Monday 29 April 2013

A Masterclass

Now that we know the full extent of the historic sex offence charges that have been levelled against ace media publicist Max Clifford, it shouldn't come as any surprise that his prepared statement to the assembled media throng was an absolute masterclass both in damage limitation and appeal to public sympathy. 

He did stray from the script though, as this ITV interview shows and in answer to an inaudible question from a reporter said "None of this would have happened without Savile."

I thought that was quite revealing and it will be up to each individual to make of it what they will, but I'm fairly sure he's absolutely right. It is only because of the whole sad sorry Savile affair that many, many victims of sex offences now feel able to come forward in the more confident knowledge that their stories will be heard and believed. 

Yet another result of the Savile affair has been the new investigation into historic child sexual abuse at North Wales children's homes and reported here. Amongst other things, we are now entitled to ask exactly as to why the previous investigation by Sir Ronald Waterhouse failed so miserably? Is it a case of piss-poor work, or more alarmingly, evidence of a cover-up? I would remind readers that we are still awaiting the results of police investigations into exactly what went on at Elm House, a certain west London guest house frequented by lots of politicians of all political parties in the 70's and 80's.  

Ever since the Savile story first broke, I've been becoming increasingly concerned regarding siren voices from all sorts of quarters, basically casting doubts upon the direction of travel as a result. To be honest it's made for some very uncomfortable comment by people I normally have high regard for and has just a whiff of the weasel words normally associated with holocaust denial.

It ranges from references to a possible 'witch-hunt', to a suggestion that the passage of time somehow invokes the notion of a statute of limitation. I've heard questions raised of the ability of the accused to have a fair trial, to the 'difficulty' of overlaying our current attitudes towards appropriate sexual conduct, with the practises and mores of the past. From notions of 'victims' just wanting compensation, to 'false memory syndrome.' 

To probation officers, all this and a whole shed-load of other stuff is very familiar indeed on the part of many of our clients found guilty of sex offending. Such denial, minimisation, obfuscation and distorted logic are pretty common in my experience as a way of explaining rape and indecent assault, and I suspect it's partly because of these traits that so many perpetrators have never been brought to justice. It's also partly down to 'apologists' as well though.

To be honest I think the pendulum has at last swung in favour of any victim of a sexual offence being able to feel confident that their complaint will be treated seriously both by the police and Crown Prosecution Service. In the end it will be up to the legal process and a jury to consider the evidence and come to a judgement, but at least there is now a better chance that victims will get their day in court too. 

As an aside, both the police and media now find themselves in somewhat of an embarrassing quandary regarding the passing of information from the former to the latter. With so many police officers and former police officers finding themselves being charged with basically selling information in the past, together with nervousness on the part of the media post Leveson, I notice the suggestion by CC Andy Trotter of ACPO is basically to say nothing in future. 

Readers will recall it took months for the news about Rolf Harris being interviewed by the police to emerge officially and only when The Sun decided to bite the bullet. We could soon be in the position of having secret arrests. Makes you think, doesn't it?     

Keep Calm and Carry On

I notice Russell Webster has invoked some war rhetoric to describe the current chaotic state of probation. He reckons the 'phoney war' will probably end about mid-May when the Ministry of Justice eventually announces the planned shape of the Service. 

Having his ear obviously close to the ground, we learn from MoJ rumours that the contract packages are likely to be bigger than first thought, thus confirming the success big boys like G4S have had in their lobbying. They obviously want to maximise the economies of scale that size will bring and hence opportunities for profit, whilst at the same time ensuring the small fry don't get a look-in as prime contractors.

Talking of small fry, we learn that there are seven Trusts, or groupings of Trusts, who are intending to try and 'mutualise' in order to bid for the work. Interestingly, it pits Cabinet Office against MoJ who basically detest the idea! Of course Trusts who do not try and go down this route are prevented from bidding. According to Russell Webster:-

For anyone that doesn’t know, the seven areas are: Cumbria, Lancashire and Merseyside; Dorset and Devon & Cornwall; the East Midlands REACH service (run by Leicestershire & Rutland probation); Essex; Kent and Surrey & Sussex; the London Probation resettlement services known as RISE; and Warwickshire/West Mercia.

It's a sad indictment indeed when we have to resort to private blogsites in order to discover what's going on, rather than the Probation Chief's Association, Probation Association or NAPO even, but there we are. As Russell reminds us, there's a lot of frenetic speed-dating going on as everyone sizes each other up as potential partners. As with all dating I suppose, a mostly clumsy and inelegant process, fraught with possible embarrassment and rejection, so best to say little.

It's no good looking to NAPO either for information during this 'phoney war.' As far as I can see, they haven't even told the memberhip that Harry Fletcher will shortly be departing and there is understandable evidence of disquiet in the ranks at the woeful speed of updates on the website. One forum commentator reminds us of the recent words by Sir Michael Wilshore the new Chief Inspector of Schools who, upon taking up his post said, "If anyone says to you staff morale is at an all-time low, you know you are doing something right." 

This is clear confirmation, if any were needed, that government policy involves pissing-off as many public servants as possible. Probation are merely the latest group and join teachers, nurses and of course the police who are still getting over the indignity of having the dreadful Tom Winsor lord it over them as HM Chief Inspector. 

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Tuesday 23 April 2013

The Prisoners 2

I think most people would agree that these fly-on-the-wall documentaries about prisons make for particularly depressing viewing, and episode 2 of the BBC1 series The Prisoners didn't disappoint in that regard. To the uninitiated, it should give a degree of insight into the scale and scope of some of the problems probation have to try and deal with on a daily basis. 

This episode featured heavily two female prisoners at HMP Holloway, one of the largest women's prisons in Europe we were told. Jayde, although only 18, has apparently spent most of her formative years in the care system and hence a variety of institutions. Emotionally she has been clearly damaged by her experiences and now adopts a pattern of dangerous attention seeking behaviour involving applying ligatures to her neck. Her binge-drinking only makes her violent tendencies even worse when back in the community and frequent breaches of her stringent PPO licence conditions only mean regular recalls. Ironically it's only prison where she feels cared for and safe.  

What always depresses me the most about clients like Jayde, or Crystal the 23 year-old who poignantly recounted how 'some of her best times' had been in prison, is that this didn't suddenly happen over night. Each has been through a range of statutory agencies before arriving at our doorstep, but we are expected to try and fix the problem. It seems that Crystal was diagnosed as being bi-polar some time previously, but for what ever reason this hadn't been treated successfully in the community. In her case, following a near-successful suicide attempt, it seems that only being 'sectioned' under the Mental Health Act enabled her to be stabilised on medication. 

It was sad to see Crystal feeling obliged to give up her tenancy in Southend, and I did wonder what if any support she'd been getting there. Of course it doesn't help with 'through-the-gate' support when the prison is some considerable distance away, potential probation bidders please note. I also notice that a residential rehab place was found for her. This is an incredibly expensive and rarely available opportunity, but not surprisingly it didn't work. We have a lot to learn regarding drug and alcohol treatments and I found myself daydreaming about the amazing Italian San Patrignano project that works holistically with people and was featured on tv in 2011.       

I don't want to repeat what I said following the first episode, but each of the clients featured here, including Jason the 27 year-old crack cocaine user, would benefit from counselling in one shape or another. You only have to watch how Jayde responds to the care and concern of officer Kelly to see how each is yearning to be understood and listened to. I suspect the two women may well have suffered some form of abuse earlier in their life and one of the results can be constant episodes of self-harming or other seriously reckless behaviour. Talking about such things is extremely difficult of course and can only happen within an established and trusting professional relationship.

A measure of the degree of institutionalisation can be glimpsed when Crystal observes that 'if only we were allowed out now and then to get some clothes and do some shopping, I don't think I'd ever leave'. She felt 'looked after inside. Was clean, well fed, happy and healthy. It's like home with friends'. What a sad indictment and something to ponder on. 

This series should be required viewing for any organisation considering bidding for our work on a Payment by Results basis. Is it really any wonder that reoffending rates are so high when one sees the reality of the problem posed by such chaotic offenders? There is no quick fix to such entrenched behaviours and problems. It takes a great deal of patience, time and effort and not at all conducive to Payment by Results. 

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Monday 22 April 2013

The Kiss of Death

Regular readers will know that I remain dubious concerning the merits of twitter as a useful medium for conveying much of significance. So it's particularly noteworty that a regular probation tweep, PoOfficer - I hope that's the correct term and not abusive - has decided to start a blog in order not to be constrained by just 142 pesky characters. It's an interesting start and more blogs on a subject dear to my heart can't be bad in my view. 

But what's also interesting is that Sarah Billiald, who speaks for the Chief's, is so impressed, she's going to see if there's scope for frontline probation bloggers to be featured on the official PCA website. Well, I can see why probation management are keen to tap into new media as a way of trying to influence the news and policy agenda, but I have to say it rather misses the point of a blog doesn't it? I'd have thought any whiff of official endorsement is pretty much the kiss of death for a blog. 

We've sort of been here before with the series of posts last year by Zoe Stafford of Greater Manchester Probation Trust and hosted by Russell Webster. Very popular in certain quarters, (Zoe won an award) it came in for quite a bit of stick in others, notably through the prisoner's newspaper Inside Time and a piece entitled 'My Probation Pledge'. I'm in no doubt at all that writing a blog that has any hint of official endorsement is a nightmare scenario, and in my view doomed to failure for one very obvious reason - if it's endorsed it can't say anything seriously 'off message' can it?

The explosion in anonymous blogging by frontline staff in all spheres of endeavour is one of the real joys of the internet and really demonstrates just how inadequate Main Stream Media is fast becoming as a way of finding out what's really going on in the world. If you don't believe me, just make a coffee and set aside an hour or two to browse the stuff featured on the Guerilla Policy website. I'm convinced that sites like this can begin to seriously influence public opinion and hence government policy, precisely because it's spoken from the heart and free of any hint of 'endorsement'.

I started writing this blog back in 2010 because there seemed little out there on the subject. That's still the case, but if you look hard enough, there are nuggets to be found. Take this for instance, 'Advise, Assist and Befriend' a blog by The Enforcer started way back in 2006, but sadly and ominously quiet since March 2012. Mike Guilfoyle, now retired as a probation officer, writes regularly and incisively on the Works for Freedom website about his experiences as a PO in London. I've also enjoyed the reminiscences of an extraOrdinary Life on the helentroy blog which should serve to remind us all that the problems clients experience have remained pretty much the same throughout. 

In these difficult and politically challenging times, we do need more people to write meaningfully about the wonderful and magical world of probation, in order to try and spread the word to a mostly uninformed public. It has to be done carefully though, as none of us would wish to break confidences entrusted to us by clients and generally claiming 'successes' does not come easily to us as a profession, quite rightly in my view. But then 'failures' are often not that either, are they? Just delayed successes, because we never give up. 

According to Russell Webster, there are 325 people tweeting on the subject of probation, many of them officially as senior managers, but I still don't think 142 characters is enough in which to say much that's meaningful.

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Friday 19 April 2013

Every Officer's Nightmare

I think it's true to say that most officers wake up in the middle of the night at some point in their career and fret that one of their charges might have killed or raped someone. It didn't used to be like this of course. When I started and something horrific happened, you could expect nothing but concern and sympathy from both colleagues and management. 

Not any more though. It may not be said openly, but just the uttering of the dreaded phrase Serious Further Offence Enquiry will bring with it the starting assumption that you should have known. You should have supervised better. It's basically your fault.

This is utter nonsense of course because none of us has a crystal ball, we do not supervise clients 24/7 and each person has free will and must ultimately be held responsible for their actions. It's not and never can be our fault that someone commits a crime, but of course there's nowadays the small matter of OASys. 

Rest-assured that this vast, unwieldy, pain-in-the-arse, computerised assessment tool will be locked, printed out and pored over by management for some evidence of omission or lack of timeliness in completion. The suspicion is that any enquiry won't really be about serious matters of judgement, it will mostly be about bloody bureaucracy. 

Every time I read of a case like that of Opemipo Jaji, an 18 year-old just convicted at the Old Bailey of raping an 11 year-old girl whilst on probation, my thoughts turn to the poor officer as well as the traumatised victim. The press don't see it like this of course because as a society we've come to believe that someone, somewhere must be to blame, in addition to the perpetrator. 

Now I've got no problem at all in the concept of a proper examination of everything that went on prior to this tragic event, basically so that we can all learn lessons. Why was it that this young man was not made subject to Sex Offender Registration in respect of an earlier sexual offence? Were adequate reports prepared by the Youth Offending Team when they had responsibility? There were other offences involving indecent images of children, but again no registration requirement. 

I notice that the police have been quite vocal in raising the issue of why this young man was not partaking in any Sex Offender Treatment Programmes, either as part of an earlier Detention and Training Order or the later probation-supervised Community Order? A good question, but one that needs to be addressed towards the court decisions. If SOTP is not specified as a condition of any sentence, it places any supervising officer in a difficult position. Possibly such a condition wasn't requested? Possibly there were no full Pre Sentence Reports prepared? Possibly the court deviated from any recommendations made? 

All these and many other issues will hopefully be the legitimate concerns of the Enquiries just announced. I'm pleased that the judge has very sensibly decided to request full Pre Sentence and Psychiatric Reports before passing what could well be a Discretionary Life Sentence. 

Finally, a cautionary word for all intending bidders for our work. I don't know what risk level this young man was at the time he committed this horrific offence, but risk assessment is not a science, despite the deliberately-fostered implication that OASys makes it so. This guy seems to have been reporting as required, was actively engaged in training and may not have been displaying any current worrying behaviours. 

This nightmare scenario could be coming your way soon guys and you will need all the public relations news management skills you can muster in order to avoid the public opprobrium that will inevitably arise. 

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Wednesday 17 April 2013

Open Letter to Trainee Journo's

Dear Aspiring Journalist,

I thought I'd take the somewhat unusual step of penning this open letter to you all, firstly to get a couple of things off my chest, and secondly in order to avoid any further waste of both your and my valuable time.

Since starting this blog it's become quite apparent how we are viewed as 'fair game' in being worth a punt for assistance with those pesky essays, projects or dissertations even. I suspect like most right-minded citizens, I'm always keen to assist in any reasonable way with student's learning needs and of course we are often flattered by the attention of anyone showing the slightest interest in our endeavours. 

It's been fairly easy to bat away the lazy, indolent or otherwise crass enquiries along the lines of  "tell me what it's like being a probation officer" - read the bloody blog - but the more considered questions or requests for information I've responded to fully on the basis that the student will reciprocate and do me the courtesy of supplying either a draft or copy of the finished work.

Why I've even gone to the unique trouble of agreeing to a three hour interview on a Saturday afternoon for one aspiring hack, but no evidence of their endeavours has ever been forthcoming. For all I know they might have got the wrong end of the stick and it could be so much misleading rubbish. This annoys me intensely, to say nothing of having been a breach of the understanding entered into as a basis for agreeing to the interview. Naturally I would not expect to be able to exercise total control over the content of any work, just offer the ability to be able to avoid glaring inaccuracies or misunderstandings for our mutual benefit.

Anyway guys, rant over. But that's it I'm afraid for any more of you. You'll have to look elsewhere as in my line of work gaining the trust of clients means you have to deliver, or come up with a damn good and convincing reason why you haven't been able to. 


Jim Brown       

Tuesday 16 April 2013

The Prisoners

Television producers seem to feel there's still plenty of mileage to be had from prison documentaries and this episode of BBC1's 'The Prisoners' didn't disappoint. Centred on HMP Pentonville,  one of the massive London 'local' prisons, pretty much all of the sadly familiar issues of homelessness, drink, drugs, mental health, relationships and emotional damage were highlighted through the experiences of the guys who agreed to take part.

Along with many probation officers who no doubt tuned in out of professional curiosity, I sincerely hope we were joined by representatives of all those organisations currently hatching plans to grab our work. The task of trying to turn these guys situations around and help repair their damaged lives is enormous and frankly not for the feint-hearted or impatient. 

Given the current pressures on accommodation and high levels of unemployment, do some people seriously think that effecting a 'rehabilitation revolution' will be achieved by privatising the work because failure has somehow been probation's fault? Are the likes of G4S really going to be prepared to enter into Payment by Results contracts when programmes like this show in graphic detail the sheer scale and nature of the challenges? No, of course not. For all the political hype, they will want a system with as little PbR in it as possible. They may be crap, but they're not stupid.

For me this programme once more served to highlight that this kind of work is not so much about process as it is about relationships. I'm always astonished that this obvious fact is not appreciated by everyone. Each of the men featured had a need to talk, a yearning to have their situation understood. They needed empathy and love like we all do. 

People 'kick off' and smash cells, self harm or turn violent when they feel they are not being listened to and are frightened. When a relationship has been established, whether it be with probation officer, prison officer, family member or tv crew even, a person begins to listen and respond to suggestions designed to offer help and support. If there's no meaningful dialogue or relationship, there can be no progress.

As an aside, I was always taught that having a desk between officer and client was not a helpful signal to be putting out - very 'defensive', hierarchical and intimidatory. London Probation Service - you need to rearrange the furniture dare I suggest.  

I know it's politically unacceptable, but I struggle with this whole IOM or Integrated Offender Management stuff with the police. I think they have far more important and useful tasks to be engaged in than doing joint visits with a probation officer. What's that all about? We don't need a 'minder' to help ensure compliance and are fully able to initiate recall if felt appropriate. The job of the police is to merely execute the warrant. It's our job and if probation was properly resourced we could get on with it. The trouble is IOM is beloved by management and very much flavour of the month as demonstrating the virtues of 'partnership working.'  

There's another two episodes in the series, one focusing on women and I'm sure they will prove just as riveting for all those having an interest in prison matters.  

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Monday 15 April 2013

Everyone For Themselves!

I think disarray would be the best way to describe the state of probation at the present time. I guess it's no great surprise to see that there's absolutely no unity of purpose or direction forthcoming from Chiefs by way of a response to Chris Grayling's privatisation plans and effectively it's 'everyone for themselves!

According to twitter, West Mercia, Lancashire, Cumbria and Merseyside Trusts are all apparently 'absolutely delighted' to have been accepted on to the Cabinet Office's bespoke programme of support in order to become mutuals. As the CEO for West Mercia put it, 'what's it all about? Not waiting to be taken over and keeping probation value-led.' Mmmm we'll see. Others would say mutualisation is simply a Trojan horse to effect full privatisation by a sleight of hand and further down the road. 

Meanwhile other Trusts are no doubt busily cosying up to all the usual commercial suspects and a general silence descends, lest any rival Trust gets wind of what's being cooked-up behind closed doors. All very unseemly and utterly alien to the ethos and ethics of probation in my view. I dread to think what the likes of recently-deceased David Mathieson and former Chief of Merseyside Probation would make of it all.  

I have to say I'm truly astonished and more than a little embarrassed to be associated with all this new business-like nomenclature crap that 'go-ahead' trusts are coming out with at the moment. Take Lancashire for instance with it's glossy brochure singing the praises of its seven-strong team in the newly-formed 'business and commercial' department at Head Office. I'm sure they all think they're doing a terribly worthwhile job, beavering away feverishly on 'future-proofing', but I'm equally convinced it will do nothing for the morale of hard-pressed staff at the frontline. 

The sad fact is that all Trusts have allowed their Head Offices to become massively over-staffed in recent years with layer upon layer of managers doing pretty much sod all. I can say without a shadow of doubt that if privatisation or mutualisation comes about, that's the first place the axe will fall. To use the business-like analogy, it's all about the 'bottomline' and if your post is not contributing towards actually delivering something really useful, it's sayonara

If this is what is going on at the top, what's happening further down the food chain? People are jumping ship basically. Those of a certain age took the opportunity of redundancy or early retirement packages in droves before the end of the last tax year and those less experienced and younger are urgently re-considering their career paths. A good few of these have gone already, leading to more stress, higher caseloads and reduced morale for those left behind. Remaining staff are being re-shuffled into high and lower risk teams in readiness for privatisation and everyone is trying to grapple with new 'improved' OASysr.  

It's so cruelly depressing to be witnessing the destruction of a fine public service in front of our very eyes. For many of us, this was never just a job, but a vocation. There's virtually no national leadership. No direction, no champion. The Grayling gag has had the desired effect and management comment has returned to the anodyne. NAPO is still in utter disarray having lost both its General Secretary and now long-standing Assistant General Secretary who I understand has decided to pursue other interests. 

So, what can we do?  Basically hope and pray that it will all go horribly wrong rather sooner than later. After all, we know the computer systems are crap. We know primary legislation will be required if supervision of the under 12 months custody cases is to be mandatory. We know PbR won't work, but Grayling still thinks it will. We know there are not enough trained mentors out there. We know the whole thing is daft, dangerous, won't save money and won't reduce re-offending. Finally, it can't be done in two years and therefore before the next General Election. There's many a slip twixt cup and lip, as my gran used to say.

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Friday 5 April 2013

Shameless Mick

I guess I can't put it off any longer. I've read as much as I can and watched both hour-long tv documentaries, which incidentally varied enormously in quality with the BBC Panorama special easily trumping the ITV effort. It's the subject of conversation in every pub, and generally across the length and breadth of the Nation, if not the wider world. 

The absolutely tragic Philpott case involving the death of six children in Derby has shocked us all and lifted the lid on some very uncomfortable issues. Try as I might, it's hard to find any redeeming features in Mick Philpott, the self-styled 'shameless Mick', despite his defence counsel describing him as a 'caring father'.

I think such a statement in mitigation enormously irritated HH Mrs Justice Thirlwell who was quick to dispel that particular myth. As the vast brood of kids in this very unorthodox domestic situation grew older, I'm fairly sure huge amounts of trouble were being stored up that could only lead to great unhappiness at the hands of this 'enormously dangerous' bully. 

It was no great surprise that Mr Philpott received a discretionary life sentence with a 15 year tariff. Interestingly, had the Crown decided to continue with charges of murder, upon conviction the tariff starting point would have been whole life. As always the sentencing remarks are worth reading in full and it's abundantly clear that Mrs Justice Thirlwell got the measure of the man completely. What sweet irony that it fell to a female judge to deal with this case. One can only speculate how irritating Mr Philpott must have found this. 

Apart from the children obviously, I have to say my sympathy lies with the long-suffering wife Mairead who was undoubtedly chosen by Philpott because of her vulnerability and susceptibility to manipulation and control. We didn't hear her speak much due to the control exercised over her, but I suspect she is of limited ability and possibly has a learning disability. I think the jury's majority verdict in her case might indicate a degree of concern by at least some jurors.  

In cases such as this, I believe there is a view by some judges that adjourning for full probation reports prior to sentencing is unnecessary because long custodial sentences are inevitable. I remain firmly of the view that PSR's should be prepared in order to highlight issues that might not have received a great deal of attention during the trial. I can't help thinking that the judge would have found a psychology report for Mairhead both helpful and enlightening before passing sentence on her.

As is usual with all those receiving a life sentence, a probation officer in Derby will be starting the process of preparing a Post Life Sentence Report on Mick Philpott and that will form the basis of future sentence planning. It won't be easy challenging his distorted views of relationships, but someone, somewhere will have that task over the coming years.  

Thankfully for us all, Mick Philpott can no longer be a danger to further women and children for a long time to come, but the timing of this case couldn't be more cruel coming as it does right at the very moment when attention is focused on the level of state benefits. For critics of the system you'd be hard-pressed to find a better example to illustrate your case than that of Mick Philpott and the estimated £70,000 that flowed through his bank account in benefits.

Even ever-smug-looking Chancellor George Osborne can't resist the opportunity to make mischief with the Philpott case for political ends, no matter how extreme or unusual it might be. Unfortunately it's for this that the deeply obnoxious Mick Philpott will be remembered, as much as being responsible for the deaths of six very normal-looking children and who sadly didn't seem to have overly-benefited from the state's largess.