a health matter. The BMA wants:-

  • A debate on the most effective approaches to preventing and reducing the harm associated with illegal drug use and drug-control policies, based on an independent and objective review of the evidence contained in the report
  • To encourage dialogue between the medical profession and policy makers, legislators, the police, service providers and academics who have knowledge and expertise in this area
  • To examine the doctor’s role in the medical management of drug dependence and the ethical challenges of working within the criminal justice system.
All this activity has to be seen in the context of Nick Clegg's recent very public statement that he feels the war on drugs is not working, together with the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee work on drug policy and their recent report. 

At long last we are beginning to see evidence that some politicians are 'seeing the light' and are starting to talk sensibly about drug policy here in the UK. In particular I note that the penny is finally dropping that methadone is not the only answer to dealing with heroin use and that a return to limited prescribing might be a good idea, ie as the situation was prior to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Select Committee report states:- 

"We recommend that a proper evaluation is conducted of diamorphine prescribing for heroin addiction in the UK, with a view to discovering its effectiveness on a range of health and social indicators, and its cost effectiveness as compared with methadone prescribing regimes."

"New evidence which has emerged in the decade since our predecessor Committee's Report on drugs suggests that diamorphine is, for a small number of heroin addicts, more effective than methadone in reducing the use of street heroin. It is disappointing therefore that more progress has not been made in establishing national guidelines for the prescription of diamorphine as a heroin substitute. We recommend that the Government publish, by the end of July 2013, clear guidance on when and how diamorphine should be used in substitution therapy."

Just like buses, reports all seem to come along at the same time with this contribution from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform and a report on their inquiry into 'legal highs'. It seems we really are seeing some common sense emerging on the subject of drugs. There is no doubt in my mind that the whole probation landscape would change dramatically if our drug policies were revisited as a matter of urgency. From the APPG, this is just a taster of how the tide is turning :- 

"For forty years drug policy has been driven by the Misuse of Drugs Act.  Possession, use and supply of cannabis, ecstasy, amphetamines, cocaine and heroin are criminal offences, all potentially carrying lengthy prison sentences.   There was a consensus amongst many of the experts presenting evidence to the Inquiry that the Misuse of Drugs Act is urgently in need of reform.  Of its 40 sections, only 10 remain in use, but those ten are causing serious risks to the many young people, (though not only young people) who are determined to experiment with drugs.  Almost all the rest of us depend upon our own drugs of choice, whether alcohol or tobacco, both of which are far more dangerous than ecstasy."

Saturday 19 January 2013

Brave but not Stupid

I notice that the Times is reporting a u-turn in relation to banning smoking at all prisons in England and Wales. The Murdoch paywall prevents a link I'm afraid, but the gist can be gleaned from this free snippet:-

"A plan to ban smoking in a number of jails has been postponed amid fears that it would provoke disturbances. Prison managers had hoped that the pilot project would lead to all jails in England and Wales being smoke-free within 12 months. But now the planned ban at Exeter prison, which holds 500 inmates, and other selected jails has been shelved." 

Now I've already suggested that Justice Minister Chris Grayling is being somewhat brave with his plans to let private contractors loose on the majority of probation work, but clearly he's not stupid in deliberately stoking up a rare-old uproar over banning the prison roll-up completely.

You will recall that when the smoking ban was first introduced, an exception had to be made in relation to prisoners cells because they were regarded as 'home'. My understanding is that any attempt to prevent prisoners smoking in their cells would quite quickly become a human rights issue and yet another cause for prisoners beating a path to the European Court.

It would also become a considerable control issue in terms of enforcement and give even greater encouragement for smuggling. As things stand at the present time tobacco is pretty much treated as currency within prison and it's unclear what would or could replace such a well-established informal market.

Interestingly, when the Isle of Man opened their brand new prison in 2008 it was completely no smoking from day one and is credited in this article with having such a deterrent effect that crime on the island dropped markedly. Burglaries down 35%, assaults 25% and car thefts 7%.

"It's a standing joke now that when we nick someone we remind them that if they get sent down they'll have to come off the cigarettes - their faces are a picture," said a police source. "It's more like they are more scared about giving up smoking than a criminal record and some time in the nick."

I'm not entirely sure of the causal link there! Anyway, Guernsey introduced a complete smoking ban on January 1st and apparently inmates have complied, with quite a few taking the opportunity of purchasing electronic cigarettes. Jersey on the other hand has decided not to. Me thinks things would be quite a bit different back here in England and Wales though, and it's interesting to see what Phil Wheatley HM Prison Service Director General told Parliament on the subject way back in 2005:-

"I think prisons are special and the circumstances are special," said Mr Wheatley. "It's important we take account of the fact that they are places in which people not only work but live, in many cases for years at a time."

"I would expect to find there was an increase in incidents of assaults on staff, that we ended up with prisoners who were more likely to be troublesome and an increased risk of disorder."

Prisoners' welfare was also a consideration as he added, "We do need to make sure we do not cause significant problems for disturbed people arriving with us with already a multitude of problems, many of them coming off drugs, many of them with serious alcohol problems and many of them potentially suicidal."

Indeed. It's a shame Chris Grayling doesn't listen to his probation professionals.       

Friday 18 January 2013

Covering the Minister's Arse

I'm extremely grateful to Russell Webster for his sharing thoughts gleaned from the recent CBI conference on Payment by Results. It should come as no great surprise that the star turn was Justice Minister Chris Grayling, a proselytising advocate of PbR in his privatisation plans for the probation service. Mr Webster picked up on one particular theme from the Minister's speech:-

"Mr Grayling spent a surprising amount of his speech talking about reputation management.

Specifically, he felt that the Work Programme providers (Mr Grayling was the architect of the Work Programme before moving to the MoJ) had managed both their own reputations and those of the Programme itself poorly in the face of media criticism.

He stated that he would expect those bidding for MoJ contracts to demonstrate good reputation management skills."  

I have to say that it comes as no great surprise that Grayling is so concerned about potential reputational damage, especially given the dodgy goings on with the likes of A4E and the dogs breakfast G4S made of the recent Olympic security contract and inevitable public outcry. 

You will recall the supreme irony of the whole sorry Olympic saga - G4S had to admit that one of their key motives in tendering for the job in the first place was in order to improve their public image - enhance their reputation. I suspect no one was more dismayed at what transpired than Chris Grayling because G4S is clearly regarded as an absolutely key player in his plans for privatising the probation service.

Grayling is a politician, wants to climb the greasy pole and ultimately get elected again, so 'reputation' is very important, more so than deeds I suspect. It's interesting that Mr Webster came away from the conference noting that:-

"Reputation management ability will be a selection criterion for Justice PbR contracts"

What an astonishing admission! So, as the Minister's department turns it's skills towards designing a cunning contractual framework for carving the probation service up, it's not just about who does what and how they get paid, it's actually more about who can be trusted to come up with a good story when it all goes pear-shaped. To look after the reputation of the department you understand, not to cover the Minister's arse.            

Thursday 17 January 2013

Vote Early - Vote Often!

There are unmistakable signs that people who feel strongly about what Chris Grayling and this government are proposing for the Probation Service are beginning to make their views known. One way is the Downing Street e-petition and I notice a fresh one has been started here and has already attracted 5262 signatures. 

What's interesting is that the previous attempt only attracted 325 signatures last August. I detect a serious change in attitude by a normally fairly mild and compliant sector of the population. Even NAPO is showing signs of seriously gearing up for a fight - it's membership of late have been notably unwilling to display much sign of unity, let alone militancy. 

Now really is the time for probation to call in all our favours in the widest sense and garner as much support as possible for keeping probation as a public service. I notice that Professor of Criminology Carol Hedderman at Leicester University had an abridged letter published in the Independent on 15th January. The full version can be found here on the Probation Chief's Association website. 

It would seem that Sarah Billiald the Chief Executive of Kent Probation Trust holds lead communication responsibility for the PCA and therefore speaks on behalf of probation. I saw her briefly on Channel 4 News and wondered who she was. She has had a letter published in the Guardian, but I have to say I think it's a mistake not to put up a probation officer to defend probation. By profession she is an accountant who rose to become a senior Civil Servant before taking over at Kent in 2008. When interviewed in the Guardian last July she said:- 

For leaders without frontline experience, getting the right team in place is important. Sarah Billiald, chief executive of Kent Probation, quickly appointed a probation officer as her PA, who was able to give her insider tips when she first took on her role.

Billiald, who previously worked for the National Audit Office and the prime minister's delivery unit, has also made one of her senior operational team a "head of profession", with a direct line into the board's chair.

"You need to find a way of understanding and valuing frontline experience. Some have it by having done it themselves; others by having people close to them who have done it," she says.

A PO as PA 'who gave a few insider tips' OMG! 

We now know that Sarah is a keen 'tweeter' and whatever some of us may feel about the usefulness of this particular means of communication, without doubt the development of social media and the internet generally is beginning to have an effect on how decision-making is conducted in a mature democracy like ours.  

Organisations like 38 Degrees have been able to exert considerable influence over government policy decisions simply by using the internet to inform and mobilise public opinion. We've got to do the same and I see there are already some tentative signs of the word spreading on Facebook.

PS For those readers interested, a lot of tweeting probation action seems to be happening here.