Sunday 30 June 2013

Musical Chairs

It's a good job Joe Kuipers, Chair of Avon and Somerset Probation Trust, tells us what's going on, because no one else does. In his latest blog post he reveals that all CEO's had to gather round their screens at 9 am sharp on Friday morning in order to take instructions from MoJ/Noms HQ in London.

Despite the recent House of Lords vote, clearly HQ are intent on giving every impression that the omnishambles is progressing nicely and according to the plan they are still making up as they go along. The two top civil service probation jobs will be advertised shortly and will be filled by open competition, one Director for England, and one for Wales - I can't wait to see who gets these. 

There will be a further 7 Deputy Director civil service posts in the National Probation Service, but it's not clear how these will be filled. I guess volunteers amongst current CEO's might like to chance their luck? 

As for the leaders of the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies, or newco's? Well these poisoned chalices will be available to any interested CEO's, but of course the successful appointee's will have absolutely no idea who will ultimately be their bosses and on what terms and conditions they will eventually be employed. 

Apparently those interested are encouraged to have a 'quiet word' with Noms HQ before the music stops. If not enough CEO's come forward, or are not successful for any reason, then it looks like the field might open up to other senior grades. Would it be reasonable to expect that any chief who finds themselves without a seat at the party might be tempted to fill the yawning gap that is a leadership voice of reasoned opposition?    

All this has got to be done before the autumn, and presumably at the same time as many of the same people are involved in setting up 'alternative delivery vehicles' such as mutuals. The omnishambles is clearly still progressing, so there's still a lot to do guys as we head for a summer of discontent all round.              

Saturday 29 June 2013

Outlook Improving

Those of us who tend towards the cynical end of the spectrum have laughingly remarked that the MoJ probably doesn't read all those carefully and lovingly crafted responses we so painstakingly put together during 'consultations'. Real cynics would say it's just a bit of a PR sham that you have to go through in order to demonstrate that you're 'listening' when in fact you're doing nothing of the sort. 

Of course politically it's probably quite important to demonstrate that you've 'consulted', even if you take no notice of what's been said, and I guess there might be some legal requirement to at least be seen to have 'gone through the motions'.

As we know, the legal profession made a huge number of submissions recently on the proposed cuts and changes to Legal Aid, but somewhat alarmingly, according to twitter conversations, people have been receiving automated e-mails saying "deleted not read - consultation now closed" . 

Now I'm assuming the responses involved were indeed submitted before the closing date, so it looks to me like the MoJ is going to have to come up with some convincing arguments pretty quickly in order to explain these e-mails. I understand the Bar Council and Criminal Bar Association are taking a keen interest in the matter and Chris Grayling does well to be concerned at the mere mention of Judicial Review in certain quarters. Things just keep getting worse for this guy don't they?

Still on the subject of our legal colleagues, it's great to hear that their No10 petition has passed the 100,000 mark and there is a strong move amongst the profession to encourage mutual aid  for our own somewhat more modest petition currently standing at just over 23,000 signatures. This is a very encouraging gesture and will serve to demonstrate to government that the criminal justice system is made up of complementary elements that work together and have many shared aims.

The last few months have undoubtedly been gloomy for probation and our future prospects, but I get a sense that there is indeed reason to feel that the outlook might well be improving. We've had the leak, the government defeat in the Lords, Paul Senior's lecture is on YouTube and a Justice Affairs Select Committee hearing is scheduled for next week. Napo has a new General Secretary and probably a new public affairs person very soon. The Lawyers are really getting their teeth stuck into the Lord Chancellor and some of their acerbic writing is just brilliant.

All that's missing is the theme tune and video - hang on here it is!          

Friday 28 June 2013

Vested Interests

George or is it Geoffrey Osborne irritates me at the best of times, but on Tuesday at the end of his speech announcing further government spending cuts, he excelled himself by dismissing all those resisting reforms as merely "vested interests". That's quite rich coming as it does from a representative of a group who vote on their own terms and conditions. 

But aren't these 'vested interests' the very same skilled and professional staff required to make sure that 'Transforming Rehabilitation' actually has any chance of working? The leaked MoJ Risk Register highlighted that one of the biggest risks the whole daft idea faced was a disillusioned and unco-operative workforce that now has to contemplate the loss of annual salary increments. These may be denigrated by the Chancellor, but how does he think key experienced staff can be retained on the front line without some recognition of their expertise?

During the speech I was pleased when the camera caught a glimpse of a very glum-looking Chris Grayling, no doubt contemplating the success he's had in thoroughly stirring up the 'vested interests' throughout the entire criminal justice system. The fruits of his endeavours are beginning to show with a spirited Commons debate on the legal aid reforms yesterday and an emergency session of the Justice Affairs Select Committee scheduled for next Tuesday. I notice Ian Lawrence the new Napo General Secretary is among those called to give evidence. 

Just as an aside, it's interesting to note that one Chris Grayling voted against the Labour government's 2007 Offender Management Bill at its third reading - the very legislation he is now using to dismantle the Probation Service. There's absolutely no principle or honour in much of politics and it should serve to confirm that winning the argument is all that matters, by what ever lawful means it takes.

It looks like the right wing press are beginning to get to grips with the likely consequences of 'Transforming Rehabilitation' as revealed in the official impact assessments - an extra 13,000 people going to prison each year. As quoted in the Daily Telegraph article, the minister Jeremy Wright commented:- 

"We expect a short-term rise in the population as a result of these tougher and longer restrictions on offenders and we have enough prison places to effectively deal with this for the longer term goal of cutting re-offending."  

These plans are supposed to save money of course, and reduce reoffending, but it's interesting to note that only yesterday the Treasury First Secretary Danny Alexander announced a new £100 million super-prison for 2,000 inmates to be built in Wrexham North Wales as part of the economic stimulation package for the UK economy. Apparently they are 'delighted' in Wales to have secured this investment, in stiff competition with North West England :-

"Going back to when I was leader of Wrexham Council, I have argued that there is a strong case for a new prison to be located in North Wales. Such a facility will certainly bring considerable economic benefits to our region and could lead to the creation of over a thousand jobs. This investment will provide a significant economic boost in our region. 

When I spoke to the Ministry of Justice and Danny Alexander, it was clear that they were impressed by the business case put forward in favour of North Wales. I, alongside my Welsh Liberal Democrat colleagues, have been working tirelessly with Liberal Democrat Ministers in London to ensure a prison in North Wales would become a reality. Many across North Wales, including the six local authorities, have worked together on this bid and it shows what can be done when we work as a team."   

Well that's certainly a ringing endorsement for more prisons! Lots of vested interest in keeping them filled by the sound of it too. I think I need a lie down.  

The No10 petition has topped 23,000 and is still available to sign here.    

Thursday 27 June 2013

The Sun Shines on the Righteous

I've already said that I feel Tuesday was a good day for probation. Well as it happens, and by a strange twist of fate, as the leaked Transforming Rehabilitation risk register story was breaking and their Lordships were preparing a nasty surprise for Chris Grayling, Professor Paul Senior was on his feet in sunny Cambridge delivering a carefully crafted and measured lecture on probation's future.

The annual Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture has been a popular fixture in the probation calendar for the past 16 years and always strives to be topical. This year was no exception with Prof Senior provocatively choosing 'Privatising Probation : The Death Knell of a Much-Cherished Public Service? as his title. It seems the MoJ were only slightly appeased by the presence of a question mark, such is the level of sensitivity and insecurity about any serious debate on such matters nowadays.

I've had the pleasure of hearing Prof Senior lecture on a number of occasions and he never disappoints. With consummate mastery of the technology, a clear message and a perfect sense of the moment, he delivered a barn-storming performance. Whilst keeping his obviously passionate views about probation firmly under control, he never-the-less confirmed that if cut in half, 'probation' would indeed be written right through him.

The amazing thing about all this is just how many times we've been here before. An article from the Napo Journal in 1968 was entitled 'Is Probation to Die?' and of course it did in Scotland as criminal justice services became subsumed within Social Work Departments. 

Following a canter through our history, the missed opportunities and mistakes such as the breakup of ACOP and Ethnie Wallis cringingly promising David Blunkett that 'we were here to do his bidding', Prof Senior had much to say about our present predicament, but firmly from the point of view of the glass being half full, rather than half empty. He did not wish to depress us any further, but rather sound a note of optimism. Yes we had lost much of the good leadership in 2001, but he felt the current chiefs were doing their best in very difficult circumstances and the Probation Chiefs Association formed only in 2008 was being effective. 

He confirmed there was absolutely no evidence to support a case for change on the scale being proposed and there was nowhere in the world that was running offender rehabilitation in the way being suggested. Even those countries where the voluntary sector was involved, it was always firmly under state control. These plans were clearly not informed by evidence: they were definitely about saving money. At a time when arguably effective practice had never been better, it was ironic that the service faced break-up. The 21 contract areas, or 'chunks' as he called them, made no sense whatever, not having co-terminous boundaries with either Local Authorities or those of Police and Crime Commissioners.

Prof Senior did not wish to enter into the public good, private bad debate. The involvement of other players was a fact of life and he felt some good innovative practice was going on outside the public service. Interestingly he did not feel that the big winners from the bidding process would be the usual suspects such as G4S and Serco, but rather the myriad smaller service companies like Interserve, Mitie and Capita. Most had no knowledge of the work, but supposedly were good at 'back office' economies and would therefore have to rely completely on the expertise of the 'newco's' to inform and provide a quality service. The timescale for mutuals to be part of the process did not look promising. 

Although he had serious doubts about how effective the rump public probation service could be given it's limited size, Prof Senior was clear that the 'newco's' would be absolutely key in effectively keeping the professional flame burning. The establishment of a Probation Institute was long overdue and discussions were ongoing as to how this could be achieved.

There are 'straws in the wind' and none of us know with any degree of certainty how things are going to pan out. Despite everything, Prof Senior was clear that 'probation' remains a strong brand and has all the elements present to claim to be an institution. The term has widespread understanding and despite the demise of the 'probation order' many years ago, it was interesting to note that in service user surveys, clients still referred to being 'on probation'.  

The lecture was videoed and can be viewed here.          

Wednesday 26 June 2013

A Good Day!

Politics is as much about being lucky as anything else and things aren't looking too good for Justice Secretary Chris Grayling right now. Having decided that the official internal risk register concerning his 'rehabilitation revolution' was too damning to publish someone, somewhere, promptly decided to leak it instead to the Guardian. 

I don't know why Chris should be so surprised because I rather thought this government was keen on being 'open and transparent' and it looks like some official merely decided to give effect to such aspirations. Despite this, according to Harry Fletcher, a high level leak enquiry has been instigated, so yet another case for 'Knacker of the Yard' to investigate.

Of course the trouble with being 'open and transparent' is when it's all bad news and the reason for trying to keep things secret becomes only too clear. According to Alan Travis at the Guardian:-  

The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has been warned by his most senior officials that plans to privatise 70% of the probation service lack support, are being pushed through on an aggressive timetable and potentially endanger public safety, leaked documents show.
They also warn that promised cost savings are unlikely to be achieved.
The official internal risk register for Grayling's "rehabilitation revolution", which he has so far refused to publish, warns that there is a more than 80% risk that his proposals will lead to "an unacceptable drop in operational performance" triggering "delivery failures and reputational damage".
The warnings are contained in a document marked "restricted policy", prepared for the Ministry of Justice board responsible for the rehabilitation programme. It also says there is a high risk of insufficient support within the probation service to push through the changes.
Among the concerns expressed by the authors of the risk register are the "considerable challenge" of closing down 2,000 separate computer packages and moving to a single shared services computer system.
The document also reveals that while many probation trusts are continuing to voice concerns about the proposals, nearly all are actively making preparations: "Our concerns focus on some trusts whose senior staff seem less able to make the transition themselves. Although these senior staff recognise their responsibility, as public servants, to manage the process of change, there is a difference between managing change and leading it."
The risk register uses traffic lights to describe the risks facing the programme, coding each risk factor as green, amber, red or black, but makes no assessment of the financial risk of not delivering the programme to the agreed timescale, quality or cost.
It appears that detailed Treasury approval for the proposals will only be secured after the framework bill reaches the statute book.
The senior MoJ officials rate the risk that a campaign against the proposals will delay or block them in parliament as a "code red". They reveal that the bill being debated in the House of Lords this week has deliberately been kept slim to "minimise the dependence of the reforms" on the passing of the legislation. Media messaging is also being used to "keep key elements of reform at the top of the agenda".
The register also makes clear there are anxieties at the highest level that not enough private sector and voluntary organisations will bid for the work (code red) and that once privatised the supervision programmes will be ineffective or fail to meet the required quality.
The highest rated concerns – code black – detailed in the document are:
• There is a more than 80% risk that an unacceptable drop in operational performance will lead to delivery failure and reputational damage. The report says the failures could be caused by industrial action, falling staff morale, staff departures or probation leadership disengaging.
• There is a 51% to 80% risk that insufficient support for the proposals by probation management and staff will lead to failure to implement the changes properly and on time.
• There is a 51% to 80% risk that cost savings will not be met.
 It's pretty damning stuff, but not at all surprising to those involved in trying to get their head around these daft and dangerous proposals. There must come a point when all sensible people realise that the hole they've been enthusiastically digging is in entirely the wrong place and going no where. 
A plan 'B' is urgently required and if Chris needed further encouragement, he need look no further than the spirited debate in the House of Lords yesterday that resulted in a government defeat on the Offender Rehabilitation Bill. As reported in the Daily Telegraph:- 
Peers dealt a blow to the new laws championed by Chris Grayling and raised doubts about the the "viability and affordability" of the Justice Secretary's strategy
The lords stopped the Offender Rehabilitation Bil in its tracks after a leaked Whitehall document suggested there is a high chance it would lead to an "unacceptable drop in performance" in the probation service.
They voted for an amendment proposed by Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, which will send the Bill back to the House of Commons for more debate and a vote.
Last night, Lord Ramsbotham called on ministers to withdraw the plans as they are too complex to be achieved safely in such an "aggressive timetable".
"There is a more than 80 per cent likelihood that an unacceptable drop in operational performance during the programme leads to delivery failures and reputational damage," he said, quoting from the leaked risk register.
His amendment was strongly opposed by Lord McNally, a justice minister, who said the risk assessment was "not a forecast of what is going to happen".
However, he was powerless to stop the amendment, which was supported by Labour, from throwing "a considerable spanner" in the Government's plans.
I think yesterday was a good day for probation and should give us all reason to feel that this is not yet 'a done deal'. It behoves all who care about this profession to create as much mischief as possible over the next critical few weeks in order to frustrate these government attempts to destroy a proud and successful public service.  

PS The Hansard transcript can be viewed here.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Omnishambles Update 7

Another week - and therefore another potpourri of bits and pieces relating to the developing probation omnishambles.

The MoJ statistics published recently for the PbR pilots at HMP Peterborough and HMP Doncaster continue to attract much analysis and comment. I must be honest and say at the outset that I don't really understand all the terminology, so I've selected quotes that I believe convey the gist and leave others rather more knowledgeable than I to plough through the detail. 

First off is Simon Barstow of the LSE who feels the results 'are modest and hardly the stuff of revolution' - 

"Bringing about ‘rehabilitation revolution’ in the prison system was never going to be easy. This is an area, after all, that has suffered from a persistent sense of fatalism over the decades about the extent to which prisons can or should be expected to rehabilitate. And the fact that the system has prided itself on running at close-to-tolerance levels of capacity day-in day-out has also sustained a healthy appreciation of the constraints on the realms of possibility in this area.
So the PBR pilots at Peterborough and Doncaster have afforded opportunity to see what is or may be possible when prisons and those that work in them are directly incentivized to focus on rehabilitative outcomes. What might we expect in terms of reduction of reconviction rates from such explicit attention? And what is the potential for changing cultures and mind-sets around rehabilitation? This interim report provides a useful insight into the size of the challenge."
"What should we make of these results? Not surprisingly, Chris Grayling and the Ministry have described them as encouraging, heading in the right direction, and so on. Indeed, as the report shows, national reconviction rates have continued to climb, whereas the pilots have shown that trends can at least be set in reverse.
Four to 6 per cent change, however, seems modest. One might expect an individual prison, incentivized explicitly over at least two years to reduce the rate of reconviction amongst 700 or 800-or so prisoners leaving its care, would be able to make more than a 4 to 6 per cent impact. In Doncaster, this equates to changing the behaviour of 1 prisoner in every 20 prisoners released. In fact, as the report suggests, this is a continuation of a trend that had started in Doncaster long before the pilot was introduced. In Peterborough, the equivalent marginal impact is more like 1 prisoner in every 40."

Dan Corry of New Philanthropy Capital thinks the figures are 'too good to be true' -

Figures for Peterborough show a 6% fall in the frequency of re-conviction, in the context of a 16% rise nationally, which looks impressive. We must be cautious though - this comparison is not of course one against a proper control group, let alone a randomised control trial, so it could be easy to over claim. Participation in the programme has been optional for prisoners and even though final results are to be measured against the full cohort, the results are bound to be affected by some sample selection bias. Furthermore Peterborough prison was carefully selected for this project, the governor is very engaged and most prisoners are released into the local area (rather than being dispersed around the country)--all factors which will have enhanced this pilot's chances of working well.

There also seem to be some strange things going on in the national population that the MoJ compares the SIB pilot results to. There seems to be a very steep rise in frequency of reconviction events between the two periods September 2008 to March 2010 and September 2010 to March 2012. We see the same pattern with re-offending rates. Both these trends seem surprising especially after a fall in the reconviction rates in the earlier period, and this probably needs further investigation before we take it fully at face value as a 'fair' comparator.
Unsurprisingly less has been made of the results from the Doncaster pilot where the payment by results system has not been delivering the same apparent level of success. Here they adopted a binary measure of success, and achieved a 0.5% fall in re-conviction levels, compared with a national average fall of 0.3%. Of course we don't know if these are good or bad figures given the lack of control group but these results do not give so much cause for optimism.
Even Toby Eccles of Social Finance has doubts -
Any caveats? A number. This is on the basis of six month reoffending, not 12 months, so one could argue that the impact of our programme may lessen over time. The comparison group, of wider national reoffending, is not as carefully defined as the comparison group that we have developed in the Peterborough model proper, where the reoffending rates of a matched cohort from the police national computer is used. Given this, the comparator group 16% increase over a two year period is something of an outlier, but it is all we have to go on.
It's worth bearing in mind though that some people are questioning the whole basis of these MoJ statistics, so watch this space.
There's growing evidence to show that the lawyers are having rather better success with their campaign to stop damaging changes to the Legal Aid scheme than we are with our battle to save probation. In an astonishing move, Dominc Grieve the Attorney General has effectively distanced himself from Chris Graylings key proposals in responding to a letter from disgruntled lawyers. Even Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, has made his views known about cuts to legal aid. 

It's going to take ages for the MoJ to plough through the thousands of lawyer responses to the consultation exercise and there have been hundreds of critical articles posted on the internet. If the combined might of the legal profession manage to force a u-turn on legal aid, I think Graylings days at the MoJ are numbered. Whether that will be good news for us or not is another matter of course, but one can hope.   
Sadiq Khan the Labour Shadow Justice Secretary made a spirited defence of a public probation service in a speech last week, but as we all know it was the Labour Administration under Tony Blair that put the whole sorry mess in train when introducing contestability and altering the statutory basis of probation. Talking of such matters, it's interesting to be reminded of what Nick Clegg said about probation when in opposition and at the time of our centenary. Politician's words so often come easily and mean absolutely nothing!

Given that the aim of these 'reforms' is to save money, it's interesting to read the recently published Ministry of Justice impact assessment of the proposals and amongst the gems are estimates as to the likely 70% failure rate of supervision and hence return to prison of the under 12 month people resulting in 13,000 recalls or prison committals, requiring 600 places:-

"Our best estimate is that there could be a cost of around £27m per year associated with breaches of licence and supervision conditions for offenders released after serving sentences of less than 12 months (and additional breaches from extending the supervision period for offenders released after serving custodial sentences of 12 months or more but less than 2 years). Our low estimate is a cost of £6m per year, and our high estimate is £42m per year." 

Today the House of Lords will be considering the Report Stage of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill and we can therefore expect some spirited opposition to the government's daft and risky proposals. There is an excellent briefing document available here prepared by the Howard League. The level of debate in the Upper House is always far greater than in the Commons and of course there are huge numbers of non-party aligned cross benchers to liven things up a bit.  

Monday 24 June 2013

Jeremy Forrest

For those that are finding the seemingly endless saga of the probation service privatisation a bit tedious, I thought I'd take time out to comment on the Jeremy Forrest case, mainly because I've found the response in some quarters a bit disturbing to say the least.

It came as no great surprise to me that the Jury took little time to convict Forrest of child abduction, even though a significant element of his defence was that the victim was potentially suicidal at the time and he took her to France because he feared for her safety if he had not. Of course a minor cannot legally give consent to such a thing, nor sexual activity with an adult, and therefore Forrest was sentenced to five and a half years imprisonment both for abduction and several counts of sexual activity with a minor.

Now given that Forrest breached his position of trust as a school teacher, and almost certainly used his privileged position in order to 'groom' the victim, I don't think many probation officers will be surprised at the length of sentence that was handed down. Others however, both on blogsites and twitter, seem to feel very differently indeed. Amazingly Frank Chalk, the former teacher and author of a hugely popular blog, just had this to say:-

So 30 year old Maths teacher Jeremy Forrest got five and a half years. Whilst we probably agree that what he did was wrong, should he really spend more time in prison than a mugger,  a burglar who attacked a woman in her own home, or a robber who almost killed his victim?  

Blimey - just 'probably agree that what he did was wrong'. Where is Frank's moral compass pointing exactly? Comparing the sentence with other serious but completely dissimilar offences is another matter entirely and not at all helpful I would suggest. But Frank is not the only one to raise doubts about whether Forrest has done anything wrong at all. 

For some time I've been reading a very popular blog by John Ward. He writes what appear to be extremely well-informed pieces on a range of topics that could be broadly termed as providing evidence of conspiracies. One of these concerns historic sexual abuse of children in care by members of the British Establishment. In particular he feels that the recent spate of historic sex offence prosecutions involving geriatric celebrities is a deliberate distraction in order to protect members of the Establishment from a similar fate. 

He is also highly suspicious of the appearance of a number of what might be termed 'apologists' for sex offending and I happen to share this view and have referred to it previously. So it is with considerable dismay that I read his recent somewhat hysterical piece on the Forrest case that serves to effectively give support to the apologist agenda (I have removed a photo and reference to the victims name so as not to be in breach of a Court Order):-

"How utterly predictable the Establishment of our nation is. Let me present my evidence for seeing it this way: but let me at the outset once more repeat that I do not condone what Mr Forrest did, because he betrayed a position of trust. I said at the time, “Fire the bugger”. But to give him a five and a half year sentence while child-buggerers walk free? It’s beyond belief.
He is 30, she is 15. That’s roughly the same age difference between my estranged wife and I.
Ms X has developed an obvious bust, hips and all the stance of a woman. To accuse Forrest of unlawful sexual intercourse with a child – on the basis of this shot alone – is ridiculous.
The Court – and the Judge – openly admit that Ms X gave her full and enthusiastic consent to their escape abroad. So I need someone – anyone – to explain for me please: how can you abduct a mature teenager who is a willing accomplice to flight? Isn’t this like rape with consent?
Now get this: Judge Lawson banned him from working or volunteering with children and unsupervised contact with children forever. Utterly astonishing."
"Now, I think Jeremy Forrest should repent the sin of being a teacher in a position of responsibility, while letting his sexual urges get the better of him. But the way the word is used in the article, the imputation is clear: he must be an incorrigible abuser of children. Bollocks. And, is he guilty – two key words here – of child abduction? Absolute crap – no he isn’t. Neither word can be legally proved – indeed, in a case like this they should have been ruled inadmissable."
Now probation officers would straight away spot the cognitive distortions contained in these quotes and that are so typically employed by many of our sex offending clients in order to try and justify their actions. But alarmingly many commentators on the article are completely supportive of the hypothesis that Forrest hadn't really done much wrong, so I was moved to add my dissenting voice:-

John – This is the first comment I’ve been tempted to make publicly, although I’ve been an avid reader for some time.

May I respectfully say that you are in danger of conflating two separate issues and in the process are in danger of appearing to be an apologist for sex offending – a situation I know you would wish to avoid.
As a probation officer I have some experience of these matters and in my view Forrest was dealt with fairly by the criminal justice system. The sentence is wholly unexceptional for such offences committed by someone in a position of trust where minors are concerned. It was also the result of a ‘plea bargain’ in relation to the fresh matters only put to him today, so his barrister will know he was fairly treated.
You and others may not agree with our current age of consent, but seeing as it is 16, in law there is and in my view, never can be any possibility of a minor ‘giving consent’ to anything sexual with an adult. It has to be that way in order to both protect the interests of minors and to ensure responsibility remains completely and unambiguously with the adult and perpetrator.
Judgements about appearance and possible levels of maturity of the minor are completely irrelevant in a case like this. Forrest was always going to get a lengthy custodial sentence because he breached his professional duty and the trust placed in him not to engage in any inappropriate relationship between pupil and teacher. It was his duty to rebuff and not encourage any advances from his pupils – simple as – or suffer the considerable consequences – which he has. Any report prepared by myself would have seen absolutely no possibility of any alternative to a lengthy custodial sentence, particularly as I agree with the prosecution case that he effectively ‘groomed’ the victim. (By the way, he’ll only serve half.)
I feel I must be even more blunt. To continue with your hypothesis, which has all the hallmarks I’m afraid of supporting the ‘apologist’ agenda, is in my view going to seriously detract from your main aim of keeping up the pressure regarding organised paedophile rings both historic and current. I think we all want to see those responsible, particularly from the Establishment, brought to justice, but this distraction really isn’t going to help.
The trial Judge noted that the evidence by the victim in court differed considerably to that initially given to the police and collusion is suspected. It's entirely possible that further charges of Perverting the Course of Justice might result. Evidence has also come to light indicating that Forrest had attempted to 'groom' other female pupils.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Dodgy Figures?

A few days ago I highlighted a blog post written by Jon Harvey and in response to the Ministry of Justice publication of statistics relating to the two PbR pilot projects at HMP Peterborough and HMP Doncaster. 

These are extremely important trials and must provide favourable results for Chris Grayling to be able to argue that PbR works and can therefore be rolled out as part of the privatisation plans for probation. Given his obvious failure with PbR at the DWP, anything less will get him into some serious trouble with HM Treasury, bring the whole privatisation plans into doubt and probably terminate a promising political career. 

Now with this much at stake, it wouldn't take much of a cynic to assume that there might be a wee temptation to play with the figures a little in order to put PbR in as good a light as possible. I mean it's not as if politicians haven't got a bit of form where this sort of thing is concerned is it? 

Wasn't this why the UK Statistics Authority was set up in the first place to try and stop politicians misusing figures? A bit like Grant Shapps, now Conservative Party Chairman, getting caught out 'misrepresenting' benefit figures and earning a rebuke from the UKSA in the process. Jeremy Hunt, Iain Duncan Smith, and even David Cameron have all been caught out before, so how do we know for sure that Chris Grayling and his department aren't indulging in a little dissembling of their own?

Well most of us have no idea at all and have to hope that those in authority can be trusted. A ridiculous idea I know, especially given the unfolding scandal into the Care Quality Commission and the 'buried' critical report, but this is where whistleblowing, or in our case a twitching nose comes to the fore. Jon Harvey says he was 'irritated' by the MoJ statistics and knows enough to ask some very pointed questions of the author using a Freedom of Information request.

I thought it would be instructive to quote the letter containing the questions in full and hope Mr Harvey doesn't mind. I know little of statistics, but I think they're belters! The FOI clock is ticking with some kind of response required within 20 days. We all wait with interest.

Dear Mike Elkins

I have just read through your publication. I have a number of questions and I would be most grateful for your thoughts:
1.       The pilots began on 9 September 2010 and the 1 October 2011 (Peterborough and Doncaster respectively.) Please can you qualify “began”?
2.       Given that “the next Proven Reoffending Statistics quarterly bulletin will not be published until 25 July 2013”, why did you publish your results today rather than a few weeks from now?
3.       I understand that “the interim re-conviction figures being published in this statistical bulletin are based on periods half the length of those that will be used for the final results” – daft question I am sure, but presumably this applies to both the ‘experimental’ subject averages and the national comparators?
4.       You say that these “interim 6 month re-conviction figures are available for almost all of Peterborough cohort 1 (around 850 offenders) and half of Doncaster cohort 1 (around 700 offenders)”, please can you explain what has happened to the other portions of the cohorts and why they are included?
5.       In terms of methodology, you say “offenders enter the PbR pilots after their first eligible release from the prison within the cohort period”, please can you explain “eligible” in this context and whether the national comparator figures also cover the same “eligible” group?
6.       You explain that the key difference is that reconvictions only count offences for which the offender was convicted at court, whereas the National Statistics proven re-offending measure also includes out of court disposals (cautions)” and “Additionally, there are a number of other differences between the pilots and the
7.       National Statistics proven re-offending measure in terms of which offenders are counted within the cohort”. Are you able to say what difference these differences might make to the figures? For example, what number of offenders per hundred are usually subject to a caution (or similar disposal) as opposed to a court conviction?
8.       Again I assume that given that the “Peterborough pilot includes offenders released from custodial sentences of less than 12 months, whereas the Doncaster pilot includes all offenders released from custody regardless of sentence length”, the national comparisons are on a like for like basis?
9.       You explain that the “success of each Peterborough cohort will be determined by comparison with a control group (of comparable offenders from across the country)”. How will this ‘control’ group be selected to ensure there is no inadvertent or unknown bias? Indeed was there (will there be) any form of randomised control trial element to either of these two trials (and extensions)? If not, what is your considered professional judgement as a statistician as to the validity of these results to guide future practice?
10.   For Doncaster, success “will be determined by comparison with the reconviction rate in the baseline year of 2009”. How will this accommodate national and/or local trends in (say) sentencing practice or levels of crime?
11.   Given that normally reconviction rates are measured on a 12 month basis and these interim results are measured on a 6 month one, how much is that likely (based on past data) to have depressed the reconviction rates?
12.   You say “Whereas in this publication, to eliminate the risk of seasonality and enable a consistent comparison over time, all figures relate to offenders released in the 6 month period from October to March”. I may well be missing something here, but by only using the six winter months, are you not likely to increase the risk of a seasonal effect in the data? Please explain further.
13.   Given that the Peterborough cohort finished on 1/7/12, and allowing for the 6 months plus 3 (for court delays), this takes us up to March 2013. So on this basis, why have the last three months of data (April, May and June 2012) been excluded? (As far as I can see there is no explanation of this decision, but forgive me if I have overlooked it.)
14.   Given that I assume that data is ordinarily collected on a quarterly basis, it would have been helpful to have presented your data in a similar way so that trends could be spotted over time rather than use the fairly arbitrary 19 month period to show the data. Why did you present it this way? Please could I have the data on a quarterly basis.
15.   Given that you must have the data for Peterborough for the missing 19 month period (September 08 to March 11), and acknowledging that this overlaps with the pilot beginning, please could I have this data nonetheless.
16.   Likewise, please could I have the data for the quarter beginning April 2012.
17.   You say “Nationally the equivalent figures show a rise of 16% from 69 to 79 re-conviction events per 100 offenders”. How do you get 16%? I can see a rise of 10 ‘points’ or a rise of (10/69*100) 14.5%.
18.   (As an aside, this is quite a large rise nationally in re-conviction rates comparing the period from just before the last election to period after. Have national rates continued to rise or have they levelled off now?)
19.   You say “these interim figures show a fall in the frequency of re-conviction events at Peterborough” which is drop from 41.6% to 39.2%. At what threshold of probability is this statistically significant?
20.   Please can you confirm that the OGRS scores cited relate to the cohort groups in both Peterborough and Doncaster (rather than all offenders who were released)?
21.   Why are the national re-conviction scores given next to Doncaster data (which average 32.9%) differ from the scores given next to the Peterborough data (average 37.9%)? I know the period is different and there is some missing data, but this still seems like a large difference…

I look forward to your thoughts

Many thanks

Friday 21 June 2013


Although probation officers are all about encouraging change in their clients, there is a very well known mantra that says 'past behaviour can be a strong indicator of future behaviour.' With this firmly in mind it should therefore be a very serious warning to us all when considering the degree of competence present within the Ministry of Justice.

An article in yesterday's Guardian highlights the shambolic contract negotiated by civil servants in the department to procure interpreters for use within HM Court and Tribunal Service. The language used by Sir Alan Beith and his colleagues on the Justice Affairs Select Committee couldn't be much more damning and gives further confirmation of the impending omnishambles being cooked-up for probation and legal aid this summer:- 

The contracting out of key services by the Ministry of Justice could end in a "multiple train crash" because the department displays naivety and lacks the capacity to understand what it is doing, according to a parliamentary watchdog.

Sir Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the justice select committee, said the "inglorious saga" of the court interpreters service was being swiftly followed by plans to contract out most of the probation service, court infrastructure and criminal legal aid representation.
Three damning reports – from the justice select committee, the National Audit Office and the public accounts committee (PAC) – have criticised the MoJ's decision to hand over all courtroom interpreting in England and Wales from February 2012 to the private contractor Capita.
In a parliamentary debate, Beith said the service "never reached a satisfactory level" and its performance had since slipped back. "This is a department which is putting out to contract about 70% of rehabilitation services, [court infrastructure and] a large part of criminal legal aid," he said.
"If things go wrong in the same way as they have in the court interpreter services, it will be a multiple train crash we will be facing."
The MoJ did not have the capacity to contract out all these services at once, he added, nor did it have a sufficient understanding of the complexity of court interpreters' work. "The MoJ's naivety seems to be matched by [Capita's] under-performance against the contract," Beith said.
Hugh Muir also writing in the Guardian recently wondered if there was a deliberately subversive wing at work within the MoJ, or just evidence of some childish behaviour to while away the dull and boring hours spent within the lower reaches of the department:-  
Things seem little better at the Ministry of Justice, where it appears that officials seek to undermine Chris Grayling's plan to privatise probation services. They can't oppose him directly, but there must be something seditious about the decision to call the new payment mechanism Straw Man. And who'd have thought they would get away with calling the payment system FFS? It stands for Fees for Service in Whitehall-speak, apparently. Something much, much ruder to everybody in the outside world.
The 'straw man' document referred to can be found here, but it can hardly be that reassuring to know that the destiny of our profession seemingly resides with a group of incompetents who are having a laugh at our expense down in London? Or, just to positively reframe that for one moment, surely there's got to be hope that common sense will prevail and someone a bit older and wiser will call a halt to this charade?  

Thursday 20 June 2013


Yesterday's post was based on a stark analysis by an insider of exactly how potential bidders for our work will 'run their rule over' it and ruthlessly make sure they get the business by proposing massive cost efficiencies. Just in case there is anyone out there that's still not clear what that means, TUPE'd or not, it's redundancies and worse terms and conditions for all.

At the stakeholder event I attended earlier in the year, the ex probation officer from Crime Reduction Initiative who was sat at my round table put it rather more bluntly - "ex probation staff would be got rid of as quickly as possible." Dreadful as it sounds and a view that will upset the sensibilities of many, as one commentator to this blog asked yesterday, "what does it take for people to wake up to what's happening and stop sleepwalking towards oblivion?" 

Napo have just conducted an election for a new General Secretary and the turnout was a derisory 20%. Conversations on twitter indicate that significant numbers of staff have their heads buried firmly in the sand, whilst others appear to have accepted that it's all a 'done deal' and nothing can be done. Some are leaving and joining other unions and some, mindful of other criminal justice union activities, are demanding to know when there is to be a ballot on industrial action?

The discussion forum has at last generated some activity and there has been much comment concerning TUPE arrangements, together with a belief in the sanctity of national terms and conditions, and hence negotiations. Staff are urged not to be tempted to enter into any local discussions, whilst others point to the alacrity with which many Trusts have already enthusiastically built up a track record on a whole range of policy changes embracing travel, working conditions and sickness management. 

Despite warm words in certain quarters, there is widespread disarray in the ranks of both union and management. Ian Lawrence, the new Napo General Secretary has got to get a grip and quickly, but he also needs support from the membership. He needs some indication that people really have grasped what this is all about. It's not a 'Rehabilitation Revolution' at all, that's just so much smoke and mirrors, spin doctor's sophistry or bollocks even to try and cover the fact that it's actually a wholesale decommissioning exercise - effectively the outsourcing of redundancies. 

If you're still not sure what it's really all about, here we have an article written by John Hannan of the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Action and following on from that highlighted yesterday by Richard Johnson of Buying Quality Performance. I quote selectively from this excellent GMCVA analysis, again from the point of view of organisation's considering whether to bid or not for parts of our work. The whole article is well worth reading, suggesting as it does that many voluntary organisations might wish to consider not getting involved at all. 

"The market for the delivery of public services has certainly become more competitive with more expected for less and often contracts being aggregated in order to reduce administrative costs. But there is a fundamental change in addition to this. In many cases the purpose of commissioning has itself altered.
As the market for public services grew over the last decade many voluntary organisations were able to engage in the delivery of services based on their quality and the impact they generated. As new spending emerged, organisations competed more on the basis of outcomes achieved than absolute costs.
This is less the case now. We are seeing fewer instances where contract specifications seek to generate increased quality but more often seek to squeeze costs out of the system or transfer risk. Last year I wrote about “toxic opportunities” and the increasing number of short-term contracts from the public sector that contained high decommissioning costs. In the forthcoming government spending review we are likely to see the biggest squeeze on public spending in the post-war period with both the 2015 and 2020 General Elections likely to be portrayed as austerity elections. Some short term contracts with significant TUPE liabilities might better be described as an outsourcing of redundancy than an outsourcing of delivery as many of those services are unlikely to last. Recent work from NLGN suggests by 2018 public sector bodies will have 50% of the purchasing power they have now.
And then we come to the latest large scale “payment by results” scheme which will really throw sharp definition on this fundamental change – the Transforming Rehabilitation programme which will outsource probation services.
From my own conversations with potential prime contractors and informed reports elsewhere we are likely to see outsourcing of these services linked to cuts of approximately 30% of costs.There may be opportunities for voluntary organisations to play a role in delivering services in this area but this isn’t a contract to drive innovation – it’s a decommissioning contract. Any successful prime will have to strip costs from out of the system and push efficiency. Primes will be paid in arrears and may have a significant up front capital cost as they cover redundancy payments and re-organise the existing estate and delivery systems. They will contract out but will seek competitive prices with a real squeeze on costs and an element of shared risk."
Guys, it really is time to wake up, stop sleepwalking and get active! 

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Probation - Some Tips on Bidding

Up and down the land some very smart people are at this minute engaged in a great deal of cerebral activity connected with our line of work. To put it bluntly it's all about trying to decide the answer to a tantalising question. Is there money to be made from probation, or like the Work Programme, is it a recipe for disaster?

At this point it might just be worth mentioning a recent article in Private Eye and picked up on by the 'Watching A4E' website. Apparently Chris Grayling met with A4E directors last July when still at the DWP and it was obvious the Work Programme was failing and A4E was enmeshed in a wave of bad publicity. It seems he told them "In 6 months it will all be forgotten" and he was grateful for what they were doing. I just thought I'd mention that Chris because we haven't forgotten!

Anyway, Chris Graying moved on to the MoJ and the same suspects and the same PbR payment methods are to be introduced for the privatisation of the bulk of probation's work. So it's fascinating to see what the current privatisation industry thinking is. Richard Johnson was managing director of Serco's Welfare to Work and in a recent article on his blogsite 'Buying Quality Performance' outlines in stark detail how probation contracts will be won and operated in order to make a profit. He takes an example of one contract area currently costing £30 million after stripping out the cost of assessment and high risk offenders:-  

If we are to win this contract, our tender will have to meet a quality ‘threshold’. But we are old-hands at this outsourcing game and know how to tick all those boxes. It comes down to price.
We know that the MoJ is looking for a 30% cost saving. We are going to have to bid at around £20m per annum. For this, we will take on all court-directed activity, including new supervision orders for people receiving sentences of less than 12 months. It is not going to be easy! But our Board are very keen indeed for us to secure this contract. They have, after all, agreed with the shareholders some stretching growth targets that can only be achieved through new contract wins.
We will inherit in Area F the ‘newco’ of transferring probation staff. In order to make it work, we will have to: strip out overhead; look for significant redundancies on the frontline; take the remaining staff through a radical cultural change programme, rolling out a new rigour in performance management; and also find ways to deliver some of the court orders differently (for example, using call centres instead of face-to-face contact). This transformation programme is going to cost us a lot of money, which is obviously going to have to come out of the £20m too.
To say the challenges are enormous is to understate the position as the article goes on to make clear:-
If we win the contract, the £20m will be paid to us in monthly instalments. Only, it won’t be fixed at £20m for every year of the ten-year contract. It will be reviewed each year to take account of any fluctuation in volumes of offenders. It will also be reduced year-on-year, to make sure we keep improving and growing in efficiency.
If we fail to deliver what the courts require, then MoJ will claw money back. If re-offending rates increase in Area F, then MoJ will claw money back.
In an attempt to focus us closely on rehabilitation, we will only be able to earn profit, i.e. anything over and above the agreed service fee of £20m, if we demonstrate a reduction in re-offending. If we have a massive impact on re-offending, they will even let us earn “super profit”, though it will be capped. MoJ are calling this the Payment by Results (PbR) element.
So. We have to take the existing service, plus some extra supervision orders, and deliver it for 30% less money. The MoJ drive us to find efficiencies and to maintain effectiveness with the risk of clawbacks. Additional interventions, over and above the core court-directed service, will have to be funded either out of the money for that core activity or be investment we make at risk, in order to generate a return from profits.
Our initial focus must be just the core contract. We have a massive transformation to achieve. Let’s get the ‘newco’ knocked into shape. Let’s drive for a much smarter core service, targeting a small reduction in recidivism to mitigate the risk of clawback. If we can deliver this for less than the £20m agreed, then that’s our profit.
To show willing to MoJ, we could propose investing some money at risk. But our Board aren’t going to like it. We’ll try to hand that risk down to subcontractors, offering purely outcome-based payments, but after the Work Programme debacle, MoJ are discouraging this. We could try to draw in social investment, but that’s not particularly cheap money and there is, to be honest, insufficient potential return in the PbR element.
I think it's fairly clear that what is being proposed is most certainly not a safe route to assured riches for any potential bidder, in fact it looks pretty much like a recipe for financial ruin to me. The article acknowledges that some bidders might pitch their bids too low and indeed lose money or go bust even, but most significantly makes the following point:- 
What this certainly is not is a rehabilitation revolution. It is not a mechanism to deliver a big decrease in re-offending. In order for that to be the case, real returns would have to be possible from the introduction of entirely new services over and above court orders. This conflicts with the objective of cuts. Payment by Results or outcome-based funding does not necessarily mean additional results – when combined with simple cost-cutting it generally just means de-risking public expenditure through shifting to cash-on-delivery.
The message from this source, that must be regarded as sympathetic to the notion of public service 'reforms', appears to me to be that we really do indeed have the making of an omnishambles here. You could get your fingers seriously burnt and it won't deliver a rehabilitation revolution. I wonder what those Trusts busily plotting to become mutuals make of it? 
So, my top bidding tip is quite simple - don't! 
Sign the petition here instead.