Thursday 28 February 2013

Sentence Planning

I thought I'd have a rest from trying to point out how misguided government plans are for the Probation Service and instead give a plug to a new business. There can't be many twitter followers of Ben Gunn who aren't aware, but others might be interested to know that in true entrepreneurial-style Ben has decided to market his services through his own business 'Mokurai Consulting'.

For someone so keen on self-publicity, I'm not entirely sure how appropriate the translated zen name is - Silent Thunder - but you've got to hand it to him, since release he's clearly decided not to let the grass grow under his feet. I admire him for both making use of his knowledge and experience and for making up lost time. 

Unashamedly making use of the appropriate Gunn Clan motto Aut Pax Aut Bellam 'Either Peace or War', and badge, Ben certainly looks ready to take on all-comers willing to either request or pay for his particular services. In addition to the offer of training and talks, I see that he's moving into a new area, that of giving advice on Parole and Sentence Strategy. He explains:- 

Having found and made every mistake available to a prisoner in Sentence Planning process, Ben offers the cutting-edge insights that equip prisoners to navigate through the demands of the prison system, minimising the length of sentence to be served and with the least inconvenience to the prisoner and his family.

Parole Boards are often treated by legal advisors as discrete events, to be dealt with as a tick-box exercise to please the Board. Ben adopts a broader view, encompassing all aspects of the prisoner’s sentence and life experience and planning a parole strategy that provides the best chance to neutralise the negative views of prison reports and parole board expectations.

Don't you just love that bit about "minimising the length of sentence to be served and with the least inconvenience to the prisoner and his family"  and "planning a parole strategy that provides the best chance to neutralise the negative views of prison reports and parole expectations." Bring it on Ben!

Sign the No10 petition here.  

Wednesday 27 February 2013

The Tide is Turning

Which ever way you look, the tide seems to be turning rapidly on that wonder panacea for delivering public services called Payment by Results. Well I say everywhere. Not the vast industry that's sprung up, keen to separate the government from vast sums of taxpayers money obviously. Having made a mint from the Work Programme, they are very keen for it to expand into new areas such as probation and it just remains for the easily-led politicians to be convinced that the idea is basically crap.

I said a couple of days ago that if aspirational senior civil servants wished to advance their careers, they'd do well to find another way of delivering the Rehabilitation Revolution. The trick of course is to find a way of doing it that both extricates their hapless ministers from a corner they've painted themselves into and that looks like a better solution.

The really skillful will give it the illusion of offering even better value for money, greater protection for the public, all whilst delivering an improved service. Obviously not a u-turn, but evidence of a highly thoughtful politician who responds to constructive alternative ideas. Well the scene is being set because here we have an insight into what those very influential civil servants think of PbR over at the Treasury and Cabinet Office. The guys who control the money and the political direction of travel. I think the piece on the Public Service website is worth quoting in full:- 

Whitehall cooling on payment by results

22 February 2013 
Central government's enthusiasm for commissioning public service delivery through payment by results contracts is cooling, according to senior figures at the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

The National Audit Office's annual conference heard that there was growing scepticism over whether the tariff-based mechanism could deliver the efficiency savings ministers envisaged.

The Ministry of Justice recently adopted it for probation services delivered through external providers. The Depart­ment for Work and Pensions is also using the system within its Work Pro­gramme, despite controversy over data manipulation by one of the largest contractors.

Katharine Davidson, executive director for strategy at the Cabinet Office's Efficiency and Reform Group, told delegates: "We were very bullish on payment by results contracts at the start, (but) the more we know about the quality of the input information and the inability to link it to outcomes, we in the ERG have taken a more measured view of them.

"Payment by results will only work if you have a really good grasp of the results, but we have focused almost entirely on inputs and even that has not gone far enough."

Sharon White, the director general for public services at the Treasury, also expressed doubts about the system.
White said: "We take a pragmatic view of whether payment by results works. It is quite hard to get a firm handle on the numbers.

"We have now got a situation at the Ministry of Justice where Chris Grayling… is going to take a payment by results approach to almost the whole of probation. But some of us who have been around a long time get very nervous about panaceas."

She added: "We're taking a very cautious approach on whether this is going to deliver better value for money compared to direct public spending intervention."

If that wasn't bad enough, just look what Liz Calderbank, HM Chief Inspector of Probation thinks of PbR and risk in her general response to the consultation:-

"The interface between the dynamic management of risk of harm and the PbR model, 
with its focus on reducing reoffending, in our view creates an inherent tension. We 
do not believe that this tension can be successfully managed within the framework 
proposed. Any lack of contractual or operational clarity between the public and 
private sector providers will, in our view, lead to systemic failure and an increased 
risk to the public. The need for clarity about roles and responsibilities is a key issue 
in the management of risk, as was demonstrated by our investigation into the cases 
of Hanson and White in 2006."

Her forthright letter is a clear warning about the risks involved and serves to add significant weight to a very similar view expressed by the union and professional body NAPO. It will be very interesting indeed to see what Mr Grayling has to say when he appears before the House of Commons Select Committee later this morning.

Sign the petition here.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Does Probation Work?

At various times the question has been put to me 'does probation work?' It's no good giving a trite 'yes' because that will just beg the next question 'how do you know?' A trite 'no' on the other hand would be so depressing as to mean turning up for work each day would be impossible, well for me anyway. 

It's an important question, never more so than at the present time with the whole future of the Probation Service at stake. It's not helped by the fact that politicians only seem capable of dealing with issues in black and white terms. I think it's plainly obvious that the answer lies somewhere between the two and that's what I've always tried to explain. It will depend on each individuals circumstances and whether they are ready for change and receptive to help and advice.

As with all short questions, it's deceptively large in concept, in fact a bit like asking if education works? I didn't particularly shine at Secondary Modern School. Ok I was in the top stream and did moderately well, but if I'm honest I was pretty lazy. I seem to remember one school report observed dryly "James has two speeds: Dead slow and stop." I didn't apply myself, messed around and hence only obtained fairly mediocre exam results. 

For what ever reason, I wasn't ready to be able to get the most from education at that time. But I've never forgotten the teachers and their efforts at trying to educate and enlighten me, and I've always suspected it's the same with probation. For many our influence will not be immediate, but of the 'slow burn' sort. I think most PO's will at some time have had people come up to them and say something like 'Hi there - you won't remember me, but it's been x years since you wrote that report/had me on probation/supervised me on licence and now I'm married, got a job and been out of trouble' and with that they disappear.

With all this in mind, it was refreshing to come across some affirmation in this piece by academic Fergus McNeill on the Discovering Desistance website and in answer to questions put to him by the French Probation Service.  

According to desistance studies, which are the main factors that lead to stop criminal activity? 

Most reviews of the literature point to three main theoretical perspectives on desistance. The first draws on evidence about the relationships between crime and age. Noticing that crime is disproportionately a youthful activity – and that even persistent offenders seem to eventually ‘grow out’ of crime, these ‘ontogenic theories’ suggest that desistance can be explained in terms of age and the developing maturity that it usually brings.
The second perspective suggests that desistance can be best explained not by age and maturity per se, but rather by the changing social ties or social bonds that tend to come with adulthood. These ‘sociogenic’ perspectives point to evidence that desistance is correlated, for example, with securing meaningful employment, developing successful intimate relationships, investing in becoming a parent. People desist from crime because they acquire a stake in conformity.
The third perspective points not so much to the structural nature of these ‘turning points’ (linked to work or family life) but to the subjective dimensions of them. A new partner or a new job is more likely to provoke or support desistance if and only if the person values that new pro-social partner or that new job more than they value existing pro-criminal relationships or activities. These subjective dimensions take us into a consideration of how criminal identity can be cast off – and how new and more positive identities can become established. That process of ‘de-labelling’ – both by the person themselves and by those around them – seems to be especially important for people who have been involved in persistent offending, and whose criminalized identities are therefore more deeply entrenched.
Although they place the emphasis in different places, most desistance scholars now tend to agree that desistance can best be explained not from one of these three perspectives but by examining the interactions between these three sets of factors – age and maturity, social ties and identity transitions.

Does that mean that supervision of offenders by probation officers has only a minor effect on criminal careers?
No, I don’t think so. It is true that one of the most important studies of probation and desistance – discussed in Steve Farrall’s (2002) book ‘Rethinking What Works – suggested that probation had little direct impact on desistance, and that the individual’s motivation to desist and his or her social context seemed to matter more. But even then, Steve argued that probation could have positive indirect effects, for example, by working to develop motivation and by addressing social problems. Also, since 2002, Steve and his colleagues have conducted several follow-up studies on the same probation cases, and these studies now suggest that probation did a better job in terms of ‘sowing the seeds’ for future change that he first thought. This finding echoes something I discovered in a small study of people who had been on probation in Scotland in the 1960s. Looking back from the vantage point of 40 years later, several of those I interviewed recognised that probation had a significant and positive impact on their lives – but not always immediately. 
So the answer is yes - 'but not always immediately'.
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Monday 25 February 2013

The Killing Zone

There are one or two stories from last week that I've neglected to pick up on due to my attention of necessity being focused upon the MoJ consultation exercise. In particular the Work Programme came under yet more critical scrutiny as the results of further research came to light on what effect the now infamous Payment by Results system was having. 

The research was carried out by the University of Birmingham Third Sector Research Centre and gave yet more confirmation of what actually goes on under PbR:- 

The study notes that ‘gaming’ – including creaming off those who are closest to the labour market, and ‘parking’ those who are hardest to help – is endemic within the programme. The research points to the overall lack of resource in the Programme and its structure and payment mechanisms, as the main reasons for this. Many providers in the study saw parking hard to help clients as a ‘rational response to payment by results’.

As this article from the Guardian graphically makes clear, the whole thing has been an utter disaster for many small third sector organisations:- 

The study cites a small private-sector provider which complained that big corporate providers, known as "primes", would keep "job-ready" customers for themselves while passing on more difficult cases to subcontractors. "It's not being PC but I'll just say it as it is … you tend to get left with the rubbish; people who aren't going to get a job … If the [prime] thought they could get them a job, they wouldn't [refer them to] someone else to get a job."

The design of the system meant that providers offering specialist services targeted niche groups, such as homeless people and ex-offenders. The suggestion is that the people in this category are regarded as such a risk that the primes simply "park" their cases and do not pass them down the chain at all. So charities providing specialist services for these candidates are often getting no referrals, putting them under financial pressure. One private sector interviewee described the market for customised interventions as "a washout": "Certainly for third sector providers that have a specialist niche, it's a killing zone."

All this behaviour by the 'primes' was utterly predictable of course and Richard Johnson writing in the Guardian should know because he used to run the Serco and Ingeus Welfare to Work contractors:-

This was evident from the outset, as soon as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) initiated the tendering process. Welfare-to-work companies either offered DWP untenable terms, and won, or went out of business. The organisations which offered no (or limited) discounts in the price competition of the tenders were those with substantial business elsewhere, notably G4S and Serco. Those who won the most contracts offered to do it cheapest.

Though the scant data that the DWP allows into the public domain two years on clearly indicate that overall performance is poor, and those who are the least job-ready are being ignored, the primes continue to call it all a big success.

Not surprisingly, this disaster has attracted the attention of Margaret Hodge and the Public Accounts Committee. Their report discussed here in another Guardian piece is about as damning as it is possible to imagine and raises the spectre of another Olympic security fiasco should one of the 'primes' fail:-

The programme was introduced in June 2011, at an estimated cost of between £3bn and £5bn over five years, but PAC said the performance in the first year or so fell well short of expectations.
Not one of the 18 providers met its contractual targets and their performance varied "wildly", the report found.
The MPs warned that, given the poor performance, there was a high risk that one or more providers would fail and go out of business or have their contracts cancelled.
"Given the poor performance across providers, there is a high risk that one or more will fail – either they will go out of business or the department will cancel their contracts," the report says. "The Department will need to keep a close eye on which providers are most likely to fail and must manage all consequential risks."
The report also reveals that all 18 organisations involved in the Work Programme, which include companies such as A4e and Ingeus Deloitte, have been placed on "performance improvement plans" and that in seven cases, organisations had been sent formal letters warning of unacceptable standards.

The next set of performance data will be published in March, which PAC said should give the DWP a better idea about companies that may go out of business or have contracts terminated, and urged the department to prepare specific contingency plans should failure occur.
Hodge said, that although the Work Programme was crucial, its performance "was so poor that it was actually worse than the department's own expectations of the number of people who would have found work if the programme didn't exist."
"None of the providers managed to meet their minimum performance targets. The best performing provider only moved 5% of people off benefits and into work, while the worst managed just 2%."
None of this looks too promising for a similar Payment by Result contracting scenario for probation does it? Primes not delivering and a 'killing zone' for the third sector. What amazes me is that faced with all this blindingly-obvious and damning evidence, the 'primes' continue to be bullish about their 'success' and the DWP says things will get better. It's utterly surreal. 

A DWP spokesperson said: "The Work Programme gives support to claimants for two years and it hasn't even been running that long yet, so it's still early days. We know the performance of our providers is improving … Long-term unemployment fell by 15,000 in the latest quarter."
Previous schemes, the department said, had paid out "too much up front regardless of success. But by paying providers for delivering results, the Work Programme is actually offering the taxpayer real value for money."
Kirsty McHugh, chief executive of the back to work industry body, the Employment Related Services Association, said, "The public accounts committee should rightly focus on the Work Programme achieving value for money for the taxpayer, and data published by ERSA shows that the Work Programme is the most cost effective scheme relative to any comparable scheme so far.
The No10 petition can be signed here.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Stop Digging

So it's all over. The entries are in. The runners and riders have let the MoJ know what they think about privatising most of the Probation Service and we await the result of the civil servants deliberations. I don't envy them their task as they try and avoid the potential for it all to become an omnishambles.

In many ways it's what they think about a project that's more important than the minister's concerned. As this article in the Spectator on the subject of the Universal Credit last September put it:-

Civil servants will not waste time or personal capital on anything likely to join the identity cards and the NHS supercomputer in the graveyard of ministerial follies.
That Universal Credit would run into problems was inevitable. Anything involving a massive computer system will throw up hideously complex problems, as any project manager will tell you.
Now as it happens, this particular grand plan for creating a commercial market in providing probation services must be underpinned by a secure computer system that works effectively - and there's not much chance of that happening any time soon. It must all make civil servants very unhappy indeed. In fact we know this as this recent piece in the Law Society Gazette explains:- 

Ministry of Justice staff lack confidence in the organisation’s leadership and ability to manage change, the civil service’s annual people survey has revealed.
The results show that 28% of staff had confidence in senior management and 32% said the department is managed well.
Less than a quarter (23%) of respondents said that change is well-managed, 18% said that where changes are made they are made for the better and only a third believed managers had a ‘clear vision’ for the future.
The survey shows evidence of poor staff morale. Only 31% of respondents would recommend it as a ‘great place to work’, 35% said they felt inspired to ‘do the best’ in their job and less than half (49%) were proud to work there.
Some say there is a war going on in Whitehall. In order to deflect criticism of the government, it looks as if there is a concerted effort under way to pass blame onto senior civil servants. There is much talk of the Service having to be reformed itself and the need for recruitment of yet more special advisers to effectively form a 'shadow' civil service.
The row is getting nasty with the former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O'Donnell speaking up and being angrily insulted by government in return. The essence of the argument seems to really be about who takes the blame for crap policy decisions? Andreas Whittam Smith writing in the Independent is clear. When you have inexperienced ministers, you require a mature and competent Civil Service to point out just how crap your ideas are. There comes a time when you have to stop digging.
The No10 petition can be found here.
PS the 38 degree petition on the Fire Service has now reached 93,695     

Saturday 23 February 2013

Grumpy Turning Angry

Regular readers will be aware that this blog is penned by a self-confessed grumpy probation officer, but I'm beginning to get angry now and feel the need to share my thoughts and reasoning lest I be regarded as having 'lost it.'

It started innocuously enough with an e-mail from 38 degrees informing me that the government were intent on privatising the - wait for it - Fire Service! Initially I thought it was a joke, or spam or April 1st, but no it's been quietly bubbling away for ages and I suspect like many other citizens, just hadn't noticed. It's been completely 'under my radar' and in any case, it's such a bloody stupid idea, surely no government would even consider it? - wrong! 

When I got researching, the 'red mist' began to descend. We know police forces are entering into contracts with the usual suspects like Serco and G4S for all kinds of tasks including investigating crime. Where I live we've got private firms running around with blue lights for the NHS, HM Dockyards are privately run, so is RAF fighter training, Aldermaston, Fylingdales, the Royal Train - the list just goes on and on and on. Why don't we just hand over the bloody keys to G4S, Serco and Capita now and have done with it? 

I suspect most citizens have no idea the extent to which the state has already been privatised. Noticing it, let alone trying to stop it is not easy because it's been incremental and done sneakily. Politicians of all hues seem to have got used to the idea that we're not noticing, and don't really care. Ok the search and rescue helicopter service privatisation didn't go ahead, but that was more due to cock-up than design. But just as we thought the matter was shelved, it turns out the government have been beavering away in secret on another scheme to be announced shortly.  

Increasingly, in what we laughably call a democracy, we have to rely on internet-based campaigning groups like 38 degrees to alert us and mobilise us. It worked when a powerful message went straight to government over selling-off our forests, and it looks like it's going to happen again over protecting a public Fire Service. 

When I received the e-mail three days ago, the petition stood at 33,319 signatures, but as I publish this post it has already risen to 86,734. An increase of 50,000 signatures in just a few days ably demonstrates the power of the internet, together with the strength of feeling on the subject. Any sensible politician should realise that the public mood is strongly supportive of key public services. They are just too important to mess around with, let alone consider privatising. (By way of comparison, the probation No10 petition is just approaching 20,000, a healthy figure, but one that has been achieved without 38 degree's involvement.) 

Of course the government doesn't call it privatisation - that's an emotive politically-toxic term. In the case of the Fire Service, the government prefers to talk about 'mutualisation.' Of course that has a familiar ring about it for us in the Probation Service.  Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, says:- 

“Mutuals end the old binary choice between state and privately run public services. This is about frontline staff taking control and having power to do their jobs how they know is best. Across the public sector thousands of employees are forming mutuals and taking control because they’re fed up with the wasteful bureaucracy imposed on them by the state and know they can do better. Cleveland Fire Brigade is exploring plans motivated entirely by their determination to protect and grow services for local people.”

Yes and that's just so much bullshit Francis! I'm pretty fed up only being able to cast a 'binary' cross on a bit of paper every few years. Can I remind him that hundreds of thousands of us ignored the 'binary' option at the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners, and opted instead for spoiling our ballot papers en masse

There is a powerful message for government here. There is increasing disillusionment with the present democratic structures and increasingly the citizenry will be turning to the likes of 38 degrees in order to flex collective muscle, free of the toxic involvement of party-political machinery. We need an urgent public debate about the appropriate boundaries between public and private delivery of key services.

And another thing! Don't think we've not noticed that MP's are now claiming more than ever before in expenses and in the process making us taxpayers pay for a ludicrously expensive and toothless bureaucracy to supposedly regulate them. Unbelievable I know, but there's even talk of voting themselves a massive pay rise. Well can I remind them of the oft-stated necessity for 'reform' of public services, especially at a time of constrained public expenditure. Remember - 'reform' means doing more for less! 

Lay off the Fire Service and lay off the Probation Service. You've been warned.

Sign the No10 petition here.
Sign the 38 degree Fire Service petition here.  

Friday 22 February 2013

People Lie Behind Numbers

With impeccable timing, Liz Calderbank HM Chief Inspector of Probation has just published her report on the Service over the last 3 years. As consultation closes today on the government's plans for privatising most of the Probation Service, the verdict of the Inspectorate is broadly that  things are 'generally good.' No Service was felt to be failing, although there was a considerable range of performance from the worst to the best:- 

"The report reflects on much good work currently being undertaken with those who 
offend. It also reveals that some probation trusts are achieving a higher standard of 
work than others. Although the overall findings from the inspection were generally 
good, some aspects of work continue to require improvement. Further attention, for 
example, needs to be given to managing risk of harm to potential victims by all trusts 
and to those cases with child safeguarding concerns.

We were, however, particularly pleased to note that those subject to supervision had 
complied with their order and that interventions had been delivered in accordance 
with the requirements of the sentence in the large majority of cases. These results 
are indicative of the growing awareness now seen across probation trusts of the 
importance of engaging offenders in the supervision process. We will continue to 
explore the factors known to be associated with desistance in our next inspection 
programme as central to reducing reoffending."

I don't want to quote loads of figures, they are all in the report, but I thought it would be of interest to quote some case studies that both illustrate good practice and give a flavour of the diverse nature of our work:-

"Craig received a sentence of imprisonment for an offence of robbery. He had 
learning disabilities and following concerns about his mental health was ordered to 
stay in a secure hospital. His offender manager worked closely with health 
professionals to coordinate the work undertaken by each agency. She undertook 
regular hospital visits, including attendance at some ward rounds. In turn, hospital 
staff escorted Craig to his probation appointments where work was undertaken to 
tackle his offending. This approach meant that both his health needs and risk of 
harm to others were attended to, in a coordinated and complementary way. Craig 
was making good progress and there had been no further offending to date."

"Michael was undertaking a community order for an offence of damage to property. 
During meetings with his offender manager, Michael disclosed information that led 
his offender manager to believe that further offending against vulnerable adults may 
be taking place. His offender manager took swift action, including referring the case 
to MAPPA and taking Michael’s order back to court. The court added a requirement 
to the community order to include residence at approved premises in order to 
manage the risk of harm he posed. Whilst there, Michael was subject to additional 
restrictions on his activities, such as regular reporting to the approved premises staff 
every few hours during the day to reduce any opportunity to reoffend. This was a 
good example of the offender manager responding well to potential changes in the 
nature of risk of harm and of approved premises being used appropriately to control 
that harm."

"Sam was sentenced to a community order with a requirement to undertake an SOTP. 
During the PSR stage, he minimised his sexual offending. The offender manager 
ensured that he started the programme within five weeks of sentence. She 
developed a positive and supportive relationship with Sam and, as a consequence, 
he gradually disclosed the true nature of his behaviour in terms of his offence. Sam 
accepted full responsibility for his actions and engaged with specific one-to-one work 
where his offending behaviour was dissected and challenged. As a consequence, 
further disclosures were made about his sexual urges and impulses. Sam was 
reclassified as posing a very high risk of serious harm to others and procedures were
put in place to manage his risk."

There are many more examples in the report and it's refreshing to focus on real stories rather than just statistics. Unfortunately the same can't be said for yet another report from a right wing pressure group with a particular axe to grind. The Centre for Crime Prevention have recently published a report entitled 'The Failure of Revolving door Sentencing' which tries to make the case for locking up thousands more people than we already do. It's that tired old political mantra about prison working, so lets have loads more of it. 

There are pages and pages of figures in this report, but sadly little coherent sense. Thank goodness guys like this don't actually run anything important, but of course it's designed to whip up a storm in certain sections of the press, as here in the good old Daily Mail. Despite the dodgy arguments, politicians feel they have to respond to stuff like this and typically announce 'tougher' sentences. Criminal justice policy continues to be a game of political football, but at least the Probation Association have had a stab it rebutting it:-  

"Contrary to the Centre for Crime Prevention report, community sentences are cutting crime and preventing victims. Community sentences outperform short-term prison sentences and are 8.3% more effective in reducing one year proven re-offending ratesThe statistics the Centre for Crime Prevention use may look dramatic but in reality they do not make a lot of sense. They show a lack of understanding of the role of sentences, prisons and probation. You cannot compare medium to long prison tariffs with community orders as sentencing guidelines wouldn’t allow them to be interchangeable sentences. It would also be extremely costly to the taxpayer if we sent all 240,000 people, of whom around 160,000 do not go on to re-offend, to prison for at least four years as their report suggests. A four year prison sentence would amount to £88,000, ten times the cost of a community sentence. What the public and victims really want to see is crime stop. Community sentences tackle the causes such as drug and alcohol addiction that lead to crime, and are effective with re-offending rates falling by an equivalent of 10 per cent since 2000."

For a thorough fresh look at the old community sentence versus prison argument I would recommend a new report by three academics on behalf of the Howard League. Entitled 'Intelligent Justice : Balancing the effects of community sentences and custody' it makes a refreshing and thoughtful read in stark contrast to some right-wing stuff of late:- 

"This paper begins by examining the perennial arguments around the efficacy of 
community sentencing over short spells in custody. An even-handed analysis 
concedes that the picture is not a simple one, and that indeed it is the very 
complexity of the problem that necessitates a value-based approach to penal policy.  
It suggests that any cost-benefit analysis must take into account the long term 
impact of dramatic increases in imprisonment, which bring with them increases in 
a number of social problems that themselves sow the seeds for future crime: be it 
family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction or poor physical and mental health. 
In the United States for example, this has seen the creation of a system “that feeds 
upon itself” and which has left many individual states near bankruptcy."

"The authors conclude by asking for a new emphasis on not simply the prevention 
of reoffending through deterrence or incapacitation, but on constructing a penal 
system which seeks to encourage compliance with the law. This idea that people 
respond best when buying into behaviour such as abiding by the law, rather than 
being constantly compelled or cajoled into doing so, has powerful implications 
for future policymaking. It suggests, for example, that a narrow focus on paying 
providers by their results using the limited picture of reconviction rates may not 
be the best way to structure prisons and probation. It also suggests that an 
overweening focus on containing risk, essentially basing a system on a fear of 
failure, precludes redemptive narratives that promise more success in changing lives 
and reducing crime. Is the penal system to be based on unaffordable expansion 
and a fear of failure, or shall it live within its means and celebrate success? This is a 
question that must be answered sooner rather than later."

The No 10 petition can be signed here. 

PS Since posting I see that the CCP figures have been looked at by Factcheck here.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Probation Message to Minister

The deadline for submissions to the MoJ in relation to privatising most of the Probation Service is tomorrow and I thought it might be interesting to have a look at what various parts of the profession is saying. If I was tempted to be brutally honest I'd say it was the classic two-fingered gesture, admittedly wrapped up in quite a lot of verbiage in some cases.

It's no surprise to see what Avon and Somerset PT think because their direction of thought has been well flagged-up by their chairman Joe Kuipers:-

Recognising that there are other better assured and evidenced ways of meeting the three outcomes, and that there is existing success and indeed enthusiasm to improve and reduce costs, we are concerned that the government is intent on unleashing a costly upheaval of the existing system that is not impact assessed, rather than working with trusts to build upon success. It appears to us that it is a desired “solution” (i.e privatisation and the introduction of PbR) that is driving the project, rather than a clear analysis of the needs of communities.

Durham Tees Valley PT are fairly forthright:-

  • We believe Probation has changed a lot in the last 20 years. We went from being a local service to a national one. We have been amalgamated with the prison service under the umbrella of the National Offender Management Service. Former Probation Boards were required to meet very high standards to become a Probation Trust. Probation Trusts were established less than three years ago and have performed exceptionally well. Durham Tees Valley Probation Trust is among the highest performers in the country across virtually all aspects of our work.
  • We believe changes to the way Probation is governed and managed could involve a closer relationship with the Police and Crime Commissioner. Further thought would be required on this.
  • We believe public sector probation trusts should “manage” all cases. We think this is right that all offenders should be accountable to a properly trained state official, not influenced by commercial considerations.
  • We think we need to find a way to ensure the best people and most capable organisations play a part in “supervising” offenders. We think this is a good idea because we know lots of the things that contribute to re-offending are things probation cannot do. We think this should be decided locally.
  • Not having clear arrangements which ensure private providers properly manage risk is very worrying. We call this “fragmentation” – lots of different people responsible for lots of different things. We know that this is very difficult to make work effectively. It can also be more expensive.
  • We have experience of using nationally commissioned services, which have proved to be bad and costly.
  • We agree it is a really good thing that people who go to prison for less than 12 months receive support and have rules about their behaviour for a period after their release.

The response from Unison is an extremely well-argued demolition of the government's proposals and they summarise an alternative way forward that involves:-

Strengthened Probation Trusts given the powers and financial flexibilities to work more effectively with local public sector partners through co-operation rather than competition.

Commissioning, and public sector co-commissioning, of probation services to take place at the local level – based around local authority and police authority boundaries –  with a presumption that public/public partnerships can deliver service improvements rather than crude outsourcing.

Commissioning to be based on principles of Best Value, rather than central diktat from NOMS, with Trusts and other public sector bodies free to manage their procurement without the unnecessary bureaucracy of an artificial purchaser/provider split.

Probation Trusts to re-establish a genuine democratic engagement with communities through the re-introduction of elected councillors, magistrates and judiciary on their Boards.

Additional capacity in community supervision to be developed between Probation Trusts and local authorities in line with our report ‘Primary Justice Reloaded.’

Of course all upheavals, like the one being proposed by the government for probation, of necessity have to rely on sound and secure IT systems. This will be particularly important in relation to the myriad of new third sector players keen on entering the privatised rehabilitation market. 

Unfortunately, as we all know to our cost in probation, the track record has not been good. CRAMS and eOASys have not been a roaring success, are cranky and often crash. The government lost a fortune in being forced to cancel the replacement system C-Nomis and here we have an article in Private Eye confirming that there are major problems with nDelius which is in the process of being rolled-out nationally.

As I'm writing this we hear that yet another right-wing think tank Reform is very unhappy about the government's u-turn on prison privatisation. However it's interesting to note that the author has been slapped down with the minister Jeremy Wright saying Reform's

"simplistic analysis does not tell the whole story. A wide range of factors contribute to reoffending including previous criminal behaviour, alcohol dependency and the support offenders receive from prison." Juliet Lyon from the Prison Reform Trust seems to agree and say's the report's selective use of data masked "decidedly mixed results."

Finally, I note that the prime minister is suggesting that a chunk of the ring-fenced overseas aid budget can be spent on 'peace-keeping'. What a wheeze! I think it would be a good idea if some of the education budget came over to criminal justice in recognition of the thousands of kids failed by schools every year. Oh, and we want some of the health budget too in respect of the thousands of clients that don't get treatment from NHS mental health services.  

Only 1027 more signatures needed to hit 20,000, so sign the No10 petition here. 

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Her Majesty's Prison Aylesbury

I thought I'd pen a few words about the first of a two-part ITV1 documentary filmed last year in Aylesbury Young Offender Institution. Just like the similar documentary on Strangeways, there was plenty of action and just that nagging doubt some of it was put on specially for the cameras. 

I sometimes wonder why the MoJ agrees to allow film crews into prisons, after all it's quite likely to be pretty unpleasant. Judging by some comments reported on twitter and reported here, the public have been shocked and clearly have no idea what sort of thing goes on inside some prisons and YOI's. For that reason alone it's got to be worth it. Maybe the MoJ feel the public will be sympathetic, but if this is typical, the view is 'they're animals - keep 'em locked up and throw the key away.' Maybe it's designed to scare-off would-be miscreants. I don't know. 

Despite one Young Prisoner being taken hostage, I didn't find this programme as shocking as Strangeways as we were spared the self-inflicted razor-slashing, but I'm sure it goes on. What is clear is that there are a lot of very damaged young men in custody and Aylesbury only holds the long-termers, a staggering one fifth doing life or other indeterminate sentences. Some will indeed never get out if they don't receive specialist treatment.  

Of course what such long-termers really need is stability and counselling, and neither is available here. As YP's they will all be shipped out into the main adult prison estate at age 21, so they're just 'marking time' and getting some amusement from indulging in some territorially-based gratuitous violence in the meantime. Saying 'hello' to each other as one female prison officer put it.

In all my dealings with prisons of various sorts I think I'm usually most disappointed with the mental health and psychological services. As with Strangeways, this programme confirmed this view. Some of these guys, if not suffering from quite serious mental illness, have certainly been psychologically damaged and require skilled counselling. Experience tells me that this will almost certainly not be available. Psychologists, mostly trainees it has to be said, will write assessments and reports, but will not deliver any therapy. A big mistake in my view. 

As usual there is often a woeful failure to understand the difference between the appropriate remit of a psychiatrist, as opposed to that of a psychologist. Many of these lads would fall into the legitimate remit of the latter, rather than the former. The difference between mental illness and abnormal thinking is significant and requires different responses. If only more people in the criminal justice system understood this, it would reap huge benefits for those incarcerated, and us all further down the line.

PS 26/02/2013

The second part of this documentary has now aired, showing yet more disturbing scenes including incidents of self harm noticeably absent from the first episode. Much of the YP's behaviour in the second part might be termed as childish attempts to manipulate or gain attention, such as the three-day hunger strike, but I think there was plenty to confirm that many of these emotionally-damaged young men require skilled counselling.

The inevitable move of the 'hard men' long-termers' to adult establishments at age 21 may well have some beneficial effect as they will have even harder men to deal with. I don't think they will be able to cause as much disruption or damage to key prison infrastructure such as pool tables, and this in itself might provide a valuable lesson in progressing to greater maturity.

The main message to me though in this episode was the importance of each inmate having an outside home probation officer, not connected to the prison, and hence able to mediate, advocate and advise on their behalf. I've done this many times and been able to help prisoners progress when they've become locked into a cycle of destructive and uncooperative behaviour whilst in custody. Probation has an absolutely key role to play in the sort of situations we saw played out at HM Prison Aylesbury.     

Probation for Profit

Once again I'm grateful to Mike Guilfoyle for steering me in the direction of a recent article on the New Left Project website. Written by Michael Teague of the Social Futures Institute at Teeside University and entitled The Dismantling of Probation : Who will Profit? the article convincingly makes the point that it's all about big business making money rather than rehabilitation.

A former probation officer and now researcher and lecturer, Michael Teague is yet another well-informed academic able to authoritatively pour scorn on the government's plans and highlight where this direction of travel will inevitably take us, namely to the American model where increasingly those subject to probation supervision have to pay for it themselves.

This is a topic I've been meaning to get around to for some time, but haven't. Can you imagine how helpful it is for the rehabilitative process if you not only have to find money for food and shelter, but also to pay your probation officer too? In many cases it can't be done of course and leads to imprisonment for non-payment:- 

"Do we really want to travel the American road of privatised probation?  The evidence from the USA suggests that introducing the profit motive into community justice does not enhance the rehabilitative process.  Charging ‘user fees’ is widespread within American ‘community corrections’, with some agencies raising over half their operational budget from such charges.  Individual supervisees may pay fees of up to $100 per month.  In those US states where the rates of incarceration are highest, most people on probation pay for their own supervision.  People on probation in America typically have lifestyles characterised by poverty and chaotic personal circumstances, which may render finding the fees additionally problematic.  The financial pressure to raise money for fees can, in turn, lead to further offending.  They may end up penalised by the justice system, not because they are in breach of their rehabilitative goals, but rather because they are too impoverished to fund their own probation supervision.  Federal law then excludes those in breach of the conditions of supervision from a range of social security benefits, thereby compounding the problem.

In addition, the ethos of fee-dependent private probation may create a professional culture which deprioritises rehabilitation at the expense of the service’s financial solvency, not to mention promoting overtly punitive money fee collection practices.  While we are not yet at the stage of contemplating fees for probation supervision in England and Wales, the American experience represents a cautionary tale for our current direction of travel."

In considering who will profit from privatisation, the article is clear:-

"Probation may have a substantial history of embracing the rehabilitative ideal, but private companies focused on shareholder profit are not oblivious to the fact that, in England and Wales, it represents an industry worth some £820 million a year (the total budget allocated to the existing 35 probation trusts each year).  The potentially lucrative contracts for probation work will be worth a substantial proportion of that total.  The financial resources required to back successful bids will inevitably bestow a significant advantage on those bigger private companies with the resources and infrastructure to support their bid.  This means that that large multinational companies like Serco, Sodexo and G4S – already enriching shareholders via privatised incarceration – will be ideally positioned to take over the bulk of probation’s core public sector work."

The article concludes:-

"When probation is thriving, communities benefit, offenders are rehabilitated and the creation of future victims is prevented.  The original reintegrative ethos underpinning probation reflects its immense social worth.  That ethos has been eroded leading to a service increasingly focused on enforcement and driven by targets.  However, it remains a service which effectively reduces reoffending and offers society real value for money.  Despite this, the Coalition Government is driving through plans which will render that service less effective.  That they remain intent on pursuing these plans exposes the primary motive for the changes as private profit, not public service delivery.  In fiscal terms, probation costs the public purse a fraction of the price of incarceration.  The cost of corporate tax avoidance in a single year is estimated by HM Revenue and Customs to be approximately £4.1 billion.  This sum alone would fund the probation service for five years.  The Government is instead poised to jettison over a century of rehabilitative experience in order to reward the interests of shareholders.  Probation undertakes invaluable – albeit frequently undervalued – work.  Its dismantling is not inevitable; consultation on these proposals is underway.  An urgent rethink is required, lest we consign over a century of public sector rehabilitative experience to the dustbin of history."

The No 10 petition can be found here.    

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Probation Review

With the clock ticking fast towards Friday's deadline to get responses in to the Ministry of Justice as part of the consultation on privatising the Probation Service, I thought it might be helpful to reflect a bit, especially as I don't intend to dignify the sham by wasting time in making a contribution myself. 

Feedback from others who attended different consultation events tend to confirm my own experience, namely that although lots of third sector participants arrived bullish, their enthusiasm quickly evaporated as most came to realise that the whole concept is in fact a slow motion car crash. The civil servants involved have been given an impossible task and the scope for creating a disaster knows few bounds. 

I notice from twitter that at least one senior academic simply 'lost the will to live' during proceedings and this is a view I've heard echoed in other places. By the way, I have reluctantly registered a twitter account, but still remain unimpressed with it's utility and effective use of time.  The medium is clearly well-suited to others, for example Ben Gunn for whom it could have been specifically designed as a method to wind people up and spread as much heat as possible rather than light. I'll stay a twitter voyeur I think.

Talking of Ben, he makes no secret of his disdain for probation and is clearly well-flattered by the attention of the likes of 'prime-in-waiting' G4S. He is of course thoroughly enjoying his progression round the celebrity prisoner debating circuit, pouring scorn on all parts of the criminal justice system, but having little in the way of constructive suggestions to make. 

Apart from some disgruntled former prisoners and some probation clients (but not Roger from 'Out of Prison and on the Streets'), big corporations like G4S, right wing think tanks such as Policy Exchange, the CBI and charities 'on the make', who else thinks privatising the Probation Service is a good idea? Well, Sir Stephen Bubb speaks for a significant number of the latter and I continue to be utterly bemused by his self-serving blog that regularly catalogues dining arrangements and assiduous name-dropping. Not a particularly attractive or convincing group of protagonists I would suggest.

Meanwhile Payment by Results, the wonder mechanism by which privatisation of probation will supposedly be delivered, continues to attract scorn and scepticism. Here on Russell Webster's site, Toby Eccles of Social Finance handily outlines 'eight ways of mucking up outcomes based contracts.' This should serve as a perfectly timed and handy checklist for those poor civil servants down at the MoJ as they continue to burn the midnight oil in a desperate bid to make their political masters happy.

The track record is not good at the MoJ though. They have an uncanny knack of engineering disastrous contracts, like the one for interpreters, tagging, IT, bail accommodation, hostel facilities management to name but a few. The Department even has difficulty getting it's books signed off by the auditors and the House of Commons Select Committee is regularly highly critical of management. They are very aware of 'reputational' damage and there's bags of scope for this down the privatisation route.     

It just won't work guys! It's just not worth the hassle. Instead, now would be a good time for aspirational civil servants to come up with a Gove-type reason why going down a slightly different avenue would be much more sensible. Not a u-turn obviously. More a smarter, nuanced, multi-agency, partnership, Big Society sort-of-approach. You know the sort of thing. 

Meanwhile 18,871 citizens have registered what they think of privatising probation and have signed the No10 petition.

Monday 18 February 2013

Five Days to Save the World

Ok maybe the 'link bait' title is a little apocalyptic, but judging by the recent spectacular meteor shower over Russia and the fact that an Olympic swimming pool-sized asteroid only just missed earth, the gods are clearly unhappy. Oh, and there's only five days left to get responses in to the government's plans for privatising the Probation Service.

Just as I was wondering what else there was to say about the whole sorry mess, a post catches my eye on the 'aged member speaks' blog entitled 'Get Carter.' First off, I have to say as a great fan of the Michael Caine film, I wish I'd have thought of that as a title. Anyway, it refers of course to businessman Patrick Carter who was brought in by Tony Blair's government to look at probation and prison and who came up with the absolutely brilliant idea of a whole new bureaucracy called the National Offender Management Service. 

I have absolutely no idea what qualifications marked out the now Baron Carter of Coles for the task, but here was a man who knew nothing about the matter in hand and in relation to 'contestability' famously commented that he thought it might be a good idea 'to introduce a bit of tension into the system.'

It's a bit like the apocryphal story of Jack Straw who, upon spying a copy of 'Radical Non-Intervention' on a probation officer's bookcase, subsequently cited it as evidence for changing the whole ethos of the Service. I mean, it's a ludicrous way to run a country and would be a bit like me hearing a politician talking bollocks and thinking they all do...

Sorry, I digress. The post makes the fascinating comparison between Policy Exchange's 2010 response to the Carter Review, 'Carter but Smarter' and their very recent report 'Expanding Payment by Results.' 

The Policy Exchange report assesses the progress (or lack of it) since Carter with the now added ingredient of payment by results. The report is clear that by themselves the prison and probation service are not going to transform rehabilitation and that simply replacing these public services with a mix of private and voluntary sector alternatives isn’t likely to achieve anything. More than half the services needed to reduce offending , it argues, lie outside the control of prisons or probation. It argues further that therefore just incentivising with PbR private and voluntary sector replacements will not affect the incentives or the configuration of the broader public sector.

It traces the troubled history of NOMS and its track record as a commissioner of services and argues that NOMS has largely failed to change the pattern of services at local and regional levels. So much so, it argues, that the regional layer of NOMS ought to be abolished, saving some £130 million per year. In its place a number of alternatives are discussed, all with the aim of incentivising a broader range of public services to work together in reducing re-offending. It firmly argues that the terrain is at a lower level than the region. The health and local authority level is the crucial playing field where housing, employment, addiction and adult mental health services really need to be working together with commonly owned incentives. What were then promising approaches such as Integrated Offender Management and the London Diamond model are put forward as the contexts in which some form of shared financial incentive might work.

Fast forward to 2013 to the report “Expanding Payment by Results”  by the same organisation and indeed by the same author and these arguments don’t get a mention – just one anodyne paragraph saying that the private sector organisations who win the regional offender management contracts need to be able to demonstrate some ability to be able to forge the necessary working relationships.

The author asks the very pertinent question 'what has changed?' Indeed. Politics, vested interest and ideology I suspect. As I said recently, how can Policy Exchange, a Tory think tank, possibly qualify as a charity?   

Sign the No10 petition here.