Thursday 31 October 2013

The Morning After

The House of Commons debate turned out better than I expected, despite the vast swathes of empty green leather being very obvious, but with some really very good speeches from the opposition benches. By contrast those by Chris Grayling and the government were lacking conviction, were confused and sounded arrogant as usual. In particular, he can't get his head around risk and still clings to the notion that NPS and CRC's will 'co-locate'

I know I'm hardly a disinterested neutral bystander in these matters, but listening to the argument from the opposition benches, the answer really is quite straight forward - give the extra work involved in supervising the under 12 month custody people to the existing well-performing probation trusts, at no extra cost. So simple, only ideology prevents it. 

If there was any fairness about the whole charade, the government would have lost the division handsomely. But there isn't of course and, supported by 56 weasel Liberal Democrats, the opposition amendment was lost by 66 votes. The full proceedings can be read here on Hansard.

I notice that a very full briefing document had been prepared by the PCA and although very thorough, at 13 pages in length I really wonder how many MP's would be bothered to plough through it. I'm no media expert, but wasn't this the right moment for a short and simple message from the PCA - you know something like 'give us the under 12 month people to supervise for no extra cost to the taxpayer'. 

To be honest this whole omnishambles is proving to me just how important the dark arts of media management really are, and sadly Napo, the PCA and PA seem to be completely at sea with it. It's quite obvious that nowadays the likes of the BBC have to be spoon fed and led by the nose to a good story. As usual, it doesn't get a mention. 

On the other hand, despite confirmation that several probation trusts are now officially blocking access to this blog, including South Yorkshire, Cumbria and Thames Valley, viewing figures continue to climb steadily and now number on average 2,000 hits daily. A new record was reached yesterday of 2,598, just eclipsing the previous figure of September 19th when the probation service was officially advertised for sale. This seems to be the place to come in order to let off steam, share information and hopefully get a bit of support. 

As was mentioned the other day,13 Police and Crime Commissioners have written to Chris Grayling expressing their concerns regarding the whole business, but to be honest it will only have real traction when independent or Tory Commissioners start voicing concern. Nevertheless, it's a welcome further piece of support and at one page in length, can certainly teach the PCA something about simple messages and brevity.

An article in the Guardian highlighting a recent report commissioned by NCVO into Payment by Results is interesting and can be paraphrased as 'there's a problem with the payment and the results':- 

One of the big problems our review has identified is poorly designed targets for payment. Some targets had nothing to do with the desired outcomes – others were actually detrimental. Worrying too, are examples of providers being required to bear the risk of achieving targets that are not within their control. This problem is often exacerbated by an apparent assumption from commissioners that there is a direct link between an intervention and a successful outcome, which fails to take into account the complexities of working with certain user groups.
For example, a charity may provide an excellent service for a drug addict, but if something happens beyond its control that affects their rehabilitation – such as a family breakdown or a housing crisis – the targets may not be met.
In some cases, PbR had been used not as part of a structured plan for service improvement but simply because it was the political flavour of the month. In these cases, a previous contract was often crudely converted to allow for PbR, which means receiving much later payments for the same work. Such contracts often contain more prescriptive terms to dictate how the service should be delivered, limiting the possibility for providers to try new ways of delivering outcomes. It brings all the financial risks for providers of PbR contracts, but without the benefit of allowing for innovation.
The Guardian contains another hard-hitting piece by Zoe Williams, highlighting the sad fact that much of what is going on in our field gets little attention:-

Probation work is to be contracted on a payment-by-results basis, which we have already seen fail, spectacularly, with the Work Programme (cost: £5bn; result: much worse than doing nothing). The pattern with deterring recidivism will be exactly the same as it was with getting unemployed people back into work – it isn't an accident. When you treat people as units of sale, a certain amount of human subtlety is lost. Sadly, this sort of work is almost all subtlety (let's call it "caring about each other", for brevity). The Howard League makes a convincing case for why the new system will be much more expensive, even without costing in its inevitable failures.
All this before we even consider the main point about probation – the thing that gets it into the news, for good or ill – which is that it protects the general population from dangerous prisoners. The Ministry of Justice doesn't even describe how it plans to distinguish between "high-risk" prisoners (who are staying in the public sector) and "medium-to-low-risk" ones (who are to be outsourced).
The root of this is about more than probation. If you're a large corporation looking to wring the UK government for every penny it has and then some, these are the places you look – away from the main traffic of public discourse, in the dank side streets, where careers get lost and battles become too dirty to yield a clear victor – probation, adult social care, prisons, tagging, court interpretation. This is where the cash is, because nobody's looking. If the Olympics fiasco had happened in outsourced security services for the UK Border Agency, we probably still wouldn't know about it. Hell, these fiascos have probably already occurred in the UKBA and we won't find out until 2027.
This is yet another example of the haemorrhaging of public money into private hands, and the first step in opposing it is to notice – resolutely notice – that it is happening.  

Wednesday 30 October 2013

None of the Above

Regular readers will be only too well aware that I've been writing about this TR omnishambles for what seems ages and although understandable because it is about our very future as a profession, it can get tiresome. Sometimes it's useful to try and put what we're going through in some kind of wider context.

I've been pondering this for some time and handily I see an article comes along that very neatly does the work for me. Writing in the Guardian yesterday, Seumas Milne has written a piece entitled 'The grip of privatisation on our vital services has to be broken'. It addresses pretty much all the stuff that's been going on recently from the electricity oligopoly to the raid on the Co-operative Bank. From privatising the Royal Mail, to re-privatising the East Coast rail line.

Often billed as 'the only way' of doing things, it's fascinating to read that in the rest of Europe things are changing and the Germans are in the process of taking electricity back into state control:-

Any doubts about who really controls Britain should have now been dispelled. Any thought that the financial crisis might have broken the neoliberal spell, rebalanced the economy or chastened the deregulators and privatisers can be safely dismissed. October has been the month when the monopolies, City hedge funds and foreign-owned cartels put the record straight. It's they who are calling the shots.

In the past week, a Swiss-based tax exile announced the closure of the Grangemouth petrochemicals plant, a crucial slice of industrial Scotland, after provoking a dispute with his workforce. Threatened with the loss of 800 jobs, they signed up for cuts in real pay and pensions.
Naturally, the employer claimed to be losing money (despite having made £1.7bn last year), while the media blamed the union. In fact it was a textbook lockout and display of corporate power by Britain's largest private company – a strategic and once publicly owned complex supplying 85% of Scotland's petrol, left to be run on the whim of a billionaire.
But that is mere bagatelle compared with the defiance of the energy privateers. Ever since Ed Miliband forced electricity and gas profiteering into political focus by pledging a price freeze, the monopolists have outdone themselves. Squealing that such interference threatened power cuts, one after another has taken the opportunity to jack up prices still further.
Four of the "big six" cartel, which controls 98% of electricity supply, have now increased prices by over 9% – blaming green levies and global costs – while wholesale prices have risen 1.7% in the past year and profit per "customer" has doubled.
Thousands of old people will certainly die this winter as a result of the corporate stitch-up that is called a regulated market – designed in large part by the same John Major who last week called for the introduction of a windfall tax on energy profits.

It should be obvious that powerful interests are driving what is by any objective measure a failed 30-year experiment – but which transfers income and wealth from workforce, public and state to the corporate sector. In the case of privatised utilities, that is the extraction of shareholder value on a vast scale from a captive public.
What's needed from utilities are security of supply, operation in the public interest, long-term planning and cost effectiveness without profiteering. The existing privatised utilities have failed on all counts.
The case for public ownership of basic utilities and services – including electricity, gas, water and communications infrastructure – is overwhelming. It's also supported by a large majority of the country's voters. But it's taboo in the political mainstream.

The answer is because it's a commercial relationship, not one of democratic accountability. There are any number of models of social ownership, including local and mutual, that could bring Britain's utilities back into the public realm. In energy, for example, it could start with a single firm or power generation alone.
However, the costs of privatisation have created a powerful counter-momentum in Europe (and even more so in Latin America) to bring services, resources and utilities back into the public sector: water in France, power in Germany, and transport in Britain (Newcastle is currently attempting to take back bus routes). In September, the people of Hamburg voted to bring back the power supply into municipal ownership. Berlin is set to follow suit this coming Sunday.
Privatisation is a failed and corrosive model. In Britain, it has combined with a determination to put up any asset up for sale to hollow out the country's industrial base to disastrous effect. If Britain is to have a sustained recovery, it needs a genuinely mixed economy. The political and corporate elite have run out of excuses.
There's a growing realisation ahead of the next General Election in May 2015 that there's going to be bugger all to choose from in terms of what the main political parties will be offering and what most people want. We have a severe democratic deficit. We know that opinion polls regularly favour retaining public services, yet all parties continue to press on with privatisation. Membership of all the main parties continues to fall, but at the same time the popularity of online campaign groups like 38 Degrees and continues to rise. 

The politicians have noticed of course and some feel that the real target of the Lobbying Bill currently wending its way through Parliament is such groups. The aim of the political elite seems to be to make sure such groups are neutered and prevented from campaigning during the year preceding a General Election. 

This is all very dangerous stuff for a democracy because it's quite likely turn-out will continue to fall as the disconnect between the governed and politicians becomes ever-greater. One concrete sign of brewing discontent, but that politicians have chosen to ignore, is the level of civil disobedience during the ridiculous charade to elect Police and Crime Commissioners last year. A staggering number of voters spoiled their ballot papers. This says loud and clear to me that people are not so much apathetic, as getting angry.

So in this context I was interested to come across the following article on the Guerilla Policy website, triggered by an interview on BBC 2's Newsnight programme with Russell Brand:- 

In this interview with Jeremy Paxman for BBC Newsnight, Russell Brand lit a political fire. Well, he didn’t so much light it as point to it and fan the flames. Borne of growing frustration with a woefully corrupted political and economic framework which serves only a minority of wealthy people and corporations, this fire is now raging. The None of the Above campaign has been gathering support to stand candidates at the next general election, to reject this system outright. Is Russell Brand to become the face of this movement?

None of the Above
This will be familiar to anyone who has watched the film Brewster’s Millions – the Richard Pryor comedy where Pryor’s character unwittingly becomes the figurehead of a political movement by standing in an election as ‘None of the Above’.
The campaign is designed to promote independent candidates who stand against the establishment. They may be women or men; young, old, or in between; of any racial, ethnic background; of any religion or none; they are the bricklayers, teachers, carers, parents, students or office workers that keep our world ticking over day and night. A ‘NOTA’ campaign is designed to give voters a chance to actively rather than passively (by abstaining) reject the status quo at the ballot box.
A Call to Arms
During his fateful interview with Paxman, Brand successfully gave voice to the millions who have had enough. The indebted students, the jobless young, the working families that cannot meet the rising cost of living, the elderly forced to choose to heat their homes or eat, the public sector workers whose jobs, pay and pensions have been cut, the private sector workers going through the same, the parents terrified at the nightmare future ahead of their children – of all of us who are not represented by our current political, economic and social systems.
Where is the democracy if you get to choose between the least worst option? Where is the democracy when there is no choice to vote for a single individual or party that stands for what you do? Well…?
And democracy is about more than the vote each four or five years. Where is the democracy in our workplaces? Where is the democracy in our schools? Where is the democracy in our health system? Where, in fact, is the democracy in any of the decisions which affect us on a daily basis? There isn’t any. Not only do we not do democracy well, but we barely do it at all. Don’t point at Iran and tell me to feel lucky. I don’t aspire to dictatorship, I aspire to democracy. To do it well and all the time. And so, in our hearts, don’t we all? Aren’t we all, if we really admit it, coming to the realisation that we are living in precarious times – and that all those in positions of power, and the locks on the doors to such power, are not there to serve us?
So, here is an opportunity. Russell Brand has become a megaphone for a national conversation that was already underway, but fervently ignored. The None of the Above campaign is not looking for a leader.  Like the Occupy Movement, it seeks to promote leadership in all of us.  It is more about fundamentally transforming the way we do democracy, than it is about a red, blue or yellow tie. But what Russell can do, if we get those 10,000 signatures and he accepts the challenge, is turn his expression of our anger into a tangible political result in 2015. He has the platform, if we have the courage. So…what are you waiting for?

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Danger of Death

It's not that often that probation hits the front pages, and when it does it's usually because we're accused of not having done something and effectively get the blame for not having prevented a horrible murder. 

Chris Grayling should take careful note of today's Guardian front page, because when things go wrong as a result of his omnishambles, this is where the story ends up:-  

Embedded image permalink
Now interestingly the warning comes not from the usual suspects like Napo - in fact there's widespread unrest amongst the ranks regarding their poor handle on PR generally since the departure of Harry Fletcher - it comes from the Chairs of three Probation Trusts no less:-

Three leading figures in the probation service have warned the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, he must delay his probation service privatisation plan for at least six months or face inevitable protection failures and risks to public safety, the Guardian has learned.
Their chilling warnings, in three separate private letters to Grayling, have been delivered in the past few weeks by the chairs of the Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire probation trusts on behalf of their organisations, which manage offenders released from prison and those serving community sentences.
Robin Verso, the Warwickshire probation trust chairman, has told the Tory minister that the risks involved in the current timetable for outsourcing 70% of the probation service's workload are unacceptable: "Our assessment is that performance is bound to be damaged and that public protection failures will inevitably increase."
Gillian Wilmott, the chair of the Derbyshire probation trust, spelled out her fears that the fragmentation of the probation service would lead to "more systemic risks and more preventable serious attacks and deaths".
Jane Wilson, chair of the Leicestershire and Rutland probation trust, told Grayling that the current timetable, which includes imposing a deadline of April 2014 to transfer staff out of the public sector, was "unrealistic and unreasonable" and has "serious implications for service delivery and therefore increases the risk to public safety".
MPs are to debate the radical probation shakeup on Wednesday and probation officers are due to stage a 24-hour strike on 5 November in protest at the privatisation of the 101-year-old public service.
The Leicestershire and Warwickshire probation trusts have called on Grayling to delay the timetable by at least six months. Wilson said that in the "view of senior professionals that even with additional administrative resource" there was "insufficient time to ensure the safe and robust transfer of all cases. Offender managers will be required to manage the transfer of cases on top of their existing busy workloads whilst at the same time, their managers and the management structure will also be changing." She says there have already been serious delays in providing basic information such as data on staffing.
It strikes me that this action by a few Trusts is long overdue and could be described as 'better late than never', because up till now they've been remarkably reticent to say anything publicly, despite being independent bodies. We're all aware of the exception provided by Avon and Somerset PT under the leadership of the redoubtable Joe Kuipers, but oh how things could have been so different if Trusts under the banner of the Probation Association had been more vocal earlier on.
We know there are major concerns about the speed with which the TR timetable is being driven and Joe Kuipers has in the past voiced serious worries about the ability to maintain 'business as usual' with key staff departures and low morale. On this point it was interesting to see a couple of recent tweets by a senior manager in Birmingham:-
After relatively positive performance last month, Sept's figs are not good. Totally gutted. Need to get to bottom of problems and fast.

staff morale and motivation is, almost universally, at rock bottom. Very hard to maintain performance in such circumstances.

Of course it's hard to maintain performance - the service is being destroyed!
Anyway, we are where we are as they say, and a few Trusts at last breaking ranks, along with at least 13 Police and Crime Commissioners flagging up serious concerns about the whole omnishambles, will help set the scene for the House of Commons debate tomorrow. 
Not willing to go public for obvious reasons regarding their own current difficulties with the government, this tweet from Frances Crook is revealing in relation to what the police view of TR is:-
Top cops have told me that the greatest threat they face is the Gov dismantling of , they expect chaos & a crime wave 
Talking of Frances Crook and the Howard League, she not only uses twitter to say something useful in my experience, her organisation is extremely adept at providing quality briefing papers ahead of Parliamentary debates, such as in relation to TR on Wednesday. It's an excellent summary of the key issues and there really ought to be no excuse for any MP not reading it. The following sections should provide a taster :-

There has been a significant delay in the passage of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill 
through Parliament. The first reading of the Bill in the House of Commons took place on 9 July 2013, but a second reading is yet to be scheduled. Whilst the Howard League 
welcomes the delay to the privatisation of probation, such a long time period between 
debates suggests that there are major problems with the proposals. 

The Howard League is concerned that the Ministry of Justice is attempting to 
implement the proposals without adhering to proper Parliamentary process. For 
example, during the third reading of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill in the House of Lords, 
an amendment successfully moved by Lord Ramsbotham, stated that “no alteration or 
reform may be made to the structure of the probation service unless the proposals have 
been laid before, and approved by resolution of, both Houses of Parliament.” The 
government ignored this amendment and on 19 September officially announced the launch of the competition for contracts.
If implemented, the reforms will be one of the biggest changes to our justice system 
in a generation but there is very little detail about how it will work. Risk is key to the 
Transforming Rehabilitation proposals – who will supervise people under sentence will be 
determined by their risk level, with high risk cases remaining in the public sector and all low and medium risk cases (the vast majority) being transferred to private providers. Despite the central importance of risk levels to the proposals a risk assessment tool is yet to be published, or possibly even developed. 

Furthermore, probation officers are currently being asked whether they would prefer to stay in the public sector or move to one of the 21 "Crime reduction companies" (CRCs), but they are not being provided with any information with which to make this decision. Probation officers do not know who their  employers will be in a CRC , what kind of work they will carry out or what terms and conditions they will be expected to work under. It is unacceptable  to put forward radical plans that are central to public safety with so little detail about how it will work and how it will affect the people involved. The probation service has offered to manage these people without additional resources but the government has rejected this proposal, preferring to inject additional public money into private companies to set up a whole new system. 

The proposed payment-by-results system poses a particular threat to the supervision of women. Probation interventions for women are usually successful because they are small, local and holistic - they look at each woman as an individual with problems and needs rather than simply as an offender. This approach has a proven track record in helping women turn their lives around as well as reduce reoffending. Under the proposals it is likely that these types of services will eventually lose funding completely. Private companies are very unlikely to subcontract with many women's services as they are small (and will therefore not provide services across an entire contract area), and more expensive than non-gender specific services. the Howard League is concerned that women will be assigned to community interventions designed only for men with detrimental consequences for their safety, levels of offending and the health and wellbeing of the women involved. Some of these concerns were echoed by the Justice Select Committee's recent inquiry into Women Offenders.  

After much delay the Ministry of Justice published its review of the women‟s custodial 
estate on 25 October 2013. The review stated that two of the 12 women‟s prisons would 
close and that all remaining prisons would become resettlement prisons. As there will be 21 contract package areas but only 10 remaining women's prisons a substantial number of female prisoners will be released into an area different to the prison. The review contains no information on how the resettlement prison system will work for women. Female prisoners are being shoehorned into a system designed for men. 

PS - For more about the position of women under the TR omnishambles, see today's piece by Kazuri Homes on the Russell Webster website:-

The reality is there is a surplus of space in the female estate  so  rather than take this opportunity to incentivise the market to come up with innovative alternative to custody models,  they will  pass the risk and the responsibility  for rehabilitation  to outsourced providers.
Only the usual suspect prime providers have the   financial resilience for contracts up to £15m in value. The  promise  that small VSOs will play a part in TR is  a sop.  “Capacity building” by paying 3SC, ACEVO and others  vast amounts  for upscaling , spin outs and social enterprise  is  pointless. The only way this will happen is by becoming part of a supply chain. No bank or social investor will underwrite the risk for a new CRC or a spinout.
The stock take admits that women’s hubs and one stop shops have been successful in reducing reoffending but their funding is to be cut from 2014.
We will lose the women’s champions in probation trusts, the women’s one stop shops and the alternatives to custody pioneered by the third sector.
Can you see Serco paying  premiums  for crèches and trauma informed, gendered provision?

Monday 28 October 2013

What About Women?

It's long been felt that the whole TR omnishambles has been 'designed' for men and with little or no thought for women. Here's the Justice Affairs Committee on the matter in July this year:-

Introducing a report by the Justice Select Committee, Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"The Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have clearly been designed with male offenders in mind. This is unfortunately symptomatic of an approach within the Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service that tends to deal with women offenders as an afterthought."
The Committee says that Government plans to introduce payment-by-results in probation services need to be redesigned in respect of women offenders—who are often classified as presenting a lower risk of reoffending—so that they receive the intensive tailored support they need.
In a report that looks at the progress made since the Corston Report in reducing the number of women being imprisoned, the Committee also raises concerns that efforts to implement Baroness Corston’s recommendations have stalled and the Government is failing to deliver the joined-up approach needed to support women at risk and help women offenders lead a law-abiding life. Strong political leadership and cross-government support at the highest levels is needed to make effective provision for women offenders in a criminal justice system where policy is framed around the much large numbers of male offenders. The Government’s strategic priorities for women offenders lack substance and in particular must take a broader approach to supporting women at risk of reoffending and addressing the inter-generational nature of crime.
Maintaining a network of women’s centres and using residential alternatives to custody are likely to be more effective and cheaper in the long run that short custodial sentences, the report points out. The Committee does not recommend substantive changes to the overall sentencing framework, but argues instead that must be more emphasis be placed on ensuring courts are provided with robust alternatives to custody specifically appropriate to women. The MPs recommend a gradual reconfiguration of the female custodial estate with women who have committed serious offences being held in smaller, more dispersed, custodial units.
Sir Alan commented:
"Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety.

Women’s centres and other community provision offer a route for diverting vulnerable women and girls away from crime and tackling the root causes of offending.
Although steps have been taken towards achieving a network of such provision it has been at a disappointingly slow pace and too many women still receive short custodial sentences.
There needs to be a systematic change in a approach and to achieve that we need strong Ministerial leadership to further this agenda."
Well the government's response to the damning Justice Affairs Committee report came on Friday in an announcement by Lord McNally:-

The Justice Select Committee said in July that the government's probation reforms had been designed with "male offenders in mind" and treated women as "an afterthought".
But Lord McNally, the Justice Minister, said he wanted to end female reoffending for good. "When a female offender walks out of the prison gates, I want to make sure she never returns," he said.
"Keeping female prisoners as close as possible to their homes, and importantly their children, is vital if we are to help them break the pernicious cycle of re-offending.

Start QuoteThe official MoJ press release can be found here. 

So, in an extraordinary twist of logic, Lord McNally and the government expect us all to believe that the situation will be improved, especially by "women being able to serve their sentences closer to home", by the novel method of closing prisons, including HMP Askham Grange and HMP East Sutton Park, and magically making all the others into 'resettlement prisons'.

Interestingly, these are the only 'open' prisons in the female estate and being based on large country houses in very desirable locations, will have little difficulty in converting to boutique hotels. It would be far too cynical to think that this was a factor in deciding they should close. 

In addition it's proposed to close the mother and baby unit at HMP Holloway and create a new unit at HMP Bronzefield. HMP Downview will also return to being a male establishment. As Danny Shaw of the BBC sums up:-

The question of how best to deal with the comparatively small number of female prisoners has vexed ministers for years.
The key recommendation in a review by Lady Corsten, in 2007, was that women's jails should be replaced by small custodial hubs across England and Wales.
The Labour peer said female offenders needed to be as close to their families as possible.
That proposal has never been acted upon, though this review recognises that distances must be reduced: 37% of women prisoners are more than 50 miles from home.
Officials say the planned changes will result in a "small average reduction" in distance - but there are still no jails for women in Wales, and the closure of Askham Grange, East Sutton Park, the Holloway mother and baby unit, and the conversion of Downview Prison to a men's jail will cut capacity by 401 places.
It's hard to see - with so little spare room - the changes making a significant difference.
Frances Crook of the Howard League is highly unimpressed with the proposals and castigated them in a number of tweets on Friday:- 

There will be no open prisons for women, so women will be discriminated against in penal system

Ironic Askham & East Sutton Park open women's prisons run enterprises, which MoJ says it supports, so it closes them

Closing Askham Grange open prison will mean babies will be held in closed jails & separated from mothers when younger

Two thirds women currently located in a prison within 50 miles of home, will deteriorate as 2 open prisons to close

Closure of Holloway prison mother & baby unit & withdrawal of legal aid for mothers will mean babies being separated

The spin by MoJ on women in prison today is breathtaking. Women wont have any open prisons, mother & baby unit closing. Disgraceful.

There is nothing in MoJ statements about young women, so 18 year olds will be shoved in with older women in prison

MoJ closing mother and baby unit in Holloway prison, the sham of claim to keep women nearer their families

Simply not true, closing the only open prisons, closing mother & baby unit, women will be more distanced from family

Govt closing the 2 women's open resettlement prisons, shows falsity of claim to aid resettlement & closeness to home

I notice that the government chose to publish a review of services for women offenders in the community at the same time, no doubt in order to aid the spin they are trying to put on things.   

Sunday 27 October 2013

What About Clients?

I suspect there's a danger in all this TR omnishambles to sometimes forget how things are for our clients. By the way I use the description deliberately and regular readers will appreciate I remain rather old-fashioned with regard to such matters, for instance having never abandoned the title probation officer in favour of 'offender manager'.

On this topic, it amused me greatly to read a twitter exchange recently with a manager castigating someone for referring to a 'hostel', rather than 'Approved Premises'. They were told in no uncertain terms that "the Salvation Army does hostels - we do Approved Premises!" It's all so arcane and pointless - as the expression goes, 'if it walks like a duck; quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck', in my humble opinion.

Anyway, I digress. There is absolutely no getting away from the fact that life for most of our clients has become considerably more difficult during this period of austerity. They are suffering the triple whammy of benefit cuts, rising prices for food and utilities and a stagnating employment market. Whether it's the bedroom tax, Atos health assessments, Job Centre harassment or crap minimum wage jobs, it's basically a shit situation and getting worse all the time for this group.

Now I know that this is true for lots of people, but for many of our clients this all comes on top of probably an unhappy and troubled childhood, failure by state education, poor health, an addiction to either drink or drugs and a criminal record. Despite what might be said to the contrary, the climate has become ever less tolerant for our clients, a situation encouraged by many of our politicians wishing to garner votes by pandering to the populist notion of the distinction between the deserving and undeserving within society.

Have you any idea how difficult it is for a person coming out of prison with literacy and numeracy problems and only the £46 made famous by Chris Grayling and you can't sign on for benefits until you've provided a CV at the Job Centre? Claims have to be made online, not in person any more and appointments arranged via phone when you haven't got one. After several weeks living on thin air and you are lucky enough to have got your benefits sorted, it can only be paid via a bank account you haven't got and often proves difficult to get. And the payments are moving from fortnightly to monthly, a move almost deliberately designed to make it impossible for our clients to budget.

If you had a drink or drug problem and used to get Sickness Benefit, that's no longer available due to the Atos work assessment tests and the Job Centre or Work Programme provider will want to see evidence of jobs applied for on a regular basis, or daily attendance will be required. Fail any more than a couple of appointments due to certain chaotic aspects of your life, learning disability or mental health problems and your benefit will be 'sanctioned', ultimately for periods up to 3 years.

Despite all the rhetoric and supposed aspirations contained in the TR omnishambles, I think most people can readily see how the system of 'welfare reforms' is creating a perfect environment whereby rehabilitation is made as difficult as possible and how many clients will simply give up and resign themselves to a return to prison. Others are sadly going to take more drastic action and the arrival of the Samaritans in Job Centres will eventually see them appearing in probation offices I fear.        

It's precisely this troubled group within society that the Probation Service was set up to deal with over 100 years ago. It's never been easy, but all those outfits who are at this moment considering whether to bid for our work or not, you must understand that the government is making the task that much more difficult year on year. The task of encouraging a person to change their thinking and behaviour is hardly being assisted by current government policies bearing down most heavily on those most disadvantaged within society. 

The fact that, despite this, the probation service has been able to demonstrate reductions in reoffending rates for those under our supervision in recent years is nothing short of amazing and a testimony to our skill, dedication and resourcefulness. I refuse to accept that putting the work out to tender by the lowest bidder will help the situation one jot. Life for our clientele is about to get a whole lot worse and potential bidders hoping to gain from a Payment by Results contract had better understand this. 'Transforming Rehabilitation' it will not be. Scandalously, I hear the 'project' has cost £60 million already. 

Despite all the odds outlined, even those clients that obtain work are facing impossible challenges and it's not encouraging news from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission as reported here:-

For millions of families, work no longer pays enough to provide a route out of poverty, the government's social mobility tsar is expected to warn. A report headed up by one-time Labour minister Alan Milburn will highlight stagnating incomes and rising prices. He is due to call on employers to do more to support low-paid families earning less than a living wage.
Real-terms incomes have stagnated since 2003 but prices are continuing to rise, the commission will point out, meaning employment may not enable a low-income family to escape poverty. The report is likely to suggest that, in the current economic climate, it is unrealistic to expect the government to continue topping up low pay using working tax credits. It is thought the commission may argue that employers need to do more - paying higher minimum wages and offering better training and career development.  

Saturday 26 October 2013

Heads Roll - Update

Following on from this morning's post, I can't resist pointing towards a bit more about Mr Hyman's departure from Serco ahead of the SFO investigation and as reported here in the Independent today:-

Mr Hyman, a 50-year-old devout Christian who donates 10 per cent of his annual income as a tithe to his local church, had held the top job at Serco for 11 years and worked at the outsourcer for 19.
He is to receive a pay-off of a year's basic salary plus benefits worth £1.1m. He also departs with a pension pot worth £2.2m, paying out £128,000 a year, and 917,000 shares in Serco, worth £5.1m.
"He believes that the company will have the greatest chance of success with new leadership at the helm and he has, therefore, decided to step down with immediate effect," Serco said. It is now looking outside for a new chief executive.
Shares in Serco rose 5p to 557.5p on news of Mr Hyman's departure, which came one day after the UK boss of rival Government contractor G4S – also involved in the tagging scandal – resigned. The outcome of an inquiry into Serco and G4S's tagging contract is expected next month.
Serco said it wanted to demonstrate "substantive evidence of corporate renewal". Ministers are currently deciding whether to blacklist Serco from future central Government contracts, which provide about a quarter of revenues.
The outsourcer also plans to split its UK & Europe division in two, with one focused solely on Government contracts and the other on the public sector. Serco is also hiring three more non-executive directors and a group general counsel, establishing a board committee for corporate responsibility, and appointing full-time ethics officers to each division.
The chairman Alastair Lyons said its actions "should leave no one in any doubt about how seriously Serco takes these issues".
A Government spokesman said it would take full account of the changes and called them "a step forward".

According to the Guardian:-

But Keith Vaz, the Labour MP who chairs the home affairs committee, said: "I am surprised by the resignation of Mr Hyman who has always maintained that there is nothing untoward with the contracts that Serco holds with the government, even after the company was referred by secretary of state for justice to the SFO."

Underlining the scale of the task involved in repairing relations with the government, Alastair Lyons, the Serco chairman, said a new chief executive would be appointed from outside the group. In the interim, Ed Casey, head of the Americas division since 2005, will take the helm.
The management upheaval came less than 24 hours after rival G4S, also caught up in the controversial electronic tagging fiasco, parted company with the head of its UK and Irish operations Richard Morris. The G4S chief executive, Nick Buckles, left in May.
Both companies are being subjected to a government-wide review of every one of their contracts and have been ordered to prove they are taking steps to improve their operations.
Serco, which was transformed into a major international firm under Hyman, is embarking on what it describes as a "renewal programme".
The UK and Europe division is to be split in two, with one section to focus on the "UK government customers" and the other on activities in the wider public sector.
Three new non-executive directors are to be appointed along with a new general counsel. A board committee for corporate responsibility is also to be created.
Andre Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, said Hyman may have become a scapegoat. "Typically, CEOs at companies that face a scandal are often pushed out to clear the air. This tends to lead to some short-term confusion, but pays off in terms of an increase in corporate performance. But in some cases it can be a fatal distraction where companies feel they have addressed the big issues by changing the leader."
I'm often quite a stern critic of twitter as typically being filled with platitudinous bollocks, endless inconsequential trivia or mind-numbing PR puff, but occasionally there are gems. Francis Crook, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform, usually only tweets when she has something useful to say, and I love this earlier today:-
told SFO to link tagging investigation to false data in NHS cornwall, as looks like systemic corporate fraud I wrote to SFO urging a little more vigour in Serco/G4S investigation, talked to them yesterday - changing a few top people is irrelevant, it's profiteering from imprisoning people that's morally corrupt

Heads Roll

Well we've certainly had confirmation of a couple of things about big bad boys G4S and Serco in recent days. They're ruthless, money talks and they're desperate. When the chips are down, your share price is sliding and the shareholders get uneasy with the corporate policy of biting the government hand that feeds you, then heads at the top roll:-

Richard Morris, a 10-year veteran of G4S, had only been regional chief executive of UK and Ireland since October 2012. He got the job after the previous incumbent quit in the wake of the bungled 2012 Olympics security contract. Before taking the UK role, Mr Morris was group managing director for G4S Care and Justice Services from early 2011.
He has left with immediate effect on contractual terms, suggesting he will receive his notice period.
Those close to G4S maintained it was his decision to resign but the timing of his exit looks significant amid the continued row with the Ministry of Justice over claims G4S and fellow outsourcer Serco overcharged for the electronic tagging of prisoners.
G4S maintains no dishonesty took place but is urgently trying to make peace with the Government, a valuable customer, which is poised to complete its own investigation into the tagging fiasco imminently.
The FTSE 100 company has pulled out of the bidding for some new Whitehall contracts until the crisis is resolved, potentially costing G4S many millions in lost revenue.

For both companies to get rid of their top people within days of each other does seem remarkable and is clearly an unvarnished attempt at appeasing the likes of Chris Grayling, whatever the outcome of the current fraud investigations:- 

The chief executive at Serco, a security firm at the centre of an overcharging scandal, has resigned. Outgoing boss Chris Hyman said the best way for the company to move forward "is for me to step back". Serco is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) after claims it had overcharged the government by "tens of millions" of pounds for electronic tags for criminals. The government welcomed the news, describing it as a "positive move".
They may be desperate to demonstrate rehabilitation, but they are probably too big to change, as this article from the Independent only last month makes clear:-

The main reason for Serco's spectacular fall from grace – and, more crucially, suspension from winning lucrative government contracts – can be summed up very simply: the FTSE 100 group, though possibly not for much longer, has 120,000 employees.
That's an empire, not a company. Those at the top may have little or no awareness of, let alone any control over, what those closer to the bottom of the pile get up to.

So it was that Serco ended up referring some of its employees to the police last week over allegations of fraud related to the misreporting of numbers on a £285m contract to run prison vans in London and East Anglia. Serco insisted there was "no evidence" that senior management had any idea what was going on – and that is the root of its problems.
Having a huge, unwieldy empire is exactly what got G4S into trouble at the Olympics last year. Senior managers were shocked to discover that the group didn't have enough security guards to cover the Games, because although this was a high-profile contract, it was also fairly small fry for a company with more than 620,000 employees.

Responsibility was delegated –arguably abdicated – and authority compromised. In such disparate organisations, it is far easier for rogue employees of business units to try and hide their mistakes, and then get away with it until the problems escalate to an unsavoury degree.

It looks as if the purge was expected judging by this report from October 19th explaining why it would take more than a change in personnel at the top:- 

On Thursday, the Financial Times reported that Serco is predicted to be purging its senior UK management as part of the drive to improve its governmental relationship following its tumultuous year. However, the news left critics doubting whether a mere change in personnel could reform an entire company culture. 

“You can’t change a culture in three months,” Andre Spicer, professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School, told the paper. 
“The only times that might be possible is if there’s a severe external threat or emergency but I don’t think Serco is in that position at the moment.” 

Further commentators have urged caution on the part of Serco. “One of the reasons that these public service markets often go wrong is because the pace and scale of reform is causing significant problems. In the rush to develop public service markets, avoidable errors have been made in design and oversight,”Nechal Panchamia, a researcher at the Institute for Government, told RT. 

“What we would urge the government is to slow down, learn quickly from mistakes, and correct them out of the system before another mistake grabs the headline,”
 she said. 

The penny seems to have dropped with both companies and each are apparently planning to separate their corporate structures, not least so as to be able to contain any future reputational damage. G4S intends to hive off the cash-carrying business and Serco wants to ring fence the government contract work. Unfortunately it's bad news for us because, being cynical, it now looks increasingly as if the ground has been prepared sufficiently for both companies to be welcomed back into the government fold. 

But there's always Margaret Hodge, chair of the powerful Public Accounts Committee to contend with, and she's been fuming over Serco trying to quietly palm off that troublesome health contract down in Cornwall. Not before time either there is a concerted campaign to extend the Freedom of Information legislation to private companies holding government contracts. The following is the wording of an Early Day Motion on the subject:-    

That this House praises the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for the transparency and openness it has brought to the public sector and the public right of access of information held by central and local government and its agencies; notes that public services delivered by private companies are currently beyond the scope of the 2000 Act; further notes that, as growing amounts of public services are privatised, ever decreasing amounts of public spend are subject to freedom of information; and supports calls to extend the legislation so that public services contracted out to the private and third sector are covered by freedom of information legislation.

As already mentioned, the focus returns to Parliament next week with an Opposition debate in the House of Commons on the whole TR omnishambles set for Wednesday afternoon 30th October. Lets make sure our MP's are geared up to attend and ask plenty of awkward questions, like "why can't the Risk Register be published?" I see Harry Fletcher via twitter is volunteering to help anyone prepare a suitable question. 

Finally, we have a date for a Napo strike on November 5th, the day following a further Fire Brigade Union strike and a strike by postal workers. We all know probation staff hate taking industrial action, but this is different and is about the very future of the whole profession and ethos of our work. Surely we cannot allow history to record that we did nothing to try and stop this madness?