Thursday 30 May 2013

Time to Heal

George Monbiot has written a moving piece in the Guardian today about the tragic loss of little April Jones and the effect it's had on their community. As he so rightly says, now that the trial is over, Mark Bridger convicted and sentenced to a Whole Life term of imprisonment, the healing can begin.

I also felt moved to write about this sad case last October and made the point that a probation officer would almost certainly have been allocated the case right from first remand. Cases like this touch people and for that officer now charged with preparing the Post Life Sentence Report, I made the point that we should return to the practice of allocating such an officer a 'pair' both for support and to provide a degree of continuity through a very long sentence.

It's quite clear to me that Mark Bridger will continue to try and exercise a degree of cruel control by denying the police and family details as to the whereabouts of April's body. Some people we are required to work with tax our professional integrity and moral compass to the limits and I'm sure this man will pose any officer many sleepless nights.

Long after the police attention has waned, they will be engaging in a regular intellectual, moral and philosophical battle with him, all the while conscious of the inherent danger of falling victim to his cynical manipulation. We've seen this with Ian Brady and the so-called mental health advocate, and today we read of Bridger's 'confession' to a priest at HMP Manchester while he was on remand.

Just imagine the moral dilemma and anguish this priest was put through in having to make a decision between respecting the sanctity of 'conversations' (not a Confession we are told) on the one hand, with the moral and civic duty of reporting the content to the police on the other. Bridger would know this of course and as with Brady, it just represents another twist in the utterly cruel game of holding out false hope to those desperate in wanting to bury their loved one. 

My heart goes out to April's parents who have remained dignified throughout.     

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Justice for Sale

No doubt wishing to try and further his political career, I notice that Justice Minister Chris Grayling has been one of the first to agree further spending cuts in his department with the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. A clue as to how these extra cuts are to be achieved featured on the front page of The Times yesterday 'Courts to be privatised in radical justice shake-up'.

According to a post on the Scriptonite Daily website, Grayling hinted at changes when he told Parliament in March:-

“The courts and tribunals are at the centre of our justice system, relied on by the public to enforce their rights and uphold the rule of law. As in other areas, we need to look at the way we deliver our services to provide a more efficient service that delivers access to justice quickly and effectively, while delivering value for money for the taxpayer. At the same time, we must preserve the independence of the judiciary, which lies at the heart of our constitutional arrangements.”

According to the Times article:- 

“Courts in England and Wales are facing wholesale privatisation under revolutionary plans that would end the system that has existed since Magna Carta. The idea would establish the courts service as a commercial enterprise, paying its way and freed from Treasury control, with court buildings and thousands of staff put in the hands of private companies. It would save the Ministry of Justice £1 billion a year.”

Of course this could be a bit of 'kite-flying' just designed to judge the reaction and distract us from other things going on, but if it has any traction it will of course involve the usual suspects like G4S and Serco. They are rapidly becoming a 'one stop shop' in terms of the criminal justice system and could end up making money at every stage from initial arrest and investigation, right through court, legal representation, bail, tagging, transport, custody to probation supervision. Quite a neat business empire eh? 

The Scriptonite Daily article goes on to provide a very useful and enlightening resume of just how far G4S's tentacles have spread already in our criminal justice system. The campaign to stop them getting their hand on probation continues and the No10 petition can be found here. 

Meanwhile the legal profession continues to turn the heat up on Chris Grayling with 90 QC's apparently putting their names to a letter in the Daily Telegraph warning that the restrictions to legal aid "will seriously undermine the rule of law". The relevant No10 petition can be found here and has already attracted a very respectable 64,561 signatures.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Trigger Happy

When Chris Grayling began plotting the demise of the Probation Service he realised there were one or two problems. Even he could see that the public would be just a tad nervous about the private or voluntary sector looking after some very dangerous people, so clearly they would have to stay with a small public service who would continue to carry the blame when it all goes 'Pete Tong'.

Initially it was proposed that the public sector would retain responsibility for everything with civil service staff 'embedded' in contractors offices so as to advise when a case was looking decidedly dodgy and was time to hand it back to the public sector. In this back-of-a-fag-packet process going on down at the Ministry of Justice, they quite quickly realised that this would be rather expensive given the vast number of prime and sub contractors involved. 

So the latest idea in the development of what will undoubtedly become a super omnishambles is to place a responsibility upon the contractor to press a 'trigger' at the first signs of trouble and get shot of the case to the public service 'toot sweet' and certainly before they've had chance to swing the proverbial axe and kill anyone.

Timing is clearly of the essence as this article in the New Statesman by Alan White makes clear because in the inevitable blame game that will follow, a private contractor will not want to be associated with the reputational damage that will surely result. The article quotes Mark Ormerod of the Probation Association:- 

We understand the provider would be accountable if they hadn’t pulled the triggers. It would come to a review of the case in the way that happens now. The issue we drew attention to is that it’s more likely to go wrong because you’ve introduced an interface. Things go wrong when communication breaks down. And it gets more complicated when some of the triggers have been pulled, and when the person goes forward and backwards between providers it becomes more difficult to assign responsibility - whose fault is it? Risk levels change in about 25% of cases. In some of the cases we’ve looked at, the risk levels change substantially. Low or high-risk cases are easier to manage. They’re the minority though. It’s the bit in the middle where change is dynamic and contextual.

But as the article makes clear, there's not just risk involved here, there's also the small matter of money.

Of course the other thing about this system is that money’s involved: we’ve seen exactly the impact it’s had on the Work Programme. Surely it could mean the providers will be incentivised to pull some triggers and leave others? “Therein lies the difficulty: other factors come into play. They have recognised this - the public sector will be able to carry out renewed risk assessments. It goes back to the point about how the operating model works in practice: it’s difficult to regulate it by contract,” says Ormerod.

Savas Hadjipavlou, Business Director of the Probation Chiefs Association expands on this:

Originally the public sector could pull in a case - we asked how would they know when they could call it in. This is an attempt to say the public sector doesn’t have responsibility for the whole thing. It places more emphasis on the assessment system. But risk assessment is not that precise a science. The culture will be new to the providers. It’s about looking at the behaviour of an individual intelligently, looking at the person intelligently. Is the risk assessment system capable of that fine granularity? 

As always, the article is worth reading in full, particularly if there are still people out there who either feel this is all a good idea, or even more bizarrely, think it's all likely to work. After all, you could be forgiven for missing the news sneaked out at 5.00pm on Friday and just as you were on your Bank Holiday travels that a significant number of government projects are in trouble.

Now I'd never heard of the Major Projects Authority before. It's a rare beast being a new QUANGO set up by the coalition government, as opposed to one of the many that got the chop. Anyway, a whole range of projects are going seriously awry and I notice that the MoJ shared services project is one of the 8 in the top red category and the MoJ PbR pilot programme is regarded as amber/red. 

The No10 petition still needs more signatures and can be found here.  

Thursday 23 May 2013

Political Interference

This post was intended to be about the eternal conflict between punishment and rehabilitation using the example of how Community Service was transformed into Community Payback, via Community Punishment. However, as is often the case, I've been blown off course by events and although not entirely unconnected, that topic will have to wait for another day.  

I notice that Rob Allen's most recent blog is dedicated to former Tory Home Secretary Michael Howard and his lasting legacy. It serves to remind us that if anyone was the architect of our present rehabilitation problems, together with probation's demise and imminent abolition, it was him:- 

Twenty years ago this month, Michael Howard became Home Secretary , bringing a sea change to penal policy in England and Wales with which we have been living ever since.   Overturning a consensus that Home Office policies could do little to reduce crime, he embarked on an ambitious programme designed to increase arrests, prosecutions, and convictions but it is his view that “prison works” and the impact of his policies on the numbers behind bars for which he will be most remembered.

Howard’s 27 point law and order package  delivered to the Conservative Party Conference in October 1993 included new Secure Training Centres for children as young as 12 and  mandatory minimum sentences for repeat  burglars and drug dealers to be served in decent but austere prisons.  Later policies to abolish parole and severely limit early release were never implemented but during his four year tenure prison numbers rose from 44,500 to 61,000.

Howard’s legacy was longer lasting however. By provoking political adversaries to oppose his reforms, he pushed his shadow Tony Blair and New Labour as a whole into a repressive approach to penal policy.  Prison numbers have continued to rise ever since 1993.

Howard’s treatment of the probation service was equally cavalier, removing the requirement for university based social work training and threatening the very existence of the service.  When he left office recruitment had almost dried up and it was left to Jack Straw to introduce a new scheme of professional training as an urgent priority.

But Rob also reminds us that Michael Howard unashamedly used his political position to interfere in criminal justice matters in order to further political aims, something which continues to this day despite legislative changes that have sought to reduce political interference. In particular he cites the tragic Bulger case:-
More disturbing perhaps was Howard’s  shamelessly  populist approach to law and order- most notoriously in his attempts to increase the tariff for the juvenile  killers of James Bulger, later described by  a senior judge  as “institutionalised vengeance ... [by] a politician playing to the gallery”.  In respect of his sentencing policy the Lord Chief Justice told the House of Lords that “Never in the history of our criminal law have such far reaching proposals been put forward on the strength of such flimsy and dubious evidence.” Indeed the most recent review of evidence by the Ministry of Justice has found that  “to date there has been no clear consensus from criminologists and commentators about whether there is an incapacitation effect at all, and if so, its scale.”

Now some see a certain similarity between the 'tough' approach of Michael Howard and the current Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. The case of David McGreavy serves to admirably illustrate this I think. On Monday the High Court overturned a gagging injunction imposed in 2009 that prevented any publication of details surrounding this prisoner and the offences committed in 1973. Apparently the application to overturn the injunction had been made by several national newspapers, including the Daily Mail, but with the active encouragement of Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary.

Now as far as I can see the only purpose for Mr Graylings intervention is as a blatant attempt to interfere with the Parole process by in effect encouraging newspapers to whip up a public outcry. Sadly some politicians always feel there are votes to be had by such tactics and of course it could be said that this was the real reason why Myra Hindley could never be released safely.

Interestingly it is said that McGreavy was first considered for a move to open conditions 23 years ago, but of course only those with intimate knowledge of the case will know the real reasons why progression has been repeatedly frustrated. I am absolutely and firmly of the belief that such matters must remain the purview of the independent Parole Board and they must be trusted to make sound judgements on our behalf, utterly free of political interference. It didn't stop Grayling gloating though:-

The justice secretary welcomed the ruling, saying: "This is a clear victory for open justice. The public has every right to know when serious offenders are taking legal action on matters which relate to their imprisonment."

Sign the No10 petition here.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Omnishambles Update 4

On Monday we saw Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg speaking at Nacro and giving his full support to the government's probation privatisation plans and in the process announce a package of financial assistance for 'entreprenurial' probation staff to form mutuals. I may be old-fashioned, but 'probation officer' and 'entrepreneur' strike me as mutually exclusive. If I wanted to go into business, I wouldn't have chosen public service would I? 

Politicians ignorance about our work is legendary and I notice light-weight Clegg irritatingly kept talking about 'young men' coming out of prison, thus in my view confirming his lack of any real in-depth knowledge of the subject. He was heckled apparently by Napo members and I notice former disgraced Tory Minister, prisoner and now reformer Jonathan Aitken has been moved to point out 'yawning gaps' in the plans.   

There has been much talk about 'mutuals' and views differ significantly on their merit, and not least on what form they might take. Many, including myself, feel they are nothing more than a cunning intermediate step before full privatisation. Unless they are very carefully constituted, there is nothing to stop them being subsequently gobbled-up by the big boys when the beneficial owners are offered piles of cash.

Talking of the big boys, G4S have announced that CEO Nick Buckles of Olympic security omnishambles fame is finally falling on his sword. I guess the £1.2million payoff helped him decide, along with embarrassment that shareholders now know that the fiasco caused profits to fall from an expected £170milion to a paltry £48million. Apparently Home Affairs chairman Keith Vaz is 'astonished'. 

Things don't seem to be going too well generally for G4S, or Serco for that matter. According to the Financial Times, prison support function outsourcing has had to be put on hold due to the on-going investigation into both companies for over-charging on the electronic tagging contracts. On the subject of tagging, this story in the Telegraph may produce a chuckle and remind us that many of our clients are quick-witted and not without a cheeky sense of humour.

There's an interesting blog post here on the OurKingdom website detailing how G4S and other similar security service companies are beginning to feel the heat of international boycotting due to their involvement in the West Bank and Israeli prisons. It's further evidence that reputational damage can and does hurt these multinational behemoths. 

Ian Lawrence, the acting General Secretary at Napo, seems to be raising his profile a bit and in his most recent and lengthy blogpost confirms that a replacement for Harry Fletcher is being sought. In the meantime Harry is working 'pro bono', doing what I don't know because as far as I'm aware he hasn't appeared publicly anywhere in recent time. 

Finally, we must record that their Lordships gave the government's probation privatisation plans  a thorough and critical 'going-over' the other day. All the usual suspects, including Lord Ramsbotham, will continue to cause trouble for the Bill in the Upper House I'm sure and once more put the Lower House to shame. As I've said before, an effective HM Loyal Opposition does not reside in the Commons, but rather the Lords.

The No10 petition can be signed here.     

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Legal Aid

Unlike the current disarray in the Probation Service, which gives every impression of acting like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlight's beam, the legal profession appear well-mobilised and united in responding to their own crisis concerning cuts and 'reforms' to the Legal Aid budget.

According to this article in the Guardian, the Bar Council have published the results of an opinion survey that shows 71% of the public feel that the cuts will inevitably lead to further miscarriages of justice:- 

The research was carried out in response to proposals from the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, to reduce the annual criminal legal aid budget by £220m. Under the plans, the cost of judicial reviews will rise steeply, lawyers' fees will be slashed and criminal legal aid contracts awarded through competitive tendering. The consultation closes on 4 June.

The Bar Council opinion poll, carried out by ComRes, found that seven in 10 (71%) respondents were concerned that cuts to legal aid could lead to innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit if forced to use the cheapest defence lawyer available.

It also found that two-thirds (67%) agreed that legal aid was a price worth paying for living in a fair society. The poorest would be hit hardest by the proposed changes, according to 75% of those polled.
More than two-thirds (68%) of those questioned agreed with the proposition that at less than 0.5% of annual government spending, "legal aid is a worthwhile investment in our basic freedoms".

Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the bar, said: "Successive governments have failed in their efforts to undermine public confidence in legal aid. In fact, most people think it is a good investment in a fair society. This poll provides the evidence which the government has failed to gather. The public hugely values our legal aid system and it is concerned about the consequences of the government's proposals.
"The Ministry of Justice should listen to what people are saying and the strong messages delivered by this poll. The public thinks a properly funded legal aid system is a price worth paying for living in a fair society; this is not just the view of groups of lawyers."
She added: "Too often lazy stereotypes are used to describe our justice system. An independent legal profession, which operates to the highest standards and competes on quality, is fundamental to a fair and democratic society. The government seems to have relied too heavily on those stereotypes when formulating these proposals, but it is desperately out of touch with voters. People do not want to see a further reduction of their defence against big government."
Now there will be those who feel that lawyers have been earning rather a good living off state-funded Legal Aid for some time. I'm tempted to quote the adage that says 'you never see a poor farmer', but of course you do. Anyway, blogger the Defence Brief tackles this head on and  provocatively suggests it be scrapped completely:-   
Lawyers have a reputation for being money grabbing bastards of the lowest level.  It is quite clear when you speak to some people that they cannot differentiate the criminal defence lawyer from the drug dealer or violent husband whom they represent.  I gather this is much the same for soap-opera actors who must put up with being treated as their characters as they shop for underpants.

The current campaign by lawyers of both main legal professions against the legal aid reforms is mostly being ignored by the general public and the media.  But, when the public do hear of it many seem to take the view that the campaign is a fight by lawyers protecting their own income.

The truth is that if lawyers got into the legal aid game to make quick and easy cash then they are fools because legal aid has never been well paid in comparison to other areas of privately funded law.
More telling is the fact that so many lawyers oppose the government’s legal aid reforms.  If lawyers of both professions were interested solely in money rather than justice, the justice system and the interests of their clients’ and society then they would be campaigning against legal aid being available to anybody.  In fact, lawyers did campaign against the introduction of legal aid in the 1940s (I seem to recall legal aid as we know it appeared around 1949 along with the NHS) because they feared that the lower fees would result in a brain drain from the profession that would lead to a reduction in quality.

Today, lawyers who are only interested in money would not want legal aid for anybody.  They would be fighting against the legal aid system and in favour of individuals financing their own cases.  We could make extra cash by flogging punters (or more likely their families) lovely finance deals.  Would we get paid?  Of course we would.  Look at how many people are willing to spend vast sums just to keep their driving licence.  Imagine what you would spend to avoid missing the next 4-years of your child’s life.  In the USA people risk bankruptcy to avoid prison; there’s no reason to think the British wouldn't pay up to stay free.

There is understandably quite a strength of feeling over this issue amongst solicitors and barristers and it's admirably demonstrated by these two open letters to Mr Grayling that are being widely circulated on the internet and are well worth a read. The first is from blogger theintrigant and the second from London solicitor Stephen Bird. 

These changes are potentially going to make things a whole lot worse for probation clients and we would do well to be making common cause with our legal profession colleagues. So, why not consider signing a different No10 petition? It can be found here.

Monday 20 May 2013

Parole Report

Mindful that some readers may become a little weary of endless discussion of privatisation plans, can I say that it is my intention to try and vary the content and return to my original aim of just writing about what crops up or I find interesting. I'm more than happy to respond to suggestions by the way.

A few weeks ago I had cause to attend an Oral Hearing of the Parole Board. This was convened at the jail where the prisoner is currently held and as usual was made up of three panel members. For those unfamiliar with the process it is quasi-judicial and the chairperson is quite often a retired judge. The prisoner is legally represented and both they and all the expert witnesses, including probation officer, can be cross-examined following submission of their evidence.

Each panel member will be in possession of a large parole dossier amounting to some 400 pages and will have read the contents carefully prior to the hearing. Oral Hearings are so called in order to differentiate the process from 'paper' hearings conducted in private and without the prisoner or expert witnesses being present. Although not my case, I had reason to be attending due to some knowledge of the prisoner who is serving an IPP sentence, is now over tariff and requesting a move to open prison. An IPP sentence is similar to a Life Sentence, but the tariff date is normally much lower, ie the earliest date at which application can be made to the Parole Board for release.

Although Indeterminate Public Protection sentences have been abolished, there are many prisoners in the system subject to this sentence and either well over their tariff date, or rapidly approaching it. The Parole Board is mindful of this and are trying to deal with the issue as quickly as possible. To put it bluntly the main problem has been either the lack of suitable courses for prisoners to undertake in order to demonstrate a reduction in the risk they may pose, or long waiting lists for such courses.

I've always been impressed with the work of the Parole Board and the care and attention with which they approach their work. I think the public would be impressed and reassured if they knew more about what went on. These hearings are often not easy for a prisoner, sitting as they do eyeball to eyeball with panel members across the Governor's board room table and usually under the official gaze of a portrait of The Queen. They have to be prepared for a forensic examination of the details concerning the index offence. It can be harrowing and it's not unusual for tears to flow.

I simply cannot comprehend how those bean counters down in London can seriously contemplate suggesting that such proceedings can be conducted properly by video link in the interests of saving money. Despite the best efforts of the MoJ to pressurise the Parole Board into such short-sighted economy measures, I suspect many panel members are resisting and I applaud them for that. I cannot see how the process could be conducted remotely and with the same degree of dignity, care and concern for the prisoner, and have the same confidence that sound and fair decisions could be undertaken.

On this particular occasion all the 'experts', probation, psychology and prison offender manager were singing off the same hymn sheet and recommending a move to open conditions. It is not always so however and even in this instance Panel members were keen to forensically probe the reasons why there had been a change of view in some quarters. The whole hearing took nearly four hours. 

There is no doubt in my mind that over recent years the power and influence of the psychologists within prisons has increased and their assessments can be at considerable variance with that of probation. I think this is at least partly due to the fact that many probation officers still have lengthy involvement with individual prisoners, thus building up an unrivalled knowledge. They are often able to describe in detail progress that has been achieved over many years and can therefore speak authoritatively on the case. Continuity is so important, but sadly not as common nowadays.

In many ways psychology strike me as being 'super' risk-averse and invariably seek to exhaust every known course and assessment before supporting progressive moves. In the end though it is for the independent Parole Board to make the decision on either progression or release, having listened carefully to all the arguments. In my experience they are willing to be more pragmatic and take a balanced view of risks and this should be of some reassurance to prisoners serving indeterminate sentences. 

Now I can't end this discourse without mention of OASys. Each panel member will be extremely familiar with this assessment method since its introduction and has the benefit of a full print-out in front of them. What struck me was that at the end of each expert's evidence, the file was metaphorically pushed aside and each person asked a series of blunt questions "Now what do you think the risk is of a) absconding b) harm to staff c) reoffending d) harm to the public?" In turn each was asked a supplementary "Do you have any doubts?"  

I put it to you. What exactly is the purpose of OASys? Because I don't know.  

Sign the No10 petition here.    

Sunday 19 May 2013

Thoughts on Sex Offending

I tend to be a man of routine. The radio comes on at 5.15 each day and of course is tuned to BBC Radio 4. Saturday's are a bit different because by 5.45 it's not the usual Farming Today, it's iPM and the main contributor yesterday was Lydia Guthrie speaking of her work with sex offenders.

Now I suspect that as with most aspects of probation work, the general public has only the vaguest notion of the challenges this group poses us and how we go about trying to ensure that the public is protected from any possible further and similar offending.

I had not heard of Lydia before, but she seems to have risen pretty quickly up the ranks at Thames Valley Probation having qualified in 1998. She specialised in sex offender work, becoming their Treatment Manager and then progressed to the dizzying heights of Co-Lead National Trainer for Sexual Offending Groupwork Programmes, presumably at NOMS HQ. 

Clearly she is an expert in this field and presumably has been highly influential in the development and operation of accredited SOTP throughout the probation and prison service in recent years. It was not always like this of course and I have previously written of my own involvement in a small part-time project developed by colleagues in-house. Sadly in my view, all were swept away when the accredited and highly-proscribed courses were introduced some years ago now.

Given this, clearly it could be said I that I came to listen to Lydia with some pre-conceived thoughts as I've always been critical of the new courses as being a one-size-fits-all approach, in stark contrast to our own very-much individually-tailored efforts. In particular my experience has taught me that unless perpetrators are given the time and space to talk about their own often very troubled past first, it is pointless and counter-productive to force them to discuss their offending behaviour. 

I think they have a right to be listened to as victims themselves, and before progress can be made in getting them to critically analyse the fact that they have gone on to create more victims. In my experience they are hardly ever regarded as having possibly been victims, and has never formed part of current accredited SOTP work. To be honest I think it's a big mistake and helps foster resentment and much unhelpful anger and resistance in many clients.

To be honest I also find the whole nomenclature surrounding current SOTP to be unhelpful with references to 'Treatment' Managers and it being 'delivered' in two hour chunks over a 200 hour programme. It's so symptomatic of a process-driven policy, rather than one that should be person-centred. Thinking how it might feel as a recipient, it would annoy me greatly. I want to be 'treated' as an individual and I think most people do.   

It came as no great surprise therefore to hear Lydia skirt around these issues when asked questions as to the reasons people commit sex offences and how repeat offending might be prevented. It was good though to hear her discuss the fact that many offenders have sexual preferences that include children and that such inclinations have to be challenged continually, but it was disappointing to say the least that probation hardly got a mention at all as having a role in on-going monitoring. Instead we heard that 'the police should have every means at their disposal to ensure we knew where they were 24/7 and that probably meant satellite tracking.' 

Such monitoring has it's place of course, but virtually all licences eventually come to an end and the most effective way in which the public can be protected in the long-term depends on the quality of the work that has been undertaken with each sex offender. I remain unconvinced that the present extremely proscribed methodology is best, despite what the evidence might indicate.

For a start we all know that there are significant numbers of sex offenders that are not suitable for standard SOTP either because of their denial, ability to manipulate or level of intellectual functioning. Any evidence of re-offending rates could be as a result of any number of factors, not just SOTP completion and might include involvement by Circles of Accountability and Support for instance. 

In a nutshell what this says to me is that SOTP as presently organised is not the best, or should be regarded as the only approach and that it can never replace individually-tailored work and interventions by highly-trained and experienced probation officers. 

Sign the No10 petition here.                 

Saturday 18 May 2013

Contract Negotiations Begin

I notice that the Ministry of Justice held a 'Probation Marketing Opportunity' on Thursday for all those privateers interested in putting bids in, like G4S and Serco and Napo turned up to greet them. Now there are those that feel MoJ officials would have significant difficulty arranging a serious group libation in a brewing facility, let alone sorting out contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds. 

But maybe those civil servants are a bit more canny than I give them credit for. Now I'm no expert, but I guess all negotiators want to start proceedings with as strong a hand as possible. So, what could be better than the day after you've done a bit of schmoozing with likely bidders, possibly involving a tincture or two, I don't know, but then the following day you put the boot in and accuse two of the biggest potential bidders of ripping you off previously? I'd say that sends a pretty strong and clear message as to how these new negotiations are likely to pan out!

According to the Daily Telegraph:- 

"The Ministry of Justice has brought in external auditors to find out how much the two companies have incorrectly claimed from the taxpayer since 2005.

Spending on electronic tagging has run to £700 million since G4S and Serco were handed the contracts but a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said it was currently impossible to say how much had been overpaid.
It is understood the sums involved run to millions of pounds."

By an amazing coincidence, as this news broke Joe Kuipers, the outspoken chair of Avon and Somerset Probation Trust, felt moved to publish his latest thoughts on the evolving omnishambles that is probation privatisation. In particular he raises the issue of malversation.

Now the last time I got a similar tingle down my neck was upon hearing a very dry and dour public official at a press conference mention the term gerrymandering. Both allegations of what is in essence Misconduct in Public Office are about as bad as things can get. By the way for those of less mature years, the latter term was used in relation to Dame Shirley Porter when she was Leader of Westminister City Council and in relation to allegations of vote-rigging. 

Anyway this is what he has to say on the topic:-

"Malversation is corruption in a public office and in the context of PbR may be linked to perverse behaviours possibly or probably reinforced by profit being the potentially primary objective of commercial enterprises. Now, I am not opposed to the contributions that can be made to the business of managing offenders in the community, but I do have concerns about commercial enterprises being in the lead, most likely as contracting is rolled out.

Is there a way this risk can be mitigated? Probably not, as there appears to be plenty of information to indicate that the ability of government both to let and monitor contracts needs considerable development." 

Who'd have thought that private contractors might try and fleece us? Now they've been rumbled, wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall back at G4S and Serco headquarters as they contemplate the prospect of accountants from the MoJ poring all over their books in relation to the very lucrative electronic monitoring contracts? We know they must be lucrative because it's said similar contracts in the US are vastly cheaper. Oh round one to you Mr Grayling. Nice one!

PS I wonder who blew the whistle? Sign the No10 petition here.

Friday 17 May 2013

Chiefs - A Word in Your Ear

Eavesdropping on peoples twitter conversations continues to amaze me and just recently has served to highlight the almost complete gulf in knowledge between Chiefs and frontline staff. We've always know this of course as Head Office's became ever-larger and distanced from the realities of practice. Gone are the days when the likes of a former chief such as Sir Graham Smith carried on seeing clients even when he reached the top. Why, we even have chiefs now who have no probation background at all, so a certain disconnect is likely, is it not?

I'm aware that Chiefs often make a big thing about getting round to see staff in field teams, and by the way I hate that bloody awful term Local Delivery Unit. Who thought that one up? It sounds like a Tesco home shopping depot. Anyway some Chiefs make an even bigger thing about spending a day on the 'shop floor.' A whole day FFS! At least in the excellent BBC 'Back to the Shop Floor' programmes we saw Chief Executives spend a number of weeks actually trying to understand what really goes on in their business's. 

Unless Chiefs go through every stage of preparing a full Standard Delivery Report for court, right from first interview with the client, through brain-numbing completion of the OASys and then soul-destroying attempts to get a half-decent report ready for court, in my view you have no authority to say that you know what the hell is going on in your Trust. 

The imposition of OASys has been the biggest disaster for probation practice ever, without doubt, and OASys R, the supposed improved version, has simply made things intolerable. Guys, it is impossible to get a half-decent-looking report fit for court through OASys R!   

But all is not lost because news reaches me that in one Trust at least, North Yorkshire, hard-pressed colleagues have resorted to extreme measures and reverted to writing reports on blank sheets as word documents, just like we used to. Oh what bliss that must be for those lucky people, and the sentencers who will be reading the finished result! I defy anyone to say it is nothing less than a 100% improvement on anything OASys-generated. Psychology and Psychiatric reports are not prepared in this way, so why are ours?

If I listen carefully I might be able to hear voices asking how the hell we got into this situation? I guess the answer is quite simple. People who design this crap are not practitioners, not the end-user as the jargon would say and hence have absolutely no idea what is needed and how it works. I suppose a 'disconnect' is present to use more jargon. 

It's been some time since I ranted about OASys, but the subject is now very much 'alive' as they say following national roll-out of OASys R. Why Heather Munro and Sarah Billiald to name but two Chiefs are now fired-up to take the unwelcome message to the bosses down there in London. But there has been serious misgivings about OASys ever since it's imposition upon us. Why is it that NAPO some time ago highlighted the fact that only 25% of our time was spent productively on client contact? Answer - OASys. 

OASys is a vast, cumbersome and time-consuming assessment document that probation staff are forced to fill in on all current clients. It has to be updated regularly and 'shared' with prison staff if clients are serving prisoners. But it's not just a pain-in-the-arse to fill in. It's also pretty useless as a method of getting information out and quickly. If you really want to know about a case without losing the will to live trawling through endless pages of formatted text boxes on screen, you have two choices. The first and best is to have a word with the officer who has or had the case. The second and still better by miles than trying to look at bloody OASys, is to look at the file. There you will find the primary sources for much of the OASys content anyway, but more importantly all the bits that have been left out. 

Yes I know I'm antediluvian, but seriously there will always be a place in my view for a good old-fashioned Part B summary, but not necessarily on pink paper. In effect when you get a call from a colleague needing information quickly about a client, what you give them in no more than 20 minutes is a verbal Part B summary. So why don't we commit that to paper, or electronic equivalent guys? Now how about that for a radical suggestion to take to NOMS HQ Heather and Sarah.

The No10 petition is still available to sign here.          

Thursday 16 May 2013

How Not to Run a Prison

Everyone agrees that two of the biggest winners from privatising probation will be G4S and Serco. Yesterday I highlighted how G4S was getting on with their MoJ asylum-seeker accommodation contract, and today I thought we'd look at how Serco was doing running the new HMP Thameside in London.

As it happens yesterday was Serco's AGM, ironically held almost within a stones-throw of the brand new, but failing prison. We know it's failing because that's the conclusion that must be drawn from the unannounced inspection carried out by HMI staff in January:-

"Information we received about Thameside suggested a need to bring forward our first inspection of this establishment and, as a consequence, we inspected the prison when it had been open for just 9 months. Our findings overall were very mixed and improvement was required for most aspects of the prison - in particular, safety, the provision of purposeful activity and meeting the resettlement needs of prisoners.

Prisoner's reception into custody was reasonable if a bit chaotic and our survey findings suggested prisoners felt safe. Levels of assaults however, were too high and of concern - prisoners semed to lack confidence in what in fairness was an inexperienced staff group, to deal with and protect them from violence or delinquency. In the autumn, and as an operational response to rising levels of violence the prison had taken the usual step of effectively locking down the prison, severely curtailing the regime and in particular prisoner access to time unlocked. The prison had done little to evaluate the success of this quite extreme strategy and at the time of our visit there seemed only vague plans to restore the prison to normality.

The prison's regime was one of the most restricted we have ever seen. Time out of the cells was very limited. We found 60% of prisoners locked up during the working day, and some spent 23 hours in their cells. There were far too few activity places for the needs of the population, and much of the provision required improvement. There was too little vocational training, and most of the work available was low skill." 

Apart from excellent accommodation (it is a brand new prison) it's hard to see much in this report that's positive. No wonder private prisons are keen to supply Sky subscription channels to prisoners as a way of keeping them 'occupied.' I'm also intrigued by Nick Hardwick's opening words "Information we received....One could speculate about the HMI getting shoals of letters from angry inmates, but that must be routine, or possibly a whistelblower?

Maybe the answer is a bit more straight forward than that. With all private prisons, NOMS/MoJ don't just hand the keys over, they always install an official 'spy' who I suppose is there to ensure contract compliance. Now I'm not an expert on these matters, but I could speculate that Serco might well have had reason to feel that they were indeed performing to what was specified in the contract - and we all know how good the MoJ's track-record is on drawing-up contracts - but that might not be the same thing as running an efficient, effective and safe prison regime. I wonder if the official MoJ spy just gives the HMI a call? Anyway, the Howard League for Penal Reform were quick to make comment on the report:-

“This is what happens when you hand the justice system over to vast multinational corporations, who put cost-cutting and the interests of their shareholders ahead of concern for public safety." 

Of course Andrew Neilson is right and should serve as a warning to us all as to what we can expect if Serco win significant probation contracts. The OurKingdom website covered the story in some detail and picked up on the money Serco was making out of lucrative government contracts:-

"Thameside is run by Serco, the company that inspects Britain’s schools, trains our armed forces, runs our prisons, maintains our nuclear weapons, and is taking over big chunks of our NHS. Shareholders met in London this morning to hear about a 20 per cent increase in their dividend payouts.

That's especially good news for chief executive Christopher Hyman who has amassed close to one million shares in the company. At today's price his stake is worth £5.8 million. The dividend payment alone will make him £91,702 richer.
That's on top of his annual remuneration of £1.9 million. On top of that is his "performance share plan" which adds another £1.5 million. Plus, to ease the chill in his retirement, he's got a pension pot that is already valued at £2 million — Chris Hyman is 49 years old."
They also picked up on the fact that healthcare provision at the prison has been contracted out by the NHS to a campany called Harmoni for Health. This sort of sub-contracting doesn't sound promising for what will be the norm in a privatised probation service:- 
"The head of health care was a nurse; she was supported by a clinical lead. The team structure under them was described as being ‘in transition’. There were several vacancies, and long-term agency staff were used. Staff training was appropriate but clinical supervision was in its infancy."
But we shouldn't be that surprised should we, because it's supposedly all about a more efficient and cost-effective service isn't it? The first thing Serco did when they took over the London Probation Community Payback contract was make a whole load of staff redundant, thus reducing the supervision of offenders on CP. 
As for Harmoni for Health, well that gives yet another bit of insight into the privatisation going on in the NHS as this Guardian article highlights:- 
"Harmoni's finances are complex, with hundreds of shareholders and different classes of stocks. According to an analysis of documents filed with Companies House, five GPs figure prominently and own a quarter of the company between them. If each share has an equal stake, the GP founders of the company, David Lloyd and Nizar Merali, would share £2.8m. This could easily more than double, if just their preference shares are valued, to £6.3m.
Harmoni was the largest private firm providing out-of-hours services for the NHS and funded by the taxpayer. Although it was set up in 1996, it began its rapid growth in 2004 when GPs were allowed to opt out of out-of-hours care. Harmoni proved successful in picking up contracts to provide the service, relying in part on its network of GPs. In five years its revenue has grown fourfold, from £23m to almost £100m in 2012.
The company's success in winning the 111 contracts has made it even more valuable. From April 2013, people seeking urgent healthcare advice will dial 111 – the service replacing the nurse-led NHS Direct helpline in England. Care UK recently lured a top civil servant from the Department of Health – Jim Easton, who oversaw the NHS 111 procurement process – to become its managing director."
You know, I can't help feeling we're all going to hell in a handcart. Better sign the No10 petition here. 

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Omnishambles Update 3

Readers will be aware that I've not been averse to having a pop at probation chiefs, basically for just rolling over and having their tummies tickled by their MoJ/NOMS masters down there in London. Ok, we know they recently 'dissed' Chris Grayling the Justice Secretary with a display of churlish silence, but credit where credit is due, a bit of backbone has at last been displayed in this comment piece by Sarah Billiald in Monday's Guardian. It's the closest we've seen yet to fighting talk, and therefore worth quoting in full I think:- 

"In the Queen's speech last week, the government announced an ambitious set of proposals for the rehabilitation of offenders. The following day, it announced the dismantling of the very bodies who have the experience, professionalism and track record of delivering this work: probation trusts.

Their argument for this almost total outsourcing of probation is the need to make reforms affordable and yet, given that probation has a track record of quality delivery while achieving 20% efficiencies over the past four years, this doesn't stack up. Probation trusts, as public sector bodies, will not be allowed to bid for this work but will be dissolved by the secretary of state with the work being sold in the market. The investment required to buy this work and deliver high-risk payment by results contracts will mean that only those with significant investment behind them will be contenders, ruling out all but the largest players.
The government says it is not taking risks with public safety and yet by fragmenting the current provision between high- and medium-risk offenders that is exactly what it is doing. Only a fraction of current probation provision will be managed by a new national probation service. To counteract widespread concerns about managing the dynamic risk posed by complex individuals the government will have to create a complex system of checks and balances which will need to be used every time risk changes significantly (something which occurs in half of all cases according to the probation inspectorate). The outsourced cases are not only low-risk individuals but domestic abuse cases, child protection issues, prolific burglars amounting to 88% of the caseload. The more disjointed the system, the higher the risk that something will go wrong.

The probation service, which has existed for 106 years, has delivered everything that government has asked of it: all targets, all efficiencies, all quality improvements and a year-on-year reduction in reconvictions for those on community orders (10% reduction since 2000) and those on prison licences (21% reduction since 2000 for prison sentences of one to four years).

It is a high-calibre service recognised by the British Quality Foundation in 2011 with a gold medal for excellence – the only public service to receive this accolade. It is packed full of dedicated staff with years of professional experience, qualifications and knowledge about what works best in their locality. National commissioning by the Ministry of Justice of huge multinational firms will crash through these local relationships and runs counter to the increasingly local focus of other parts of government such as Police and Crime Commissioners and clinical commissioning groups.
Government should think again and build on the excellence of probation rather than relegating it to the annals of history.
Risk is going to be mentioned a lot in the coming weeks and in many respects it's our strongest card to play in terms of the whole probation privatisation agenda. I couldn't resist copying the following two tweets from Ian Lawrence, acting General Secretary of NAPO:-
Govt plans an omnishambles can't work unless Trusts acquiesce so let's make it very very difficult.
At West Mercia mutuals conference Chief Executive says Government not accounted for 20k high risk offenders in their probation reform plans!
It's great to see the omnishambles monika seems to be gaining traction and I just love that little snippet about the 20,000 high risk cases having somehow not been factored in! You really couldn't make some of this stuff up.
In addition to risk, the other strong card to play in this whole omnishambles-in-the making of course is the quality and standing of the inevitable big bidders, G4S and Serco. Starting with G4S, we all remember the Olympic security fiasco, but lets remind ourselves how they are doing on that other big MoJ contract, the asylum-seeker accommodation one that was awarded last year, despite G4S having no experience in the field of social housing.
In March the Independent published this article following sight of a leaked e-mail indicating that there were major problems in being able to fulfil the contract through their sub-contractors. Sound familiar that? 
In the email, sent by the G4S managing director for immigration and borders Stephen Small, to staff, the company admitted that subcontractor Mantel tendered its resignation in January and had been released from its obligation to serve nine months' notice. Mantel was hired to provide services to cover G4S's obligations in its contract running the UKBA's Commercial and Operational Managers Procuring Asylum Support Services, referred to in the leaked document as Compass. Mr Small wrote in the email: “It has become increasingly evident over the past few months that a number of our accommodation partners are finding it difficult to manage aspects of this contract, for example their ability to address the high number of property defects.” He added: “We have signed a contract with the Home Office and are committed to delivering the Compass services in our two regions for the next 5+2 years and we have no intention of reneging.”
But to put some flesh on the bare bones reported here, I've come across this blogpost from an expert and activist in the know, and the story he tells I think should serve to give everyone a flavour of what we might expect if G4S get involved in our line of work. I quote selectively in relation to the real, but anonymised case of Angela:- 
"Regular readers may recall that G4S won a government contract last year to house asylum seekers in Yorkshire. I have followed this story closely. I am an activist and researcher and I work alongside asylum seeker tenants in Yorkshire and the North East. Over the months together we have revealed how companies to whom G4S subcontracts the work have repeatedly failed to provide housing fit for human habitation, how their staff have been accused of harassing vulnerable tenants.

G4S had no experience of housing management when it was given a slice of the national asylum housing £620m contracts in June 2012. The private security company had of course a stake in other parts of the ‘asylum market’ with a rocky human rights record in managing immigration detention centres and deportation escort services. Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan father of five, died after being "restrained" by G4S escort staff during an attempt to deport him in 2010.

The Home Office, with its 2012 privatised asylum housing contracts, has produced cut price contracts for slum housing based on a "new delivery model" which is hopelessly inefficient. The model is based on three or (as in the Leeds case) four tiers of landlords, each one slicing off a share of the profits. In Leeds and West Yorkshire, G4S is in overall charge, with actual housing provision subcontracted to Cascade Housing.

A few of Cascade's 700 West Yorkshire asylum housing properties are owned directly by the company. Most are subcontracted from very small private landlords. In Angela’s case Cascade used a lettings agency to rent the property from a small landlord. This added yet another layer of complication and cost and stretched even further the distance between Angela and the state which owes her a duty of care.

Within this ‘flexible’ delivery model the real losers are asylum seekers and their families. G4S and its subcontractors like Cascade have simply failed to find decent properties for asylum seekers. G4S’s own figures released in February suggest that in Yorkshire up to 300 asylum seekers have been placed in ‘no choice’ housing which is unfit, and breaches their contract with the Home Office.

The G4S asylum housing contracts in Yorkshire and the North East have descended into chaos and farce. The real losers are vulnerable asylum seekers like Angela, harassed and abused by housing companies, and constantly uprooted and moved by the Home Office and G4S.

The other losers are of course taxpayers who provide public funds for G4S to wreck the everyday lives of mothers like Angela. The Parliamentary Home Affairs committee inquiry into asylum support is due to hear evidence on the G4S asylum housing contracts in the near future. Having observed this unfolding disaster, and having worked with others to try to protect vulnerable people from its harmful effects,  I urge the Committee to recommend that the G4S asylum housing contracts (and the Serco and Clearel contracts in other areas) should be cancelled and transferred to not-for-profit providers in the housing association and voluntary housing sectors."

My blog doesn't have to be 'balanced', but in fairness to G4S lets remind ourselves of what they said last week in response to hearing that a lot more MoJ contracts were in the offing:- 

"A G4S spokesman said the company was well placed to deliver the kind of innovations that the government was looking at. He claimed its long history of working with offenders in partnership with the public and voluntary sectors meant G4S had developed substantial expertise in the area."

That should be ok then, but just in case, I'd sign the No10 petition here I think. 

The Prisoners 3

Monday saw the last episode of the three-part BBC1 documentary series 'The Prisoners' filmed over 12 months at HMP Pentonville and Holloway. Given the grossly disturbed backgrounds of the vast majority of prisoners featured in this and the previous two programmes, I defy anyone to adequately explain to me why it was felt some time ago that a social work qualification was no longer felt appropriate for new probation officers?

We've seen Jayde from previous episodes and she's displaying the same dangerous attention-seeking behaviour in this one. Still extremely emotionally immature, she is finding it difficult learning that behaviour has consequences and a longer time in prison may well mean that she loses her beloved dog. Whatever her issues with alcohol, drugs or relationships "I don't often want to talk about the past," she desperately needs counselling, preferably in the community. 

There's almost no chance of that of course because it's too expensive, virtually unavailable and in any case one missed appointment would swiftly lead to her being 'signed off' as not being motivated. No such policy is available to the Probation Service of course. We have to stick with such clients right through all their chaotic phases and try and do our best.  

Ben was interesting because he positively chose prison as a far faster route to drug treatment and a residential rehab place. He was proved right, but such a facility is very expensive, also virtually unavailable, and sadly it was never likely to work given the current way in which such service's are organised and located. I loved the oft-repeated refrain "No-one tells me nothing!" Anyway, we left him seemingly making his own efforts at dealing with his drug issues. On the news of the death of his father, following a reconciliation, it was particularly moving to hear him say that he'd "lost him again." Ben probably needed counselling I think.

On the face of it Michael and Chloe were in many respects an unlikely couple, not least due to their 20 year age difference. Despite what she said, Chloe had difficulty with a partner that didn't show her violence. I'm sure she could benefit from counselling. Michael was much more 'grounded' and soon realised that there was little chance of their relationship flourishing and Chloe in particular remaining drug-free, unless their release-dates coincided. They didn't and Chloe soon spent most of £700 not on a sofa, but drugs and similar. Poor old Michael only got a £20 postal order paid into private cash. She summed things up pretty well I thought "I did everything I had promised not to, and didn't do anything I had promised to."

Despite this, it was interesting to see Chloe indulge in some distorted reasoning and try and shift responsibility for her drug-taking onto poor Michael during a prison visit. "You think I'll mess up - so I might as well." Later she reflected "I'm a drug addict. I relapse. That's what I do." Wisely Michael calls it a day on their relationship and I hope he's doing well. He could see clearly that she would remain a negative influence upon him as he tried to dealt with his own journey of abstaining from drug use.   

Clearly Lauren had been inside many times previously for drug-related offending, but on this remand had clearly decided that at age 40 it was time to change, and found herself for the first time doing a job on the servery. She'd decided, like many do, that she'd had enough of prison and the lifestyle and was going to seriously try and not come back. I don't think it was the result of any particular 'intervention', she'd just had enough full stop, and fortunately a DRR was on offer. 

Some might say prison had 'worked', but it's clearly been a long expensive business and other methods might have been effective rather earlier. She got a DRR, but the risk of alcohol substitution clearly remained an issue. I was struck with the drug worker saying it was her 'last chance.'  In probation I'm not sure we recognise that sentiment. Failure always remains delayed progress for us.

Sign the No10 petition here.