Saturday 28 November 2020

OASys - Losing The Will to Live

In amongst everything else, I'm pleased the subject of OASys has had an airing again this week and especially not just how it consumes vast amounts of time for so little benefit, but also how it's effectively killed-off the PSR as a worthwhile endeavour. Of course to the command and control world of HMPPS this is all heretical stuff and completely subversive to even discuss, so before we 'park it' until next time:-       

I’m genuinely curious. As the overwhelming consensus is that OASYS is not fit for purpose, what would we (the practitioner) want the risk assessment framework to consist of? I guess I’m struggling to imagine an assessment methodology which would continue to facilitate holistic assessment of need, risk of harm, sentence plan objectives and controls that would be much different from OASYS. We certainly do not need a rebranded gurgitation of the same thing. Are there tools used in other sectors or by Probation services abroad which would represent an improvement?

I'm interested to know would people on here who support getting rid of OASYS and the command and control management structure and giving POs full autonomy and control over how they assess and supervise cases, expect greater scrutiny and accountability of POs for SFOs? I mean that as a genuine question, not a rhetorical question. ie would the trade off be to say that POs (with the right training and support) would get total freedom on how they go about their work but that when something goes wrong then the buck would truly stop with them?

I think most people were saying "get rid of OASYS" not get rid of any form of assessment. Think of OASYS in its most basic form: There are 13 areas of that person's life, some of which contribute to "offending", some of which contribute to their "risk of harm". If I gave you an A4 sheet of paper, asking you to identify which of those areas contribute to that person's risk and why and upon what basis, citing a range of evidence sources and drawing these together to say why you have come to your own view upon these, I hazard a guess your assessment would be a) shorter b) more effective and c) would take far less time. 

It's not that OASYS doesn't do this - it just does it in the most time-consuming way and asks the most weird questions along the way, and fails to ask such fundamental questions such as "what exists in this person's life to prevent another offence" or "what strengths does this person have and what might need to happen now to build upon or develop these, as a pathway out of offending." And of course probation couldn't manage without a section about why do you think this person poses "X" level of risk at this time and how can that risk be reduced, forming of course the basis of a sentence that actually makes sense to the person who is ultimately completing these objectives.

To me it's just that OASYS itself asks the wrong questions, and it's focus on risk factors means the plan becomes so tightly focussed on those factors = so if the problem is drugs, the goal becomes "I will do something about drugs", if the risk factor is thinking, the goal becomes "i will address my thinking" or a variation of a theme, rather than "what is within my power right now to move me away from drugs or" or the behaviour of target.

Let's face it, the million drop downs in the sentence plan are so ridiculously awful and frustrating, everybody loses the will to live by that point and after spending 4 hours (well 8 according to some) writing out the previous sections, who actually puts care and thought into the bit that the service user should be most invested in i..e. the sentence plan?

"Ever thought how we might have managed before it came along?" There were several (at least three) risk assessment tools across England & Wales utilised by various Probation Areas, all of which were different & designed by different people of varying expertise, experience & ability.

Previous posts/replies on the blog have detailed how many, what, when, where - and that the initial idea of OASys was welcomed as a means of extracting the best from all to have a coherent single means of risk assessment. It was a Trojan Horse pushed through the gates by HM Prison Service psychologists, at the behest of the Home Office, to disrupt the fierce independence of the Probation Service. As far as I can remember none of the historical assessments were more than 3 sides A4.

Other 'modern' risk assessment tools (riding on the wave of the risk business) include those for sexual offending, for violent offending, for mental health assessments, for personality disorders, for child protection, for domestic violence, for placement of children. Some are undeniably helpful, but they are not generally utilised in a helpful way.

"imagine an assessment methodology which would continue to facilitate holistic assessment of need, risk of harm, sentence plan objectives and controls that would be much different from OASYS."

It used to be a core skill of the trained Probation Officer that they would spend time with someone over a couple of lengthy interviews and make an initial assessment that formed the basis of a narrative document called a Pre Sentence Report, which proposed a sentence to the Court. Assuming a period of supervision was imposed, from that initial assessment (the same or another) Probation Officer could develop the themes in the report during discussions over a period of time with the individual subject. Things might change post-sentence and clearer admissions might be made without the fear of imprisonment; this could take the supervision in a whole new direction.

Written records documented the process. No-one was chained to a keyboard for hours on end - the time was spent with those subject to supervision, actually interacting with and assessing the person you were working with. It was a professional role with skills, which required quality 'clinical' supervision, and required teamwork & support, required integrity and stamina and tact and many other positive traits.


This from HMPPS website 15 May 2019 - 'Risk assessment of offenders' - A summary of evidence relating to offender risk assessment, risk of reoffending and risk of serious harm.

Managing risk and building hope – what next for assessment?

Our priority is to reduce reoffending and protect the public. Until recently, we have focused on the risk presented by individuals but in future will need to understand more about areas of strength and factors that support people to desist from crime. Focusing on negative labelling and stigmatisation following conviction can hinder desistance. Desistance is how people with a previous pattern of offending abstain from crime. An effective risk assessment system can help us do both.

We will continue to evaluate and learn from evidence, and to develop more effective risk assessment tools, to help individuals to reduce their reoffending and to lead better lives.

Thursday 26 November 2020

Russell on the Future

So, how did Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service do yesterday in the Spending Review? It's a pay freeze for probation staff and £4billion over four years for 18,000 new prison places - to create jobs of course. This forced marriage really isn't working too well on any level is it? Whilst the reality sinks in, HMI Justin Russell recently gave an interview to Civil Service World:-  

Probation inspector Justin Russell on coronavirus, Transforming Rehabilitation and the Spending Review

After years of funding cuts and the looming renationalisation of outsourced probation services, Russell calls for extra funding to be “baked into the baseline” for the Spending Review

This summer, HM Inspectorate of Probation did something it had never done before: it began conducting entirely remote inspections of probation services for the first time. The change came around a year after Justin Russell was appointed to lead the inspectorate – for the first few months of which, the job was pretty much what he expected. “And then obviously, Covid happened”

When Russell speaks to CSW, the inspectorate has just published its first entirely-remote report on the North Yorkshire Youth Offending Team. It’s now inspecting several other youth-offending services, as well as thematic inspections of the impact of coronavirus on probation services. “We’ve found we can do that – we can do the focus groups and analyse the case remotely,” he says.

And HMIP has been looking at how probation services are adapting to the pandemic, having gone into six local areas over the summer to see how both public and outsourced services were coping. After examining around 60 cases in detail, Russell says “we were positive about how they reacted”.

“They've had to react at a very great pace, they've had to completely switch their operating model. So apart from a small number of high-risk people, everyone is being contacted by phone. They have had to suspend some basic services – certainly during lockdown, they weren't providing any unpaid work sentences for the courts, and they weren't able to start accredited behaviour programmes. They are now starting to be able to do those, but it's been a slow process of recovery.”

And the new arrangements have worked for some people, he says. Many of the probation staff that inspectors spoke to were happy about the arrangements, as well as service users who had a “reasonably stable home life – some of them actually, in some ways, preferred being supervised by phone because it meant I didn't have to sort out childcare or find public transport”.

But the changes have been harder for more vulnerable users, including those with mental health problems. “They definitely struggled a bit more and missed having that personal, face-to-face contact with the probation officer.”

One of the happier consequences of this that Russell has seen is that coordination between public agencies seemed to improve during lockdown. Probation services had more check-ins with police and social services to share information about call-outs they had had, and attendance at multi-agency risk panel meetings went up when they were held virtually. “So that felt like a positive thing.”

And providers are finding other ways to adapt to the pandemic, restarting services they had to cancel during lockdown, using smaller groups and online courses where they can.

But the inspectorate is also aware that the effectiveness of remote supervision in probation is not well understood. A literature review it did a couple of years ago found “there hadn't been any robust research” on the subject, Russell says. There have been no randomised trials exploring whether it provides better outcomes than face-to-face supervision, for example. “So we really didn't know whether phone supervision would be effective or not – and to be honest, we still don't know.”

But while feedback from both probation staff and service users has been “reasonably positive”, problems can arise when the two haven’t met before. “So where professionals have already met someone face to face and done the initial assessment, it’s easier to continue liaising with them over the phone; where you've never met and you’re doing the whole thing over the phone, I think people find that a bit more difficult. So that's where the gap is.”

Many probation services have tried to address this by having an initial meeting in an office before moving to remote supervision, and keeping up in-person appointments for people who have just left prison. Asked if he thinks there should be a standard policy, Russell says it’s for probation services to decide. “What we will continue to do is inspect the quality of the work they're doing, whether they do that face to face, or by telephone.” As it inspects more cases, the inspectorate will be able to build up some of the evidence it lacks on how the mode of delivery affects services, he says.

In fact, HMIP began a two-month study at the end of September on how probation services are recovering from lockdown. The national inspection is looking at six local areas and 250 cases – some that started before and others after lockdown measures were introduced – to see how well services’ planning and recovery is panning out.

“That will start to give us some insights into the quality of work that they're doing, as well as the quantity of it,” Russell says. “It's a big enough sample that we'll be able to hopefully start to get into what's the quality of work that's been done over that period. You know, recovery is a slow process. I think all the regional directors I'm talking to are saying, ‘This isn't going to happen overnight’.”

In the last couple of months, services have started increasing their face-to-face delivery, starting up unpaid work placements, and opening up behaviour programmes again. And with the courts now sitting again, new community sentences are coming through that the inspectorate will have to keep an eye on. But Russell acknowledges that the delivery of in-person services could start “going backwards a bit” now that the second wave of coronavirus has hit.

All this is forming the backdrop to services’ preparations for some massive reforms that will come into play next year when the National Probation Service regains responsibility for low and medium-risk offenders, which was handed to private Community Rehabilitation Companies in 2012. The Transforming Rehabilitation outsourcing programme is widely acknowledged to have been a failure – Russell’s predecessor, Dame Glenys Stacey, concluded last summer that it was “irredeemably flawed”.

But Russell says preparing for the transition next June is a “really big challenge for probation leaders and directors” already dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. The inspectorate will be following their progress closely and will be doing an inspection on transition planning by the end of this year.

He also warns that bringing services back under public control is no easy fix because “structural change by itself very rarely solves all of your problems – you need the resources to back it up.” Probation officers in both CRCs and the NPS have been struggling with huge caseloads due to a lack of resources, and services have suffered as staff have become more and more stretched – but HMIP’s inspection reports of CRCs have been particularly critical.

While there are signs of improvement in some areas – some CRCs have improved their performance in the most recent round of inspections – some just aren’t getting better. He says a “three-tier” probation service has emerged, “with the NPS continuing to perform okay – although it's got its own issues; two or three providers actually do reasonably okay now; and then some that are still really struggling.” Of particular concern are those in the Midlands and some of the Purple Futures partnerships, which are led by Interserve, the contracting giant that was sold last year after financial trouble threatened it with collapse.

Russell is concerned that shifting the CRCs’ massive caseloads to the public sector without a serious funding injection to hire more staff and spread the load is “not necessarily going to improve quality”.

“And you're going to potentially have issues as people are transferring over, there might also be a loss of focus during that transition process,” he adds. CRC staff moving over to the NPS must get adequate training before they take on high-risk service users.

As with most things, Russell says the success of the latest reforms rests in no small part on whether they are properly funded, noting that “the history of probation funding over the last 10, 20 years has been one of increasing cuts.” For one thing, the Ministry of Justice’s budget has not been protected under the austerity measures that began in 2010. The impact on violence in prisons has been well documented, but Russell says there have been some “big impacts” on probation too.

In fact, there has been a 40% real-terms drop in probation funding per case since 2003 – as HMIP’s submission to the Treasury for the upcoming Spending Review points out. “That's a big gap to make up going forward, and that's why it's so important that the Spending Review does start to address that gap.”

That funding is critical because when probation officers are having to supervise 70 or 80 people at a time, it doesn’t just affect staff wellbeing – although Russell notes the inspectorate has seen very high sickness rates. “It just becomes unsustainable if you're trying to keep an eye on what's happening in their lives,” he says. Things can get missed – things like if a service user changes their address, meets a new partner or moves in with someone who has children, or if the police fail to share the information about an arrest.

“In every service, we look at a sample of the cases they’re supervising and we are consistently finding the area of weakest performance is around managing the risk of harm to people's families or to the wider community,” Russell says. At private providers, fewer than half of cases are being satisfactorily supervised in relation to risk of harm. That figure is slightly lower at the NPS, but still too high.

As well as the funding issue, services are finding it hard to fill vacancies. HMIP has no nationwide data for CRCs, but found the NPS had 600 vacancies in June 2019, and was having to use agency staff to plug the gaps.

Does Russell believe ministers have grasped the enormity of the problems in front of them? “Very much so, and the HMPPS leadership certainly does as well.” He points to a £150m funding increase for probation this year, as well as a capital funding boost that he hopes will address the “pretty shocking” conditions on some premises. And HMPPS has meanwhile committed to hiring 1,000 probation-officer trainees by January.

But he stresses that the extra funding cannot be a one-off, but has to be “baked into the baseline” for the Spending Review. Not only do services have a shortfall to make up after years of cuts, he adds; the government’s pledge to reverse cuts to police forces by recruiting 20,000 more officers in three years will generate extra work “over and above just closing existing funding gaps”.

He says it’s difficult to know whether the Spending Review will deliver that critical extra funding – and adds that it’s not only probation-specific funding that matters. “It's the funding for all of the other services that they work with. There's a whole ecosystem of support that goes around probation and mental health services, drug services and support services. And all of those suffered as well over recent years.”

Homelessness is one such area, he says. HMIP published a study earlier this year showing 11,000 people leave prison into homelessness, including 3,000 higher-risk offenders. It also found the proportion of people who got called back into prison or reconvicted was twice as high for people who didn't have stable accommodation after they left prison services, “so it’s potentially a really big driver of crime and reoffending”.

“So there's a huge need for decent and stable housing for people coming out of prison, which needs to be invested in. Ten or 15 years ago, the probation service actually had its own budget to commission its own accommodation for offenders. That's gone.” Instead, it can only commission a small number of so-called “approved premises beds” for the people at highest risk, which can only accommodate people for 12 weeks.

Another “really big gap” is support for substance abuse, he says. He points to Dame Carol Black’s ongoing review for the Home Office on the misuse of illegal drugs, which has shown funding for drug treatment had plummeted, while Class-A drug deaths are at a record high.

“So it's all very well funding probation, but you also need to fund the services they refer on to, to make a big difference,” Russell says. He hopes the cross-government group on crime and reoffending – which is chaired by the prime minister and is being given evidence on these matters – is a sign things could change.

This is a subject Russell knows well, having spent a year at the University of California Berkeley earlier in his career on a fellowship looking at substance-abuse treatment programmes for offenders in the US, and what could be learned for the UK. “That was a really key year in my career, where I went from being someone with a research interest to a much broader policy interest and realised the difference the government could make in some areas,” he says.

The ideas he brought back from that led directly to the introduction of the drug testing and treatment order, a community sentence including treatment and rehabilitation for people with a record of drug-related offending, in the 1998 Criminal Justice Act. Russell was a policy adviser to then-home secretary Jack Straw at the time. “So that's very satisfying to see that translate into a direct policy initiative,” he says.

“The reason that was so seminal a year was that it sparked off that interest in evidence-driven policymaking and looking at different innovations at the front line and thinking about how you can translate that into practice – and how things roll out, and the interaction of politics and government and evidence and social-policy experts... that ended up being what I've done in my career.”

Beckie Smith

Tuesday 24 November 2020

Time To Call Time On OASys

Blogging is a funny old business and I'm left a bit puzzled as to why things took off on Sunday with 2,900 hits, more than double the normal 1,500 we've been bumping along on for some weeks. Yesterday was the same with twice the readership. Is it concern of an impending public sector pay freeze, something kicking-off I'm blissfully unaware of, or is concern about OASys hitting a nerve? I'd really love to believe the latter, not least because I've been banging on about that for years.

There are a number of contenders for when and how the demise of probation started, but my money is firmly on OASys and personally I think history may well record it was the proverbial final nail in the coffin. Like many who've been around for some time, I can remember its experimental arrival, initially in paper format, before being firmly imposed on us all via the bloody computer terminal. 

It will always be a source of much genuine mystification and disbelief that such a fiendish invention could be introduced without those in senior management positions having a clue as to how long the damned thing took to fill in. I well recall in a most unusual outburst of insubordination at an area conference, firing a question at the then CPO Sue Hall, asking if she had any idea? To my utter astonishment she replied, "No Jim - how long does it take?"  "About four hours" I replied, to which there was a chorus from behind of, "and the rest!"  

Actually 'astonishment' is not a strong enough word given the devastating effect OASys has had on productivity, effectiveness, morale, sickness, early retirement and resignations over subsequent years. And that's before you take into account the effective killing-off of the PSR, the once absolute keystone of our work. Who in their right mind thought up and signed off on a bloody button marked 'generate report' believing anything useful would result? Like many, for years I simply threw the resulting garbage away and wrote a proper report. 

I eventually got into trouble of course and was identified as completing OASys in a 'cursory manner', as a result of which I had to undergo behavioural modification administered by a rather sheepish and freshly-promoted 'Senior Practitioner'. The eventual outcome was an ability to be rather more skilled in faking interest in the process, hiding my disdain, together with the development of a certain degree of competence in the art of 'cutting and pasting'.      

The effect of OASys on our profession has been nothing short of devastating, criminal almost, a situation confirmed by all the worthy reports over the subsequent 18 years highlighting just how little time is actually spent in contact with clients. OASys has literally chained us to the computer. Can't anyone in authority join some dots up and see cause and effect? It's not as if I'm rooted in the past and just a dinosaur here either. This from yesterday by someone considerably younger:-
"4 hours for a review on an OASys that was completed a few months prior. About 7-8 hours on one from scratch. At least."

The following contribution came in late on Sunday night and deserves attention:-

"The comment that OASYS was considered the "foremost risk assessment tool for the purposes of sentence management and resettlement" was written in 2010 (just 8 years after OASYS was rolled out) and itself was highly subjective and had no evidence to back it up - as I recall it, it was NOMS and the people who authored OASYS itself described it as such - I guess the fact that it "calculated" statistical risk scores in conjunction with personal assessment made it unique and "world beating" at the time, and I have no doubt that the statistical scoring underlying it is highly sophisticated.

But let us consider what is the purpose of OASYS? identify the "risks and needs" associated with an individual's offending and ultimately to slap a label of risk against them. I just don't see how filling out 38 pages of shit is helping that process....after meeting the individual and collating all the info together, writing a few paragraphs to identify which areas of that person's life were likely to have contributed to their offending/risk against a list of crappy "areas" such as "thinking" and "emotions" does NOT take 4 hours of tappety tapping - it drains the soul, it drains the energy, it drains ALL of our resource so that we have been left with virtually nothing else to offer.

Nobody is saying that a written piece of well thought out evidence justifying the "regime" of licence conditions and so on is not required. But I felt so sad reading the research referenced in the previous blog post, that we are NOT equipped to identify or address the range of complex psychological risk factors they referred to - OASYS does NOT help us to do that, unless "thinking" and "attitudes" are the risk factors the report authors were referring to?

It just makes me so angry because we could be so much more and ARE so much more....and yet the organisation has piled so much emphasis onto OASYS and its meticulous completion that it has sucked out everything else that we could possibly do. The organisation's answer to pretty much everything is "make sure you update OASYS" not "make sure you do X or Y to ensure the individual and potential victims are safe". It's tragic."

Powerful stuff, and taken together with other recent contributions, brings me to my main point. In the absence of any clear probation leadership nowadays and as we become ever-more strangled by the dead hand of HMPPS control, where can we turn to be able to effect change, influence policy and hopefully save our profession before it's too late? How about the Probation Institute? or Justice Select Committee? Perhaps HM Inspectorate? or Napo even?

Well, regarding the latter, I'd recommend readers view the recent pedestrian AGM addresses both from by Katie Lomas, National Chair, and Ian Lawrence, General Secretary. Given the parlous state we find ourselves in, I suspect many will find the contributions both disappointing and hardly inspiring.

Clearly the situation is not looking good, but dare I suggest we take inspiration from an unsolicited and surprising contact earlier made in February this year and on publication of that National Audit Office report that pre-empted the final demise of TR. Maybe the answer lies with us all individually finding ways of making our views known, safely and anonymously, because it just might have an effect? Clearly people do read this stuff:- 

"Dear Jim,

The National Audit Office has today published a report on Improving the Prison Estate which we hope will be of interest to your subscribers. You can find a link to our report here:

We have found your blog to be an excellent source of information on developments in probation and prisons sectors, particularly in terms of canvassing a broad range of perspectives from practitioners on the ground.


You may be interested to know that previous discussion threads on your blog helped to inform our approach to data collection and fieldwork for our value for money study on Transforming Rehabilitation: Progress Review which we published in March last year. This, combined with insights from our focus groups with probation officers, culminated in Figure 4 of the report which examined workload rates across different National Probation Service sub-regions."


Finally, it's worth bearing in mind as regular reader 'Getafix pointed out on Friday, there are concerns about OASys everywhere, often including the subject of the exercise. This from Insidetime:- 

OASys … what’s the story?

The Offender Assessment System (OASys) is a risk and assessment tool designed to help prison and probation manage offenders consistently and effectively (according to PSO2205). However, it is apparent that the actual assessment and subsequent report is applied inconsistently, with many offenders feeling angry and betrayed at the sheer ineptitude.

Many complain of subjective comments, made-up comments, contradictions, boxes incorrectly ticked, incorrect factual information, unsubstantiated claims (by the assessor) and wording (such as ‘in denial’) that could lead to legal challenges for those maintaining innocence.

Most offenders sentenced to twelve months or more must have an OASys assessment as part of their induction process or within eight weeks of being in custody. However, many inmates are unaware they are being assessed when they meet their OMU and Probation as it is not made clear to them prior to, or at the start of the meeting. You are likely to be asked about your offence, your family background, education, work, health, drugs, alcohol etc., and you have the right not to respond to any or all the questions if you so wish – you can also refuse the meeting.

Some weeks later you will receive a three/four page OASys assessment from your OMU, which shows your sentence plan, current and future objectives. This is a fraction of the full assessment (which is some fifty-plus pages) but unless you ask for it you won’t get it. However you do need to see it, because the details and scoring (based on what you say in the assessment meeting) in the full OASys determines your risk (high, medium or low) which may not be correct, as assessors and supervisors are failing to thoroughly complete and check content and quality assure the assessment.

Read it through carefully and make notes on everything you feel is incorrect, inaccurate and speculation/subjective comments. Note what you want changing and the reasons why. In some cases it will be blatantly obvious what is wrong. My advice is that you then write to your OMU or Probation to say you’ve read the assessment and found inaccuracies, discrepancies and items that need to be changed before you agree to the assessment as accurate and how do you suggest we proceed? If a meeting is suggested, have your notes ready and your copy of the assessment. Go through the points and make detailed notes of what is agreed and what is not agreed; then ask for a new assessment to be sent to you. If that doesn’t happen, you might want to instruct a solicitor and let them handle everything.

I’m sure the OASys assessment is being used properly by the vast majority of OMU/Probation, but not in all cases, not consistently, and not to high standards of quality. It’s your responsibility to do something about this. If you don’t you may find things difficult during your sentence and when released on licence.

Monday 23 November 2020

Fit for the Future?

With some trepidation, I present the following paper recently published by the Probation Institute. They've clearly given up on making a strong case for breaking free from HMPPS control, merely hinted at here, no doubt with the aim of having other fish to fry:- 

A Probation Service Fit for the Future

The Probation Institute has been engaging with HMPPS, partners, Fellows and members following the publication of the Target Operating Model (TOM) by HMPPS and the recent White Paper from the Ministry of Justice. This note draws together some key themes from these discussions including a recent Fellows Meeting that asked the question: 

“What Kind of Probation Service Do We Want?” 


The answer to the question above must flow from a definition of the purposes of Probation. The Probation Institute believes these to be: 
  • The provision of pre-sentence reports to the Courts to facilitate appropriate sentencing. 
  • The rehabilitation of those who have committed offences by working with them towards desisting from future offending. 
  • The enhancement of public safety through the reduction in risk of re-offending and the risk of harm to others associated with it. 
  • The delivery of sentences imposed by Courts. These include Community Orders for which Probation is primarily responsible and supervision of those released on licence from custody. 

To do so requires the following: 
  • Recruit the right staff - the ability to build, maintain and develop relationships with service users is the fundamental building block of Probation work. This ability can be developed and enhanced but it should be evident in those we recruit. We are more likely to identify and recruit the right staff if we have flexible routes into a Probation career that facilitate access for all groups in society. 
  • Developing confident professionals - all Probation staff must have access to training and continuing professional development. Training and development should build practice skills, disseminate evidence from research regarding best practice and facilitate the application of this evidence. Continuing professional development should be provided and/or facilitated by the employer but staff should take responsibility for their own development. This approach fosters an outward looking, professionally curious and confident staff and should be promoted through the establishment of an Independent Professional Regulator. 
  • Creating and sustaining a culture based on professional ethics - see Probation Institute Code of Ethics - such a culture will be facilitated by effective recruitment and training, but these are not sufficient in themselves. Employers should encourage an open culture where peer support and learning are encouraged, where skilled professionals are valued and listened to. In turn professionals should promote a culture that involves service users in their supervision and wherever possible in the process of organisational development and planning. Such a culture will be inclusive and will take positive action towards minority groups; and is unlikely to be achieved if Probation staff at all levels do not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. This should involve the active recruitment and inclusion of those with lived experience of the criminal justice system.
  • Integrate deployment of technology - healthy culture that supports well-trained practitioners should welcome the effective application of evolving technology that assists in the achievement of professional aims whilst taking account of digital exclusion. Integration of technology will be most effective where practitioners and service users are involved in design and application. This includes co-ordination with other CJS systems (Courts, Prisons , Police), case management systems, the use of technology to facilitate remote contacts where appropriate, the use of apps to support specific interventions and the integration of electronic monitoring into the planning and delivery of supervision. 
  • Stable and adequate funding - it will not be possible to achieve the above without adequate and stable funding. HM Inspectorate of Probation has documented the damage done to Probation practice by under-resourcing and unsustainably high workloads. The Probation Institute believes that re-investment away from imprisonment and towards community provision would facilitate effective resource distribution. It is also a far more efficient application of public funds. 

Probation delivery structures have undergone frequent change over the last 30 years. The most effective organisational model will be designed from the bottom up based on a consideration of how best to achieve its purposes and to facilitate the key elements required to do so. 

Probation has never been, nor ever will be, a monopoly provider. The core business of public sector Probation is case management, advice to courts and the delivery of interventions requiring enforcement on behalf of courts. To succeed in its broader rehabilitative task, it must work effectively with a range of statutory, voluntary and independent partners. Doing so requires: 
  • access to and participation in local commissioning structures.
  • identifiable credible local leadership that builds relationships with key local partners and participates in key local forums (e.g. Local Criminal Justice and Reducing Re-offending Boards). 
  • partnering with and supporting the sustainability of organisations that work with those communities most at risk of alienation from the criminal justice system. 
  • cross departmental commitment at a national level that requires key statutory partners such as housing providers, health services, benefits agencies and Police to work cooperatively to reduce re-offending. 

A Probation Service that is well designed to achieve its purpose can expect to deliver the following outcomes: 
  • Reductions in predicted rates of reoffending. 
  • Fewer victims of crime. 
  • Increased public confidence in the management of potentially dangerous people. 
  • High levels of sentencer confidence.
  • The rehabilitation and re-integration into society of a significant proportion of service users. 
  • A virtuous circle of continuous improvement where confident professionals develop and challenge their practice based on research and on co-production with its service users.

Two notices that may be of interest:-

Is the Criminal Justice System Failing Welsh Women?

September 2019 saw the highest recorded number of Welsh women prisoners, with 1 in 5 receiving very short prison sentences for non-violent offences. However there are no women’s prisons in Wales. Join this Welsh Fabians event with Catherine Fookes, Director of WEN Wales, Gemma Fox, Managing Director of the North Wales Women's Centre, Dr Robert Jones, Research Associate, School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University, Su McConnel, Vice Chair of NAPO Cymru and Shereen Williams, Magistrate, Adult Bench to discuss whether it is time criminal justice was devolved?

Wednesday 25 November 7-8pm Book your ticket

Participants for Dissertation Research:

Looking to recruit probation officers to interview regarding female offenders – if you are interested please contact

Sunday 22 November 2020

Do an OASys - Or Assess Risk!

There seems to be so many discussion threads at the moment, I'm concerned we could be missing some gems along the way, such as this belter of a rant from Friday that I'm fairly sure will have quite a few experienced colleagues nodding sagely:- 

So the research concluded "OASYS is a pile of shite". Something we all knew.

The problem is that the organisation has invested so heavily in "how to do OASYS", rather than "how to assess risk". Certainly in my area over the past few years, the focus has been on OASYS QA Standards, training about how to use them, QA feedback, with the feedback on literally "how" to fill out each box to "fit" these ridiculous standards.

OASYS is frankly not based on research - it doesn't take a professional to identify that a violent offence took place because of "thinking and behaviour" and "attitudes". This leads to ridiculous comments like "he needs to improve his thinking skills", "he needs to improve his consequential thinking", "he needs to improve his victim empathy", "he needs to change his attitudes to others and society". 

OASYS guides you little to identify the factors that prevent people perpetrating offences - why can the starting point not be what already exists in Mr X's life to prevent another offence and how we can now build upon that as the basis of the work we do. OASYS and certainly not Probation actually tells us HOW to address the psychological risk factors referred to - they've reduced us to "referral agents" - refer to TSP for thinking, drugs agency for drugs, and CRC for ETE/finances - and my "intervention" will be to "discuss" this with him and "motivate" him to attend. That's NOT how I see my role and I do try to do more, but that's how belittled I feel by "senior management" who have equipped me with few skills (other than what I have read up, learned, trained in prior to probation) - ultimately I can totally see why the service users say "what's the point in me attending probation - what exactly do you DO"?

The organisation has reaped what is sowed and yet STILL persists to sow the OASYS seed, piling on the pressure to do more of them, adding in new sections about pillars and arms and failing to provide what we actually need. 

The organisation rolls out a new "statistical score" and assumes people are just going to naturally know what these things are, how to use them - they treat us like total machines which is demeaning.....and then blame US for "only seeing RSR as a risk allocation tool" when that was entirely how THEY rolled it out to US....and then scratch their heads and say "we just can't understand why the staff aren't using RSR in their assessments" or "we just can't understand why staff feel we don't listen" - because we are SICK to our BACK TEETH of writing meaningless shite into OASYS, against your meaningless QA standards and when we raise this in team meetings, HOS briefings or whatever we are shouted down and told "the tool is based on research" - what research? Research completed in 2003 by some cronies at the MOJ???? Cronies that think the phrase "When is the risk likely to be greatest" actually makes grammatical sense and needs a four paragraph reinterpretation in the QA standards?

What people need is proper training and grounding, on a regular basis, on the psychological (and other) risk factors referred to in this report. What we get is yet another iteration of OASYS or OASYS QA which consumes our time, energy and focus. What we need is the reflective approach mentioned here, allowing us to formulate this neatly into perhaps one or two paragraphs, not an OASYS. 

But no, what we get is page, after page, after page of tick boxes, pull throughs, drop-downs, "evidence boxes" (I think there must be about 10), and ridiculous standards that talk about "list your sources in date order, with name and author" in order to get "EXCELLENT", or meticulous guidance about what a bloody "current situation" is!


As an aside, one of my most memorable career low spots occurred some years ago during a prison visit to HMP Doncatraz. To my utter astonishment, I witnessed a colleague entering an interview room with the full OASys manual under their arm!   

Saturday 21 November 2020

Bullshit Bulletin 8

As the reality begins to dawn that 'key worker status' actually means sweet FA in terms of who is going to pay for Covid, I suspect these monthly upbeat 'strengthening probation - building confidence' bullshit bulletins will be viewed with increasing derision. But such is the reality of being part of the command and control structure of a government department everybody and especially one working 'at pace' (sic)

Probation Changes Bulletin - Issue 8 - November 2020

1. Introduction from Amy Rees, Director General of Probation and Wales

Welcome to the latest bulletin, reporting on key updates and progress across our three probation programmes – reform, workforce and recovery. You will read more on these from Jim Barton and Ian Barrow below.

As we continue to operate under restrictions, I wanted to thank all our staff for their continued professionalism and dedication, a view echoed by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Probation who recently applauded staff for their compassionate professionalism during COVID. It makes me personally very proud to lead such a team, particularly during these times.

Across the probation service, our focus is on ensuring the health and safety of our staff and service users. We will follow the principles of our COVID Roadmap to Recovery, prioritising public protection and risk management. We will continue to work under our established Exceptional Delivery Model Framework with our senior leaders making decisions on how best to deliver our core services in their regions based on local circumstances. We will continue to deliver Accredited Programmes and Unpaid Work wherever possible. Our Approved Premises will also remain open, with local amendments to how they operate where necessary.

Planning for the winter months and the possible scenarios we may face continues to be a major focus for us and we are doing this in collaboration with our key partners. We have learnt a great deal from the way we have responded to coronavirus and will be building this in to our plans wherever possible.

I hope you find this bulletin helpful and we look forward to updating you on the latest developments in the next issue.

2. Update from Jim Barton, SRO, Probation Reform Programme

Work continues at pace on the planned probation reforms as announced in June by the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP and we are on track for the safe and stable transition to the Unified Model by June 2021. Recent highlights include:

Management Structures: the future structure of Probation Delivery Units is designed, as is how we will manage the Dynamic Framework, and the specialist public protection team that will sit in each region. We have a proposal for how Unpaid Work and Accredited Programmes will be managed, but this remains subject to confirmation.

Role Allocations and National Agreement: CRCs have been working through the assignment of their staff - this determines whether and where staff are assigned to transfer, to the National Probation Service (NPS) or to one of our intervention providers. We have also reached agreement with our recognised Trade Unions on the key protections that will be afforded staff transferring from CRCs in June next year.

Estates: a detailed estates strategy has been developed for each regional probation director. The strategy outlines where some estates changes will happen now and where changes will happen next year. There are currently 19 projects running to improve NPS estates.

Target Operating Model (TOM): Work continues on the next iteration of the probation operating model to show what the future sustainable model for the probation system will look like, in particular, after transition in June 2021. Broadly speaking, the TOM sets out our commitments to providing:
  • New regional probation leadership structures that enable greater local accountability, partnership working and delivery of services that more closely meet individuals’ diverse needs.
  • Investment in our workforce to support their continuous development, attract and retain talent, create a diverse workforce, foster confident leaders and promote wellbeing.
  • Improvements to Sentence Management delivery to encourage greater focus on effective supervision to help protect the public and promote rehabilitation wherever possible.
  • Improved interventions that respond to an individual’s specific needs. This includes improvements to the delivery of Unpaid Work and Accredited Programmes, the introduction of Structured Interventions and securing the expertise of other sectors in the delivery of rehabilitative and resettlement services.
  • Modernisation of our estate and technology so that our physical spaces create positive working environments and we reduce duplication in our systems, creating efficiencies and enabling better data recording and analysis to facilitate more effective decision-making.
A draft has been developed and shared internally. Key stakeholders will also be given early sight and the opportunity to review, before publication in February.

3. Update from Ian Barrow, SRO, Workforce Programme

We are continuing to drive change through each of our commitments set out in the Probation Workforce Strategy launched this summer. As part of this work the NPS Smarter Working Initiative was launched on Wednesday 28 October which builds on our commitments to enable our people to work more flexibly, and sets out our promises to provide:
  • A better place to work, increasing flexibility, work life balance and choice of working location balanced against operational need.
  • A modern organisation with greater adoption of new technology.
  • In our new offices, fit-for-purpose workspaces designed for collaboration. In our existing offices, we want to make better use of space to support Smarter Working.
  • Working remotely more often – including the flexibility to choose where to work up to 50% of the working week, depending on the needs of the business and colleagues.
We appreciate that the opportunity to work remotely up to 50% of the time might not be possible for some staff, particularly those working in prisons and in Approved Premises and we are finalising specific expectations for these areas. However, increased remote working remains our aspiration.

PQiP: In addition, we are pleased to say that we are on track to exceed our commitment to recruit 1,000 PQiP learners this financial year. We recruited 457 learners in July 2020 and are set to recruit over 600 new learners, our largest cohort yet, in January 2021.

4. Update from Ian Barrow, SRO, Recovery Programme

We have carefully reviewed the implications of the national restrictions introduced in England and Wales and are continuing to follow the principles of our Roadmap to Recovery to safely deliver our core probation services. We are using our established exceptional delivery framework as we have been doing over recent months to prioritise public protection and risk management, alongside the safety of our staff and service users. Our Regional Probation Directors and CRC Chief Executives will continue to make decisions on how best to deliver probation services in the regions based on local circumstances and staffing levels.

The programme has continued to make good progress where it has been safe to do so since our last bulletin was published. There continues to be a steady increase in offices reopening and the last of the Approved Premises which had to close due to Covid-19 has now re-opened. We have seen a gradual increase in office appointments and as a result, a reduction in telephone contacts. In addition, we are also still seeing a steady increase in the delivery of Unpaid Work and Accredited Programmes.

As always, and echoing Amy’s comments above, I’d like to thank our operational and programme staff who are continuing to drive this important work forward.

Friday 20 November 2020

Once a Bully, Always a Bully?

So, in anti-bullying week and having sat for months on the report about Priti Patel's bullying and breaking the Ministerial Code, the prime minister instructs his troops via whatsapp it's "Time to form a square around the prittster" and says he has full confidence in her. The author of the damning report Sir Alex Allan, resigns instead, clearly unimpressed to hear the home secretary's lame excuse that her behaviour was 'unintentional'

I think it's probably worth reminding ourselves at this point as to how this great ship of state is being steered with Captain Patel on the bridge. This from the Guardian on Wednesday and as you read it dear colleagues, bear in mind all probation staff are about to become civil servants:-   

Black official quit ‘racist’ Windrush compensation scheme

Exclusive: Former senior Home Office employee Alexandra Ankrah says some colleagues showed ‘complete lack of humanity’

Complaints of racism and discrimination within Home Office teams set up to address the Windrush scandal prompted the launch of an internal investigation and the resignation of a senior official, the Guardian has learned. The most senior black Home Office employee in the team responsible for the Windrush compensation scheme resigned this year, describing the scheme as systemically racist and unfit for purpose, it can be revealed.

The Guardian has also learned that a separate set of complaints about discrimination within a different Home Office team researching the causes of the Windrush scandal led to an earlier internal investigation. About 20 members of staff working on the independent Windrush Lessons Learned review by Wendy Williams were interviewed by a civil service “equality, diversity and inclusion” officer after allegations of racially discriminatory treatment were made by minority ethnic staff members.

Alexandra Ankrah, a former barrister who worked as head of policy in the Windrush compensation scheme, said she resigned because she lost confidence in a programme that she alleged was “not supportive of people who have been victims” and which “doesn’t acknowledge their trauma”.

Several proposals she made to improve the scheme were rejected, she said. “The results speak for themselves: the sluggishness of getting money to people, the unwillingness to provide information and guidance that ordinary people can understand.”

She was troubled by the fact that several Home Office staff responsible for the compensation scheme had previously helped implement the hostile environment policies that had originally caused claimants so many problems.

By the end of October, the compensation scheme had been running for 18 months and only £1.6m had been paid out to 196 people. Officials had originally expected thousands to apply and estimated that the government might eventually have to pay out between £200m and £570m. At least nine people have died before receiving compensation they applied for.

The Home Office said it rejected any suggestion that the scheme was discriminatory.

Ankrah’s concerns were echoed by whistleblowers from the Lessons Learned review, who felt uneasy that entrenched Home Office styles of working made staff insensitive on the issue of race. “The irony was that the very review team that was investigating what the Home Office thinks is past injustice was doing it in a way that was upholding all the systemic racism that exists in the Home Office,” one team member who was interviewed as part of the internal investigation said.

Ankrah worked as a head of policy in the Windrush compensation scheme from its launch in March 2019 until April 2020, when she resigned and moved to another Home Office department. She left the Home Office entirely in August 2020 to take up a job in the NHS.

She said she raised concerns to her bosses on several occasions about what she felt was systemic racism within the scheme. “It’s not just racism. It is an unwillingness to look with any curiosity or genuine concern at the situation of victims, many of whom were elderly and unwell,” she said. As a result, a group of predominantly black and Asian people were being “re-traumatised” by the compensation scheme, she said.

She said a senior colleague criticised her for always seeing “things through the prism of race” and she was censured for “standing outside and throwing stones in”. As the only black senior member of the team, she was “irritated” by these rebukes, asking: “[If] I was throwing stones from the outside – who put me on the outside?” She felt her role on the compensation team was marginalised and that her “experiences as a black person, as a professional, were diminished or devalued”.

“I am not a disgruntled employee; I am not bringing an employment tribunal claim – this was not about my job. It was about meeting this government’s promise to put right the harm that many people had suffered,” she said.

She described accepting the role because she wanted to help with the process of ensuring justice for the Windrush generation, but quickly becoming concerned about the team’s capacity to deliver it. Ankrah proposed a simplified, plain-English version of the compensation application form, as well as greater understanding towards the families of those people who died before completing a claim. She also made suggestions about how to assist widows and children.

She said she wanted to help people to prove that their treatment had a detrimental impact on their lives but that her recommendations were ignored. “The scheme was intended to allow people to make their own applications, without the need for legal advice. But the guidance was poor; this meant it was not fit for purpose.”

Ankrah’s main concern was that many in the team working on compensation had immigration enforcement backgrounds, or were still working in that section of the Home Office. “These were the very same people who hadn’t questioned the Windrush situation in the first place,” she said. “It is unusual, is it not, to have the same bit of the organisation in charge of the complaints? You normally have some type of separation at least to show credibility.”

Ankrah was also troubled by numerous comments that she believed were revealing about attitudes of Home Office employees. She said staff were grudging about payments and told her: “People should be happy with whatever they get.” She added: “A Home Office lawyer was telling me: ‘If they die without a will then too bad, they should have made a will.’”

When she tried to help speed up payment for a terminally ill claimant, colleagues began “discussing whether he should be paid a trifling sum or a very trifling sum”. She felt some of the comments “betrayed a complete lack of humanity”.

Amid growing concerns about the running of the programme, the Commons home affairs committee announced on Wednesday that it was launching an inquiry into the compensation scheme. The first evidence session is expected next month.

Three separate teams were established to right the wrongs against the Windrush generation in 2018. Alongside the compensation scheme, the Windrush taskforce has been widely praise for swiftly giving documentation to about 13,000 people who had wrongly been designated as illegal immigrants.

Separately, BAME staff working on the Windrush Lessons Learned review – the third unit established in the wake of the scandal – said they were concerned they were not invited to key workshops and were given non-speaking roles at meetings, whistleblowers told the Guardian.

After staff members attempted to raise concerns internally, a complaint was made to the chair of the Home Office’s race board. As a result, a Home Office human resources team was instructed to do some work to ensure that the team was “leading the way in creating inclusive working environments”.

An internal investigation was also launched, and about 20 members of staff working on the review were interviewed at length in early 2019 by a civil servant with a responsibility for equality and diversity. The conclusions of the internal investigation were not shared with the team, though it is understood to have looked at the lack of inclusion.

Thursday 19 November 2020

Assessing Risk

Regular readers will be only too well aware of my long-term antithesis towards OASys, the most fiendish of inventions designed to consume vast amounts of time to absolutely no useful purpose. Over the years we have discussed its corrosive and harmful consequences at length but which seem perfectly suited to the command and control ethos of HMPPS. Bearing this in mind, it's likely that the following research from the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology and reported by CEP will be of interest:-  



Probation officer risk assessments are used to make key criminal justice decisions and to allocate resources. To ensure validity and reliability, they must be based on factors proven within empirical research to link to recidivism and undertaken with a transparent approach. This study aims to explore whether risk assessment judgements vary between groups of practitioners and what factors influence probation decisions about risk. The research questions were explored by discussing constructed vignettes in focus groups across six locations. The study adds to the conceptual understanding of risk in probation practice. The findings have led to recommendations for further research and suggestions for probation policy and training. 


There was a commonality in the risk factors considered across the groups but the interpretation of how the factors impact on risk was different. Factors meant different things to different practitioners. The offence detail carried most weight in assessing risk, meaning practitioners assess the offence and not the offender. Generic risk factors were considered, rather than information specific to the individual. Crucially, psychological factors were not considered at all. 


Variation of outcome was found across an individual and an office level with demographics of assessors and office location being possible contributory factors to risk assessment. All focus groups felt middle manager influence had the ability to dominate assessments. Regardless of a probation officer making a trained assessment, collating and analysing data, it can be altered by a middle manager. Ultimately leading to someone who has not met or interviewed the offender making the decision on the risk category. This authority to change assessments was viewed negatively by practitioners. 


Ultimately the participants expressed a distrust in static scores suggesting they do not use them to form their final risk assessment. By not recognising the strength of such tools, probation officers are conducting assessments based entirely on individual, clinical judgements. Practitioners stated they avoid reviewing assessments due to time available, so the recorded risk and the actual assessed risk may be different. All officers stated time impacted on their assessment. In practice this meant practitioners could find more information to verify a high risk assessment. The number of high-risk cases appears to be dependent on the amount of time an officer has to spend on an assessment. In policy resource is specified to follow risk, but in practice risk may also follow resource. 


Probation Officer risk assessment varies by; - how officers interpret risk factors. - middle manager influence and local practice. - faith in tools and time to use them. - perception of service user trust and honesty. - familiarity with service user and offence. - fear of getting it wrong. 


The consistent starting point with all groups was; risky until proven otherwise. The focus groups did not talk about the reciprocity of trust. By viewing trust as a one-way interaction, probation officers may, therefore, be limiting their value in the desistance process. Honesty was unique to other considerations in this study as it was viewed as a personal betrayal against the probation officer. The offenders were not just seen as breaching rules, they perceived as lying to the individual officer. Probation officers expected interactions to be meaningful and engaging. Silence was presumed as guilt and a factor which increased risk. Probation officers increased risk if an offender was not open and transparent in their interactions. In certain scenarios, this extended to the offender’s family. The relationship between offender and probation officer was a factor which influenced risk assessments. As the relationship between offender and probation officer may affect compliance and engagement, compliance and engagement affect probation officer risk assessments. 


Risk assessments were influenced not just by offence type, but also by the officers’ familiarity with assessing that offence type. The more familiar with an offence type an officer felt, the lower the risk. Probation officers anchor, or hold on to, previous behaviour which lead to a high-risk assessment. In making current assessments they show a bias towards this anchor and interpret current information to have similar characteristics. This resulted in an aversion to depart from a high risk assessment. Reluctance to reduce risk was echoed across all focus groups. The reason for this was specified as a fear of being wrong. 


All the focus groups discussed a sense of responsibility and a moral duty to get their risk assessments right. The pressure from public and professional scrutiny was discussed in all groups. The probation officers commented that they felt personally accountable and this influenced their risk assessments making them more risk averse, for fear of being dismissed. This factor was distinctive because probation officers consciously knew they changed risk assessments due to fear. The change was always in one direction, making them more risk averse. 

Q: Do risk assessment judgements vary between groups of practitioners? 

A: Yes, risk assessments vary. Office location, age of practitioner and experience of practitioner impacted on the risk assessments of the sample. Some officers and some probation teams were more risk averse than others. One of the reasons for this appeared to be familiarity with making assessments on certain offence types. Where an office perceived an offence to be more frequent, risk was assessed as medium. Where an offence was considered unusual, officers allocated a higher risk category. However, all focus groups showed an a conscious, tendency to inflate risk assessments due to a fear of being wrong and being subjected to scrutiny. They described this anxiety as a relatively recent phenomenon in their practice with is growing over time. 

“We up [increase] our assessments because we are so nervous about being hauled over the coals.” 

Q: What are the factors that influence decisions about risk? 

A: The most critical risk factor in assessing risk across all focus groups was offence details. There was a complete lack of psychological risk factors being used. Generic risk factors, such as substance abuse, were used to assess risk even when there was no apparent association to the specific offender being assessed. Trust and honesty were defined in a consistent way by probation officers, but the duration required for an offender to prove trustworthiness varied. Risk was increased to secure resources. There was a commonality in the risk factors used but variety in the interpretation of whether a risk factor increased or decreased a risk. 

“We have no shared accommodation, so increase the risk to high to get an AP. Or put to high risk at a recall to avoid a 28 day walkout.” 


The study has highlighted a training need for probation officers regarding the importance of assessing psychological factors, how to interpret risk factors and whether they increase or decrease risk. A disregard of actuarial tools resulted in statistical evidence proven to assess risk being missed from assessments, possibly leading to a reduction in accuracy. Training could be provided to increase probation officers’ knowledge of such tools to increase their perceived legitimacy and subsequent use. Training completed at a local level may reinforce local practice, which has contributed to variation. As such, training which has participants from multiple office locations may be beneficial. Middle manager influence was found to both undermine probation officers and result in assessments being competed without any contact with the offender. Policy regarding the value of this may wish to be considered, as could training for middle managers. 

This research has highlighted a developing practice of defensive decision making for fear of being wrong. To prevent this, more is required than merely training to increase accuracy. To challenge this fear, probation officers must feel confident that they are viewed as professionals making skilled decisions and supported if it goes wrong. But it must be recognised that they cannot predict the future. Policy makers may wish to consider this in developing processes for reviewing serious further offences and messages communicated about such incidents. Structured professional support may be required in the aftermath of a serious further offence to mitigate against the nervousness of scrutiny and error. Clinical supervision may allow time for probation officers to reflect and refine their skills. This supervision is best placed away from middle-manager influence. 

“Ultimately, I will get the sack if I get it wrong. For my own ass covering I leave them as high” 


This research illustrates the individuality and subjectivity of assessing risk and that this can result in variations. The study found that probation officer risk assessments vary in both method and outcome. How, where and who undertakes an assessment can impact on the outcome by considering or interpreting factors differently. This variation provides an unequal provision of service, or justice by geography. As a member of the public, a politician or service user, there may be an expectation of fairness and legitimacy in risk assessment practice. This cannot be realised if two practitioners, in two different locations make different assessments given the same information. Probation officers do not consider all risk factors defined in empirical evidence and have a mistrust of some tools. The implications of this, is increased subjectivity, inconsistency, reduced accuracy and diminished legitimacy. What became apparent during this study was an overarching, and conscious, practice of defensive decision making by probation officers. The fear of getting it wrong was developing a risk averse culture. Probation officers spoke passionately, mostly knowledgably, sometimes not so knowledgably, and professionally about how to assess risk and, worryingly, how they feel under impossible pressure to predict the future. It is hoped that this study will encourage additional research, training and support to ensure probation officers make accurate, legitimate and defensible assessments.

Amy Thornton 
Deputy Head of Probation - Black Country

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Winners and Losers

By the way I thought 'leave meant leave'? This announced yesterday:- 

Seetec to Run MOJ Commissioned CFO Activity Hubs to Steer Offenders Away from Crime

The Ministry of Justice has awarded us CFO activity hub contracts in the North West, South East and South West to deliver support to help offenders reintegrate back into their communities.

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) Co-Financing Organisation (CFO) provision for the European Social Fund (ESF) Activity Hubs will enable offenders to access tailored support, receive advice and guidance and interact with positive role models and peers at a similar stage of their resettlement journey. They will be supported to develop plans to move forward and ultimately be supported into education, employment and training.

We're committed to putting offenders at the heart of their own rehabilitation journey, combining skills training, employability services and practitioner expertise, all of which aims to move individuals into a crime-free life. We're already experienced at delivering probation services and currently supervise and support around 19,100 offenders categorised as low and medium risk in the South of England. In Wales, we deliver programmes that help people to turn away from crime, including community payback.

As an established provider of high-quality public services, we believe that no one should be left behind. Offenders are one group in our society that can sometimes feel they are forgotten. CFO Activity Hubs will aim to deliver targeted interventions to improve the support provided to one of the hardest-to-reach groups in our society.

This opportunity is a key milestone in the development of our public service offering. Alongside the launch of the CFO activity hubs next year, Interventions Alliance will be unveiled to manage the contracts as part of the Seetec group structure.

Our five new CFO activity hubs will work closely with justice partners in the local community. Three hubs will be based in the North West, Manchester, Liverpool and Warrington. One hub in the South East, located in Chatham and satellite provision will be delivered as part of the contract at St Leonards on Sea in East Sussex. We will also run an activity hub in the South West, Bristol was chosen as the operational base for the hub in that region.

There will be a 16-week implementation period starting this month. The CFO activity hubs will commence operations from the 1st of March 2021 and run for two and a half years.

Suki Binning, Executive Director of Justice services at Seetec, said:

“Seetec has a strong track record of delivering localised interventions that help offenders re-engage with their community. CFO Activity hubs are a great opportunity to build on our tried and tested model of support for offenders to achieve their life ambitions and break away from the cycle of criminal activity they pursued in the past.

“The pandemic continues to present providers of public services with unprecedented challenges, but we moved early this year to put in place robust systems, changed the way we worked and provided more support to our staff so that we could maintain the highest standards of support that continue to meet the needs of our service users. This means we have the right support structures in place to commence activity hub operations by the 1st of March 2021.

“Despite the current circumstances, we are looking forward to developing our existing network of operations across the North West, South East and South West to ensure from day one that our activity hubs offer a route for offenders to change their lives.”


I've never been a fan of this contract competition game as a way of providing public services and for every winner there are of course lots of losers. This from 3rd April:-   

HMPPS CFO Activity Hubs – Call for Expressions of Interest

HM Prisons & Probation Service (HMPPS) is commissioning activity hubs in community locations that will offer wide ranging tailored support for offenders – in particular those who are considered disadvantaged, facing multiple barriers to employment and not fully supported by existing programmes.

Achieve North West intends to bid for HMPPS Activity Hubs in the North West contract package area. The organisation is therefore looking for Expressions of Interest from organisations of all sizes, who provide high quality services, to partner with.

Achieve North West is seeking provision that will help participants not to re-offend, increase their access to mainstream opportunities and move them closer to the labour market. Offender participation will be voluntary.

Hubs will provide bespoke support through the provision of activities focused on personal development and citizenship, as well as social and economic integration into the community. The organisation is seeking provision including (please see draft specification on our portal for full details):
  • Arts including crafts, drama, media, music and dance; sports; delivery of one off community projects
  • Family support, relationship coaching, community development activity, literacy and numeracy, life skills, debt advice, work-related mentoring, accommodation advice and support
Achieve North West Connect delivers a range of services to offenders, both in custody and in the community, across North West England, including the HMPPS Co-Financing Organisation/European Social Fund Project ‘’CFO3’’.

Since 2010 the award-winning service has built a proven track record of delivering high impact services to offenders. Through direct delivery and a network of partners and sub-contractors, it provides specialist services in offender focused education, training, employment (ETE) and social inclusion. Achieve North West Connect is a wholly owned subsidiary of Career Connect, a charity providing wide ranging support, information, advice and guidance to people of all ages to help them enter and sustain education, training and employment.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Probation During Covid

Probation doesn't feature that often on tv, but here's a piece from BBC Wales on the constraints faced by specialist officers supervising sex offenders in Cardiff:-  

Covid-19: 'My pandemic work with dangerous prison leavers'

Working from home during a pandemic has brought extra challenges for probation officers who work with serious offenders after their release from prison. Many have had to handle unpleasant subject matter in their own homes, as they deal remotely with violent or sexual offenders.

I spent the day with a member of the probation team that works with the 50 most dangerous male offenders in Cardiff, to see how they are managing. Salli Dixon is part of the special team of probation officers usually based at a police station. While some face-to-face appointments have continued, whether in the office or the offender's doorstep, others have to be done over the phone or by video call. The pandemic also means more of the work is done remotely from home, including work with sex offenders.

"It makes it a little more hard to switch off mentally, and you're having really difficult conversations in your home environment, which feels intrusive," she says. "But it hasn't made the service any less effective. We can't have a less effective service - we protect the public, so we've just had to adapt."

Her first call of the day is with a registered child sex offender, who is living in a halfway house after recently being released from prison. He's tested positive for Covid-19 and has been moved into isolation quarters, meaning their appointment must now be over the phone. He tells her he's anxious about plans to find him his own flat where he would be living alone full-time. The length of time prison leavers spend in approved premises like a halfway house has been reduced during the pandemic.

"It's a little early if I'm honest - far, far too early," he says. "When my mind is in a corner and up against a wall - it just goes 'right where is the way out? The way out is to go back to prison'."

His anxieties are kicking in, meaning his risks increase, Salli explains. "He has got 16 or 17 instances of breaching his restrictions, usually by going too close to an area where there are children - like a nursery or school. He says he does that because he wants to self-sabotage and go back into prison," she says. "So when he feels that he is being moved into his own accommodation, where he'll be by himself, he gets anxious and he thinks it's easier to just do something that would warrant him going back inside. "The risk to the public would be that he would commit a child contact sex offence. He hasn't done that yet, but we can't rule out that he wouldn't."

How does she feel discussing the nature of his offending? "We're not completely desensitised as probation officers, because we still hear things that shock us," she says. "No matter how long you've done a job it is quite difficult sometimes and quite unusual to hear somebody talk candidly about their sexual views towards children."

The small team deals with complex cases - like repeat domestic violence or sex offenders who also have additional issues, such as a personality disorder, mental health problems or drug and alcohol misuse. Known as Wisdom (Wales Integrated Serious and Dangerous Offender Management), they have a reduced case load to reflect the risks posed, as well as more resources than typical probation officers.

Her second case of the day is able to come to the office. He committed a sex offence against a vulnerable adult and was released earlier this year after decades in prison. Much has changed since he was a young man on the outside, and he says the pace of life compared with prison has felt overwhelming at times. Weeks after his release, lockdown was announced and he too wonders whether it would be better to be back in prison.

"We've done a lot of work around what's going well and the reasons he wants to stay out," says Salli. "If you reinforce that enough, they will make changes and they will stay out. He's done phenomenally well."

She still carries out some home visits, but they're now on the doorstep, which naturally makes the job more challenging. "We're risk assessors, it's what we're trained to do. So even though we might not be able to physically go inside, we'll do everything we can to make sure that everyone is safe."

The use of video calls also means more checks can be done in a day, but if Salli is working from home she has to make sure none of her personal items are on view. "I would try and have video calls in the office because not only is it safer but I'm in the right frame of mind to be talking to somebody [in that] environment."

Covid-19 has also brought greater practical challenges for the men she works with. "It's made it more difficult for people to access basic things like housing, money and universal credit, signing up at the doctors, getting a prescription. We've had to be more hands on in terms of helping people get set up."

The rewards keep her going, she said, and she is proud of the good the team is doing for the wider community. "We change people's lives," she says. "I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it. It's got its ups and downs and you know you can't help change everyone. You have to manage your expectations about what you can help people achieve."


As an aside, I notice there are concerns in some quarters regarding the possible consequences of remote working. This seen on Facebook:-

Is the balance between the necessities of emergency delivery and the consideration, protection, and maintenance of professional discretion being achieved?

The anecdotal experience of many of those working remotely in probation during COVID-19 has, in a number of cases, indicated a disproportionate increase in scrutiny and micro management of work relative to the measures that are required. This has been described as oppressive. 

As the period of crisis continues questions are now starting to be asked regarding whether staff who could, for instance, relatively easily work from home or those who are vulnerable are being ‘encouraged’ back into workplaces some of whom may not be safe. It may also be the case that lower paid workers in probation are being expected to take more risks regarding potential exposure to COVID-19 than those in senior management or who are providing corporate services on the basis that their work is more amenable to remote working. It has been suggested by some practitioners that increased scrutiny or viral risk should attract increased financial compensation, however, the immediate concern is that this might penalise vulnerable persons who need to be protected or actually encourage unnecessary risk taking or even reckless behaviour. Is enough actually being done to facilitate remote working for all who wish to or could do so? Is enough being done to ensure safe working for those who wish or need to work non-remotely? Is probation putting service users at increased risk compared to the general population?

Whilst greater integration of management information systems to provide better quality information to inform decision making around more efficient use of available resources is to be broadly welcomed, particularly in relation to improved workload management and the management of physical, intellectual, and emotional labour, arguably this intensification has to be balanced with a greater degree of trust and increased acknowledgement of and respect for professional discretion and autonomy - that appears to have been sacrificed in favour of command and control. Probation staff are not simply cogs in the criminal justice machine and there is a strong case for a conscious organisational shift towards supporting those at the frontline rather than subjecting them to a constant stream of directives accompanied by intensified surveillance and control. 

There is a strong argument for those representing staff, such as trade unions, to question those making decisions regarding the provision of services in difficult times and ensure that the current crisis is not used as a smokescreen for more intense workplace control and less individual professional discretion.