Thursday 26 August 2021

Pay Us The Money!

This angry comment has come in and was awaiting moderation:-
"A post from yesterday but I think it is worth including on here to ensure more people see this. It is beyond a joke at this point. It was only a few weeks ago one of our Senior "Leaders" was spouting about working on next year's pay deal. Hard working staff are having the p*ss taken yet again, anyone heard from NAPO!?!?!? Thought not."

It follows on from this yesterday:-

"What crap. Pay me my money the MPs took what they wanted no debate. The management come to me with more work and loads of additional tasks because I have been willing to try. Then I get criticised for under performance when I am doing two people's work. Well you can fuck off with soft soap pay the owed reduce the workloads and stop bullying staff with this shite of manipulation. Just fuck off NPS cloakroom kids."

I agree. It is worth repeating that probation intranet piece with Ian Barrow, Executive Director Probation Workforce Programme, if only because hardly anyone ever bothers sharing such stuff any more. It therefore goes some way in confirming just how low morale is within the newly formed Service, and despite the best endeavours of the spin doctors with last week's 'Probation Day' lovefest. Indeed, I've been informed that over on the infamous private social media site there have been 61 enthusiastic responses to the question:-   

"Anyone on here no longer in Probation? I'm curious to know what roles people go on to do. I need an exit plan."

Probation Service pay award – Ian Barrow interview

Pay is a subject often close to our hearts and at the recent Probation Service all-staff events, many of you asked questions with regard to pay, in particular how long the pay award takes each year.

We sat down with Ian Barrow, Executive Director for the Probation Workforce Programme, to provide some more information and insight about the process that sits behind this work and explaining the current state of affairs for 21/22.

Ian, can you bring us up to date on this year’s pay award and pay progression?

I know that some of you are frustrated with the time it has taken to make progress on this year’s pay award and pay progression. Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that your pay progression remains contractual for this year.

However, it forms part of the total pay award and therefore the process that underpins its agreement. As part of the Civil Service, the Probation Service has to follow Civil Service guidelines, which includes the pay remit guidance. The pay remit guidance lays out how much each government department can award their staff each year.

Once we’ve received this, we then need to engage with both HM Treasury and Cabinet Office on our pay award proposals to make sure they have all the information they need, and with our Trade Union colleagues to ensure that it is fair and in line with collective bargaining principles.

This can take some time and pay awards are not always agreed or processed prior to the end of a pay year. Pay is important and we always want to make sure we’re getting it right to secure the best deal we can for our workforce – even if that takes longer than usual.

We are currently engaging with HM Treasury and Cabinet Office and with the recognised Probation Service Trade Unions (GMB/SCOOP, Napo and UNISON) to work to agree the pay award for this year. We will keep you updated as we progress with breakthroughs in negotiations via the intranet, Probation News and dissemination via your regions.

Will we receive our pay progression this year?

A number of you have had concerns about whether there will still be pay progression payments this year, due to the temporary pause on pay rises for most public sector workforces in response to the economic challenges brought about by COVID-19.

If you are eligible for pay progression, then once we have agreed this year’s pay award, you will receive pay progression payments backdated to 1 April 2021.

Can you tell us if other pay reforms are planned?

As well as working to agree a pay award for this year, we’re also currently working to continue our pay modernisation journey which started in 2018 with the Modernisation Agreement that was agreed between HMPPS, Probation Trade Unions and staff.

One of our core areas to focus on is to make sure that the pay structure is coherent, sustainable and rewarding. We will be continuing our engagement with staff over the next few months and continue to collect your views on pay and its importance to your job in probation, and as part of your overall reward package.

Where can we get further information?

Pay information will appear on the dedicated Probation Service Pay page.

I know pay can be a really dry subject so we are developing a number of short articles to demystify pay and reward which will be published on the new Pay and Rewards updates intranet page in the coming weeks.


I would remind readers that Napo emailed this to members last Friday:-

Indicative ballot to reject the pay freeze and the insulting pay offer from the Probation Service

Earlier this year the Probation trade unions submitted a multi-year pay claim to try and achieve some certainty on pay going forward. After some promising early exchanges, the negotiations hit a barrier when the government announced a public sector pay freeze.

Despite every effort by negotiators to point out how staff have maintained vital services at great risk in the face of the pandemic while helping to deliver Probation reunification, we eventually received a derisory pay offer for 2021 that has recently been considered by Napo’s Probation Negotiating Committee (PNC).

Indicative ballot to be launched – reject the pay freeze!

Essentially the offer means that only those staff earning less than £24k would receive £250, with no increase in pay or allowances for anybody else. That means the majority of probation staff will get no pay rise at all this year and probation pay will continue to go backwards.

Members are understandably asking about when contractual pay progression will be paid out. As we have explained previously this requires clearance by the Treasury, but it is important to remember that pay progression arrangements are designed to ensure that staff receive the rate for the job within 5 years. Therefore, pay progression is not a pay award to compensate you for rises in living costs.

In light of the above, and the disappointing pay award in 2020, the PNC have recommended that Napo members in the Probation Service should be asked to reject the pay offer and indicate their willingness alongside UNISON members, who are also being balloted, to take industrial action. Any action would only take place following a second statutory ballot.

Further details of the indicative ballot will be sent to members next week together with an electronic ballot paper. Members will be asked to send a strong message to the government, and to the Probation Service, that we will not accept the pay freeze lying down and that the offer from the employer is an insult.

CNN Love-in To End

Lets be clear about this from the start. I'm not a customer of Virgin because I like the brand or am a fan of its profoundly irritating founder. Due to living in a small pocket of urbanised poor reception, I was an early convert to the 'digital superhighway' of the 90's and cable tv. Because of successive takeovers and mergers I've ended up being a distressed purchaser of Virgin, essentially because I'm not a sports fan and can't be bothered to install Freesat.

Basically I've been reasonably content to keep paying my subscription for four reasons 1) picture quality 2) Tivo recorder 3) Talking Pictures TV 4) CNN. Collectively, all these elements have effectively kept me going through the pandemic and to be frank have been vital elements of my wellbeing. So, imagine my dismay when tuning in to CNN yesterday to read that Virgin will be dropping CNN from 31st August:-  

Due to WarnerMedia’s plans to move to a subscription model for the CNN news channel, it will no longer be available on Virgin TV after 31 August. Customers can still watch and catch up on the latest news on major news channels such as BBC News, Sky News, Bloomberg and many others.

Many thanks, now piss off!

I really didn't see this coming, not least because CNN has become so well-respected for its news and political coverage, especially during the US Presidential election. This from thedrum:-

The UK is CNN’s largest market behind the US and Canada in terms of digital audience, and it grew by 73% in 2020. So on top of the TV carriage deals, it was ‘experimenting’ with the CNN livestream. It’s seen enough demand on the product to warrant the monetization. “As consumer behavior changes and we see significant digital audience growth in the UK, we see an opportunity to increase our offering in the digital space.”

CNN’s data suggests that the current audience of the livestream have high incomes, are well educated, are most likely to be in a management or c-suite role and predominately are in the 25-54 age group. It’s a group with a high propensity to pay for the product.

Raad says: “There is a strong appreciation for CNN in the UK, with last year’s Ofcom news consumption study rating CNN among the UK’s top news sources.”

It's all about money of course and capitalism:-

The global news provider is putting the livestream of CNN International, once readily available on its site, behind a subscription in the UK. CNN argues that the subscription income will help improve the product and make it more readily available to news lovers without them having to pay for TV packages like Sky, Virgin TV, BT and Freesat. The CNNI livestream will be accessible on mobile and desktop, and, at least at launch, Rani Raad says it will be ad-free – although that may change down the line.

That's disingenuous of course, so it looks like my love affair with CNN is coming to an end and I'm really sad. The quality of the journalism and political analysis really has been outstanding. The presenters have been refreshingly polite, incisive and extraordinarily well briefed and informed. The editorial policy has been balanced but ruthlessly focused on the search for truth. They had no truck with Trump, his acolytes, apologists and 'alternative truths', but always fearlessly 'called it out' for what it was, sadly in stark contrast to endless BBC equivocation. 

I'm going to be much less well-informed after 31st August, especially concerning US politics and as an 'Americanophile' that saddens me enormously. It's been a fun journey though and as I say, was one of the major elements of my personal covid survival plan. Who'd have thought that by the wonders of the modern digital age an outfit in Atlanta Georgia could be so significant a factor in my living room here in northern England?   


Thursday 19 August 2021

Reality Behind Love-in

Blimey. Someone at Napo has torn themselves away from the week-long self-congratulatory probation love-in, that hard-pressed staff have no time for, and issue a response to that HMI report on drugs. I can't help but notice publication didn't interrupt the endless chirpy upbeat stuff on the official Twitter feed though and it was instead emailed to all members this afternoon:- 

Napo’s response to the HMIP Thematic Report on Drugs

Napo members will be frustrated to read this report detailing the many failings of the failed experiment in probation privatisation that was Transforming Rehabilitation (TR). This report is released just weeks after Dame Carol Black has issues her Review of Drugs part two making recommendations for multi-agency, whole system partnership approach with ring-fenced funding.

Declining service provision before and through TR

Many Napo members will recall the former Drug Intervention Programme (DIP) which operated up to 2013. This offered a genuine multi-agency approach to supporting those leaving prison who had drug misuse issues. DIP reduced acquisitive crime by a third but ended in 2013 and even though there were some local attempts to replace it these largely ended in 2014-15 because of TR.

TR brought with it a wholesale disinvestment in provision of probation services. This applied across the CRCs and the NPS. The NPS had to invest early on in infrastructure and was always behind in achieving the appropriate staffing levels. Almost every year since 2014 when the NPS was created Trade Unions were told that staffing would reach steady state in the next 2 years but that steady state was never achieved. Some CRCs made staff redundant early on, some left it until later in their contracts, others relied on not replacing the huge numbers of staff who left. Across all employers there was an increase in retirements and an increase in turnover generally. In 2014-15 there was a TR related baby boom as many women staff timed their plans to take maternity leave to give them respite from the chaos in the workplace. The loss of skilled and experienced staff from the probation system will take many years to recover from and unification is not the answer some might think it is. We are now losing staff who just cannot cope with more organisational change, and also staff who cannot tolerate the excessive workloads and are disappointed to find that the new unified service just brings all of the staffing issues together – it resolves nothing.

Courts and Pre Sentence Reports

Drug treatment requirements have become more difficult for Probation staff working in Courts to arrange. This is because the staff working in Courts are employed by the National Probation Service and up to unification the CRCs were responsible for delivering the requirements. Added to this the push for ever speedier justice means that adjournments for pre-sentence report enquiries are rare. Adjournments are generally needed to allow for proper assessments for treatment requirements but for lower risk cases it can be a huge challenge for Court staff to persuade sentencers to have any type of pre-sentence report, never mind one which will require an adjournment for a few days. The HMIP report highlights the number of people sentenced without any pre-sentence report and this is a real concern, no one can be sentenced to a treatment requirement without a pre-sentence report so they should be mandatory in cases where drug misuse is a factor.

Drug review Courts have also disappeared in most cases and these should be reintroduced to support sentence confidence in treatment requirements as well as to promote engagement and progress for those subject to the requirements. There is real value in sentencers seeing the progress made, sharing in the discussion of challenges being faced and the work done to motivate and support clients to make positive changes to their lives. There is also huge value for clients in participating in this dialogue and feeling themselves to be an active participant with equal stake in the process post-sentence. Much is made of developing social capital and attending drug review Court hearings is a very real way of doing this.

Specific interventions and sentence management

Prior to TR most Probation Trusts operated with specialist teams to work with clients subject to Drug Rehabilitation Requirements and other relevant sentences. These teams were often co-located with the partner agencies who provided the treatment and wrap around services. It is encouraging that a return to this model is recommended and we hope this can be achieved however there will need to be further and significant investment into the system to replace what has been lost. In particular the mantra of resource following risk will be a barrier, most of the cases that are covered by this report will not have been assessed as high risk so will not attract the level of resource that is required to achieve some of the goals.

The report details the need to address some of the underlying issues relating to drug use such as trauma but such work takes time and skill. Contrast this with staff carrying workloads measured at 150% or more of their capacity and the lack of specialist training available to them and the scale of the problem becomes clearer. The Government response that they are recruiting 1000’s of additional Probation Officers is of little use when many of the cases being discussed will be managed by PSO staff. In any case increased recruitment will take some time to make a genuine difference due to the significant loss of staff over the last seven to ten years. The report also highlights the importance of co-ordinating treatment and interventions and supporting and motivating engagement with them. This again is work that required time and skill, and the development of a positive working relationship which is especially challenging when staff have 70 or more clients to work with at any one time.

Some of the recommendations in Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs will support recommendations in the HMIP report however it is difficult to see how staff so overworked and facing significant organisational change as a result of unification of probation will be able to capitalise on this. Training is one way to ensure that probation staff develop and maintain skills in this work but the current focus is solely on system and process based and mandatory training for the staff recently transferred to the Probation Service from other employers and in the professional qualification for trainee Probation Officers. Career development training and the ability to focus on specialism or semi-specialisms seems very far away for most Probation staff at the moment and it will take an estimated 18 months to reach the intended operating model for the unified Probation Service.

Unified Probation Service Operating Model

A search of the unified service operating model reveals only one reference to drugs, in the section describing the limited work of the Community Sentence Treatment Requirement (CSTR) programme. This began in 2017 but has yet to expand to cover all areas. The HMIP report notes that where it exists there are positive improvements but the lack of focus on work with people whose drug misuse is related to their offending in the operating model is very concerning.

Genuinely local multi-agency arrangements need to be reinstated. These must take into account local needs and priorities and will necessarily be different in different areas. This is tricky to do with a centralised model for operations and contracting. The promised improvements to contracting via the dynamic framework of Commissioned Rehabilitation Services (CRS) will not necessarily be the panacea imagined as contracts are awarded centrally and regions can only purchase services or not in the early years, with innovations funds restricted to activities not concerned with delivering the order of the court. This gives little opportunity for local collaboration to meet specific needs.

Napo HQ

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Rain Falls on Probation Parade

It doesn't look like HMI Justin Russell got the HMPPS memo about this being a celebratory week for probation:- 

Probation services – ‘disappointing’ work with drug users ‘lacks focus and funding’

Probation services are responding poorly to drugs misuse and addiction cases, according to inspectors.

Probation services across England and Wales supervise nearly 156,000 people in the community. HM Inspectorate of Probation estimates that almost 75,000 of these individuals have a drugs problem, yet fewer than 3,000 people were referred by probation services to specialist drug misuse treatment in 2019/2020.

HM Inspectorate of Probation partnered with the Care Quality Commission to examine how probation services supervise this cohort.

Inspectors found:
  • too few people on probation receive help to tackle drugs misuse – and when referrals are made, the quality of services is often not good enough
  • funding for treatment has reduced and criminal justice programmes to identify and refer people for treatment have “withered on the vine”
  • very few drug users on probation are being tested for drug use – just one in six of the inspected sample of known users
  • key information is missing, not captured properly or used to commission services. Probation services were unable to tell inspectors how many Class A drug users were on their caseload or how many were in treatment
  • six out of 10 magistrates that the Inspectorate surveyed said they were not confident probation was delivering the necessary treatment.
Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: 

“Drug-related crime causes widespread misery and costs the public purse more than £9bn a year. Yet there is a lack of focus and funding across the whole criminal justice system to tackle drug use and supply. The current system is not working well and the findings of this inspection were very disappointing.”

In the inspected areas, two-thirds of prison leavers received treatment for drugs misuse while in custody but did not continue to receive help on release. Inspectors were concerned to see poor follow-up arrangements in the community, with the situation considerably worse in England and better in Wales.

For several years, HM Inspectorate of Probation has reported on heavy workloads in parts of the probation service. Some probation officers managed upwards of 70 cases, which affected the overall quality of their work.

The findings in this inspection were consistent with the overall picture, with probation services often overstretched. Practitioners did not always have the time to examine individuals’ back stories and identify factors that could help support them into recovery, stay safe and move away from drug-related offending. Probation court teams made too few recommendations for treatment.

Two-thirds of the practitioners interviewed during this inspection felt they needed more training on the impact of drugs and how to support individuals with trauma and recovery. At the time of the inspection, probation services were delivered by the National Probation Service and privately-owned Community Rehabilitation Companies. Major reforms took place at the end of June and probation services are now unified into one public-sector service.

The Inspectorate has made 14 recommendations in its report to improve the quality of supervision including more drug rehabilitation court orders, greater use of testing, and increased funding for treatment.

Mr Russell said: 

“Probation services have an important role to play in supporting positive change for individuals caught up in drugs and their supply. The new Probation Service must strengthen every aspect of its work with drug users. It needs to build a comprehensive picture of this crime-generating cohort and commission the right services to reduce their drug use. Justice and health organisations must work more closely together, for example to ensure continuity of support for prison leavers.”

Mr Russell added: 

“Earlier this year, the government provided additional funding to improve drugs treatment. While the announcement was welcome, the money is for just one year – we need sustained commitment to fund drug treatment and recovery for people on probation. I welcome Dame Carol Black’s recent call for additional ring-fenced government funding for substance misuse treatment. People on probation should be an urgent priority for any future increase in investment, which would cut crime, save lives and more than pay for itself in the long run.”

Dr Rosie Benneyworth from the Care Quality Commission said: 

“Where services were available and people could access them, we found dedicated health workers providing good quality care for people in need of substance misuse services. However, the vital holistic support provided around this can vary greatly and be a barrier to keeping people engaged and on their recovery journey. Concerns around the availability of these services, along with concerns around continuing engagement with people as they move from one part of the system to another, means that as it stands the right care is not reaching everybody that it should.”

Oliver Standing, Director of Collective Voice, said: 

“Effective drug treatment and recovery has real transformational power – reducing mental and physical health harms, supporting people into super-charged citizenship, healing families and creating savings for the public purse. And crucially it has a strong, proven link to reducing crime – keeping vulnerable people out of the criminal justice and leading to fewer victims of crime in the future.

“The findings of the report are stark. It is estimated almost half of those supervised in the community by the probation service have a drug problem. The fact that only slightly more than two per cent were referred into specialist support in 2019/20 surely represents a systems failure. Although community services have experienced a decade of profound disinvestment, Dame Carol Black’s recent review has set out a compelling vision of a refreshed and renewed system and made the case for major investment. This important thematic review will help to shape that brighter future.”

Monday 16 August 2021

Towards A Dystopian Future?

It was the AGM of Napo London Branch on Friday and news of the Zoom event reaches me from several sources and particularly details of an address from the Co-Chair David Raho. Whilst likely to raise eyebrows in certain quarters, it will come as no surprise to staff on social media answering the question 'How is everyone doing, nearly two months into unification?' Going off sick or heading for the door appears to be the general tone of responses, which must be very dispiriting for those at Napo HQ excitedly preparing for the anniversary of the 1907 Act:- 

Probation Day 21st August 2021

Napo has been involved in the organisation of events taking place all week in the run up to Probation Day on 21st August. There's lots going on including on demand videos, talking heads, articles and regional events. Look out particularly for the Joint Trade Union conversation on reflections and shared stories of organisation with Katie Lomas, Napo National Chair, on Wednesday 18th August. Check out the programme on the Probation Intranet.


Change is never comfortable but it shouldn’t be this bad

I have been a lifelong fan of sci-fi and especially apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. As a 7-year-old child I imagined a future filled with frozen irradiated wastelands littered with the burned out remains of robots and avoiding capture by technologically advanced corporations’ intent on harvesting my internal organs for some dark and twisted purposes unknown. Later on in the 1980s I discovered William Gibson and cyberpunk.

Unlike his predecessors in the sci-fi genre Gibson portrayed a gritty future that was dirty, smelly, diseased and filled with protagonists who were all too flawed, powerless, etc and human. The resolution is turned up to reveal that everything is rusty, broken or patched up. The world Gibson imagined is one in which governments lack power and are minor players in the scheme of things. Instead AIs and crumbling tech corporations pursue their own mysterious agendas using their power and influence in societies where the old rules barely apply and where there are huge inequalities of wealth and few opportunities for those who are not rich to legitimately access either accurate information or advanced technology. However, some actors somehow find ways to survive in the cracks and dark corners against the odds and fight back.

Gibson’s later novels are set in the near future and are arguably more interesting, thought provoking, and complex as it is always easier to write about the far future - where the smell of coffee might be a distant memory- than the near future that will inevitably contain familiar everyday things like semi-automatic coffee machines that we might take for granted but when looked at within a complex matrix of economic and social relationships, some of which might exploit those less fortunate, might make us slightly uneasy for doing so.

It seems that anyone who wants a good grounding in the workings of the modern probation service should forget reading about rehabilitation and desistance and instead familiarise themselves with the writings of William Gibson as a more accurate guide to where they might concentrate their efforts.

Fast forward to 2021.

How was I to know that following June 26th the future was even bleaker than my worst childhood nightmares and the imaginings of my favourite author. I find myself and colleagues transferred from a slightly more technologically advanced corporation to a centrally controlled Kafkaesque, bureaucratic, nightmarish machine, renamed the Probation Service. A machine that demands to be served on its terms alone. It would be all too easy to be assimilated by it, giving yourself to it body and soul, or simply give up and walk away. The harder options are of course to engage with it, wrestle with it, and to resist and rebel against this fickle machine, even when all appears hopeless and the task simply too great. Even Gibson might have baulked at creating such a soulless inhuman entity whose actual purpose might not always seem clear to its most enthusiastic supporters.

Looking back over the last year then it might sound glib to say that a lot has happened and as you would expect those local reps who have represented Napo in London CRC side have kept the faith and engaged with the employers prior to 26/06 throughout the various changes due to the pandemic and Transition. I could of course traipse through these in detail but I am sure you would find this entirely predictable, somewhat self congratulatory and not a little tedious. The work has been done with little if any help outside of London branch.

Now some uncomfortable facts. The fact is that compared to those staff who transferred who were not subject to the union negotiated national agreement with their existing terms and conditions appear in many cases to be better off. Many have found very well paid and influential positions within HMPPS and will continue to manage and shape the future in the new Probation Service as they have done so previously. However, many of those at the frontline have not fared so well and have in many cases found themselves unmatched to roles or shunted into lower paid roles. Of course, there have been winners in the process who have found themselves promoted, in some cases despite the fact they do not hold the qualifications or experience normally associated with a role. Not much protest from those who are winners however some quickly suppressed murmurings about fairness from those who worked hard to advance their careers in more conventional ways.

One of the greatest difficulties for union reps when there has been a problem, apart from getting a word in edgeways, is finding anyone in a senior management position in the Probation Service who is prepared to commit themselves to sorting matters out properly. Assurances abound but problems get passed around like hot cakes and even when staff send identical complaints several different replies come back, sometimes even from the same person – you could not make it up. You could, however, easily forgive yourself for imagining that no one really wants to sort anything out. Unfortunately, any union representative who makes even a little dissenting noise is immediately reminded that you really should not be rocking the boat or criticising anything as we are all now subject to the civil service code that effectively threatens to silence public debate of any issue even the issue of the Civil Service Code being an issue.

I am told that it is one of Napo’s aims to extract the Probation Service from the Civil Service however I hear very little about any effective action being taken to achieve this and, much like Transition itself, if this is achieved it will not be as a result of union intervention but by virtue of the efforts of other movers and shakers with greater influence. The current lack of influence and voice is lamentable. 

As Richard Garside, a good friend of Napo, recently pointed out in his response to Mark Drakeford’s Bill McWilliams lecture, ‘Napo is not as influential as it once was’. I must admit I thought of Star Wars and the demise of the Jedi when he said this but no matter. However, what Richard said is undoubtedly true and regrettable, but that is precisely why we should seriously consider a change in direction and very definitely a change in leadership and personnel in Napo at the very top to ensure that members have confidence in its leadership and the union best represents both its members and the probation profession we all want to see continue. We have a duty and responsibility in these bleak days to keep that flame alive and to aim for a better future.

Finally, it is traditional for me to thank others and I would sincerely like to take this opportunity to thank all those members, office reps and the branch exec for their help and support in the last year.

David Raho
Co-Chair London Branch Napo 

Wednesday 11 August 2021

What Chance Prison Reform?

As Frances Crook prepares for her departure from the helm at the Howard League, in typical fashion she did not mince her words in yesterday's Guardian Opinion piece on the shocking state of our prisons, describing them as 'the last unreformed public service'

I always blanche at hearing that phrase because look where 'reform' has got the probation service and of course it's a term often used by politicians as perfect cover for imposing their ideologies. Sadly, just like probation, and indeed all parts of the criminal justice system, it's far too often been seen as a useful political football to kick around in pursuit of popular political gain. With such a rotten and morally corrupt political environment at present, I see absolutely no chance of things improving. 

By their nature, prisons are secretive institutions, traditionally highly suspicious of any external involvement or scrutiny. Of course it was precisely for this reason that historically probation was so important having its own distinctive ethos, identity and line of accountability. A different perspective was brought to the party and that had to be healthy for such a closed, uniformed institution. Regrettably, under the guise of 'reform' the 'silos' were broken down and the Prison Service were permitted to take control of the Probation Service completely under tight HMPPS control. 

For any chance of things changing and the prison population reducing, probation must regain independence and once more reassert its distinctive ethos and role. Frances Crook knows this and did her best to argue the case. Unfortunately we were all let down by inept, inexperienced and ineffective leadership in other parts of the criminal justice system.               
The reform of prisons has been my life’s work, but they are still utterly broken

Prisons are fundamentally unjust, but a small, ethical and compassionate system would transform lives

Nobody really cares about prisons. They are so far removed from the experience of most people and they are, apparently, full of horrid people. Occasionally, the media will run stories about rat-infested cells or suicide rates, but because so few people have anything to do with prisons, the stories soon fade and life for those on the outside continues as normal.

But prisons matter. It matters who goes into them. It matters what happens inside them. And it matters how much they cost. Although prisons too often function like black holes into which society banishes those it deems problematic, the state of our prisons tells a story about all of us. Prisons reflect society back to itself: they embody the ways we have failed, the people we have failed, and the policies that have failed, all at immense human – and economic – cost.

As chief executive of the prison reform charity the Howard League for the past 35 years, reforming prisons has become my life’s mission. In October, I will leave my work with one sad but inescapable conclusion: prisons are the last unreformed public service, stuck in the same cycle of misery and futility as when I arrived.

If a time traveller from 100 years ago walked into a prison today – whether one of the inner-city Victorian prisons or the new-builds where the majority of men are held – the similarities would trump the differences. They would recognise the smells and the sounds, the lack of activity and probably some of the staff. It is not only the buildings that have stayed the same – it is the whole ethos of the institution.

Prison is an unhealthy place. Most prisoners have come from poverty, addiction and social deprivation cemented by decades of failed social policy. Many arrive with long-term health problems, and in prison their health deteriorates further. While life expectancy and the quality of life for much of the country has advanced significantly in the past three decades, prisoners are considered “old” at 50. In the 12 months to June 2021, 396 people died in prison custody – some from Covid, some from suicide, many from “natural causes” that few of us on the outside would consider natural in middle age.

Even before prisons were locked down during the pandemic, it was normal for men – who make up 95% of the prison population – to spend almost all day in their cells. Wing-cleaning or an education class might occupy a few hours on a weekday. A shower every few days might offer brief respite. Men spend the day, and sleep, in ill-fitting, saggy prison uniforms, unwashed for days on end, waiting to be released.

Mealtimes provide structure, but not sustenance. Breakfast is a pack of white bread, a small bag of cereal and a small carton of milk, provided at tea-time the day before. (Inevitably, it is consumed that night.) They wake hungry, without food until lunch at about 11am – usually a small, soggy baguette, a packet of crisps and an apple, if they’re lucky. One hot meal comes with stodge and vegetables cooked beyond the point of identification at about 5pm.

The sheer monotony of life inside does nothing for the mental health challenges many prisoners face. Addictions worsen, with drugs readily available across the nation’s prison estate. Lockdown may have ended what little human contact prisoners had with the outside world. It did nothing to stem the flow of narcotics.

On release, many face homelessness and joblessness and may well have lost any family contact they had before incarceration. The people we step over in the street, for whom we sometimes buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee, are often people recently released from prisons. It is hardly surprising that about half of those released are reconvicted of a further offence and end up back inside. It is a merry-go-round but without cheer.

Minister after minister has done nothing to address the central question haunting our prison system: what is it all for? Each new secretary of state arrives with a new idea – improving a handful of prisons, building a few new ones, or getting people on to sex offender courses – and millions are duly splurged on the latest fad. But it does not face up to the problem that is the prison system as a whole.

At the heart of prisons is the fact that they are fundamentally unjust. They embed and compound social, economic and health inequalities. They disproportionately suck in men from poor, Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. They do nothing to help people out of crime. We only have to look at the internal punishment system to see that unfairness is the name of the game, with Black people significantly more likely to be physically restrained and punished than their white counterparts.

The whole system needs radical overhaul, starting with a swingeing reduction in the number of people we imprison. Custody is the most drastic and severe response the state has at its disposal and should only be used in exceptional and rare instances – either for the most egregious crimes, or when someone poses a serious and continuing threat to public safety.

Abiding by that principle would virtually empty our prisons of women and children, and drastically reduce the number of men behind bars. Most women are either on remand or serving a short sentence. Many are survivors of domestic abuse. Vanishingly few have committed violent crimes that warrant incarceration; fewer still could be reasonably considered to pose an ongoing threat to society. They, along with the 500 children who are currently incarcerated, should be managed in the community by specialist local authority-run services that provide the support, rehabilitation and education that will save them from further imprisonment. Thousands of men would benefit from similar support, whether that’s community addiction services, decent housing or mental health facilities.

The number of people in prison in England and Wales today sits at 78,600. That number could and should plummet – and swiftly. Margaret Thatcher – no softie on criminal justice – managed with less than half that number of prisoners. The Netherlands has drastically cut its prison population and is closing its prisons. A shrunken estate could be transformed so that prisons become places of purpose where people receive holistic support, quality care, meaningful skills and education, in an environment that is as similar to the society they will eventually re-enter as possible.

Over the past 35 years, I hope that I have contributed to making things just a bit better. I am most proud of the work we have done with police forces to reduce the arrests of young people, saving hundreds of thousands of children from experiencing the trauma and lifelong damage of being arrested. But the state of our prison system, the leviathan that continues to devour lives and resources and contaminates political discourse, remains my most bitter regret. A small, ethical and compassionate prison system would save the taxpayer a fortune, change lives and transform incarceration for good. It does not have to be like this.

Frances Crook is the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform

Tuesday 10 August 2021

IPP and Programmes

I notice the shocking situation regarding IPP prisoners was the subject of an article in The Times by Mathew Parris a few weeks ago:-

"On recent figures more than 3,000 IPP prisoners are rotting in our jails. According to an important paper by Dr Harry Annison of Southampton University, some 80 per cent of them have now gone beyond what would have been the tariff for their crime. Around 470 are more than eight years beyond.

The effect on these people and their families outside is appalling. In 2015 the Prison Reform Trust reported that the incidence of self-harm per thousand IPP prisoners had risen to 550, almost three times that of prisoners serving a life sentence. Without certainty, prisoners despair. There have been suicides and attempted suicides, and there will be more.

Prepare yourself, then, for a shock. IPPs were abolished nearly a decade ago!

Labour’s David Blunkett introduced them as home secretary after a few well-publicised incidents of reoffending by violent or sex offenders. The sentence was intended to be sparingly used but the courts started dishing out IPP sentences by the bucketload.

It had been estimated some 900 such sentences would result. When the figure passed 8,000, ministers took fright. Blunkett has said the outcome “weighs heavily” on him. And in 2012 Kenneth Clarke, justice secretary in the 2010 coalition government, scrapped the sentence altogether.

But to rebut (I suspect) accusations that ministers were “soft on crime”, existing IPP prisoners were to stay locked up, though no new ones would be sent down. Clarke himself later described the anomaly as “absurd”.

IPP inmates, trapped among other prisoners who know their release dates, suffer the injustice as you or I would.

The understaffed and hard-pressed Parole Board, meanwhile, faces a waiting list of IPP prisoners where in each case the board must prove a negative before release: that the applicant would not be a serious risk if released on licence.

Some undoubtedly would: three in ten of all prisoners of every kind do re-offend. The more IPP prisoners they release, the more likely a grisly case of re-offending will hit the headlines. Ministers quail before that prospect. Yet they know the injustice is monstrous, and all those with whom I’ve discussed this are deeply uncomfortable about it."

But as we all know, in order to make a case for parole, a prisoner must first be deemed not to be a serious risk and that invariably involves participating in Offending Behaviour programmes. This from Inside Time serves to highlight the situation:-  

Decline in OB programmes

Courses fall by 40% in a decade, raising fears that lifers and IPPs will miss out on parole

Only one in 16 prisoners takes part each year in courses designed to reduce their risk of reoffending. The number of “accredited programmes” completed in English and Welsh prisons has dropped steadily for the past decade. The decline has brought warnings that some prisoners may be stuck in custody because they cannot gain places on courses which they must complete to show the Parole Board they can be released safely.

In the year to March 2020 there were 5,068 completions of programmes in prisons, according to figures released last month by the Ministry of Justice. It marks a decline of 40 per cent from the year to March 2010, when 8,469 programmes were completed. The prison population remained steady over the period.

The figures include courses for general offending, sexual offending, violence and domestic violence. They exclude drug and alcohol programmes in jails, which have been handed over from the Prison Service to the NHS.

Over the same 10-year period the number of prisoners completing the Thinking Skills Programme, the most widely-used course, has declined from more than 5,000 a year to just over 2,000.

All figures relate to the pre-pandemic period. The number of prisoners taking part in programmes will be greatly reduced since March 2020, when face-to-face activities in jails were suspended due to concerns about virus transmission.

Evidence of a decline in the use of programmes will fuel a wider debate over whether they actually work in preventing reoffending. There are 21 accredited programmes approved for use in English and Welsh prisons by the Correctional Services Accreditation and Advice Panel (CSAAP), an expert body appointed by the Ministry of Justice which decides which courses would be of benefit. It has been criticised for secrecy as it does not disclose who its members are, what it discusses at its meetings or why it reaches its decisions.

In some cases, courses are approved before trials have been carried out to measure their impact on reoffending rates. In 2017 a flagship programme, the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP), was withdrawn overnight. It later emerged that research had shown as early as 2012 that people who completed the programme were more likely to reoffend than those who had not taken part, but the findings were suppressed and the programme remained in use.

SOTP was replaced by two new courses, Kaizen and Horizon. But the latest figures show that fewer than one in 10 men jailed for sexual offences takes part each year in programmes designed to reduce their risk of reoffending. In 2019/20, out of 13,000 men serving sentences for sexual offences, only 1,154 started on sexual offending behaviour courses. With men jailed for sexual offences serving an average period in custody of two to three years, it means the majority will be released without ever having taken part in a programme.

Even at specialist prisons, participation rates are low. At HMP Littlehey, which holds 1,200 men convicted of sexual offences, only 81 started programmes in 2019 – just one in 15. The highest rate was at Whatton where one in five started programmes.

The Prison Service acknowledged the decline in completions. It said spending on programmes had remained stable over the past decade, but funding had been redirected from shorter courses like Thinking Skills into more in-depth courses for a smaller number of prisoners. A spokesperson said: “The effectiveness of these programmes should not be measured by overall completion numbers. We are ensuring those most at risk of reoffending get the support they need by targeting investment at longer, more intensive programmes.”

A breakdown of the headline figures was released in response to a Freedom of Information request from Donna Mooney of the campaign group UNGRIPP, which supports people still serving indefinite time in custody under now-abolished IPP sentences. IPP and life-sentenced prisoners need to complete programmes to show the Parole Board they are safe to release, but campaigners fear a shortage of places on courses means they are spending longer in custody than they need to.

Mooney, whose brother Tommy Nichol took his own life in prison after being unable to secure places on courses, said: “My brother died over five years ago and one of the main factors at play in his death was the fact he was denied access to the rehabilitation that was required in order for him to be released. Have any lessons been learned from my brothers death? My opinion is no.

“People serving an IPP sentence have always struggled to access these courses, through no fault of their own, and this is made even harder year on year, pushing them ever further past their tariff release date.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said IPP prisoners are prioritised for programmes, adding: “We continue to support those struggling to progress.

“Lack of clarity”

Comment by Graham Towl

“On the face of it, the latest official figures for the number of programmes carried out in prisons show a disappointing decline in the level of activity. But the statistics need to come with two health warnings.

Most immediately, the figures only go up to March 2020. The reported reduction in the numbers of ‘accredited’ programmes is surely now very much worse on the ground, with the advent of Covid-related measures in prisons from March 2020 onwards. The prediction must be that the next set of published numbers for ‘programme completions’ will be far below even the latest disappointing figures.

But more fundamentally, so little is known about these programmes that in one sense we simply don’t know if a reduced number of ‘completions’ is good or bad news in terms of the future risk of reoffending. The programmes industry should be made to get its house in order. For example, it would not be unreasonable to expect that the evidently still much-vaunted “accreditation panel” would operate with sufficient transparency that there would be publically-available minutes around decisions to “accredit” (or not to). Is there a publically-available list of members of this body, where members have the opportunity to share any conflicts of interest? That would be most welcome and reassuring in terms of good governance.

There remains a lack of clarity around what is different about the Horizon and Kaizen courses in comparison with the previous failed Sex Offender Treatment Programmes. Especially in view of past ethical and empirical limitations, it is surely wise to demonstrate more openness.

These latest figures measure the volume of work done, not its quality. When trying to interpret the significance of the declining numbers for future crime rates, it is perhaps worth remembering that the managerial malaise that got us where we are now was one that focussed upon “completions” at the expense of measures of effectiveness.

But what we do know is that reduced opportunities to participate in such programmes for prisoners may very well have real, and personally devastating, consequences for vulnerable groups such as lifers and those serving IPP sentences, if they are required to complete them but cannot access them.

It is interesting to note, within the figures, a reported shift with the NHS appearing to increasingly lead on more programmes in prisons. Just as prison healthcare moved from being an in-house service to the NHS, maybe it is time to consider a similar shift with “offending behaviour programmes” too?”

Graham Towl is Professor of Forensic Psychology at Durham University and former Chief Psychologist at the Ministry of Justice.


I notice that a Freedom of Information request made by Rob Allen on 7th June 2021 elicited a list of members and the following statement:-

2. The latest annual report on its work

The MoJ does not hold any information in the scope of this part of your request.

The Correctional Services Accreditation and Advice panel does not publish annual reports.

The last published Annual report was the 2010-11 Annual report. The Correctional Services Accreditation Panel ceased to be an Advisory Non-Departmental Public Body on 31 July 2008. While it continued to publish annual reports in the lifetime of that panel (2008-2011) there is no longer a business or legal requirement to do so and when the panel changed its name to the Correctional Services Accreditation and Advice panel in 2012, no more reports were published.

The FOIA does not oblige a public authority to create information to answer a request if the requested information is not held. The duty is to only provide the recorded information held.

Monday 9 August 2021

What Now For Probation Practice?

Good to see an example of someone putting their head above the parapet and published by the British Society of Criminology no less:- 

The Probation Service reintegrated; aspirations, expectations, and anxieties

The Probation Service – what will survive of probation practice, post Transforming Rehabilitation and reintegration?

Saturday June 26 was a significant date in the 110-year history of the probation service in England – the day when the privatised Community Rehabilitation Companies were reintegrated with the public sector National Probation Service, thus returning probation work (well, most of it…) back into the public sector. 

It’s notable, and also a little perplexing, that this major reversal of a flagship Conservative-Liberal Democrat government policy was timed to occur on a Saturday – when there would be a much-reduced practitioner demographic actually working on that day.

It’s also notable, if less perplexing, that this significant policy shift received scant media attention. The BBC news website referenced it eventually, as did the Guardian. And a loyal member of my own family tweeted a small, outraged, message, plaintively querying why there was so little attention paid to this event.

The truth is that the profile of Probation work remains consistently low and off the radar. And the other truth is that probation practitioners, by and large, prefer it that way – doing solid work, day in and day out, with a minimum of fuss, and, ideally, a minimum of publicity.

A recent HMIP report into recall practice identified that anxieties regarding adverse publicity was a significant factor for practitioners in decisions regarding enforcement for people being supervised on licence. This consideration reflects the fairly recent politicisation of probation, arguably originating with the Labour government of 1997, which initiated a series of reviews, policies, and legislative measures laying the groundwork for much that is now core to probation practice. In an overview of 21st century probation work, Whitehead notes that ‘the haemorrhaging hearts and misplaced humanitarian social consciences of social radicals and liberals, those with recalcitrant ideological inclinations, operating with a misguided social work philosophy out of step with the modernising and reformist zeitgeist, had to be brought into line as the new political brush swept all before it.’ He goes on to note that these policies generated both NOMS (the National Offender Management Service), and privatisation – neither of which could be said to have been successful, and both of which are now consigned to history.

Subsequently, and over the last two decades, Probation work has been subject to a seemingly relentless series of government interventions, purportedly aimed at improving efficiency and raising standards, which appear also to have had the unanticipated outcome of undermining professional confidence and autonomy in the staff who carry out the work. In fact, I have begun to wonder if the diminution of the professional role may actually be the secondary objective of government policy, reflecting the bureaucratisation and managerialism which now characterise public services more broadly, including teaching, social work, and delivery of health services. (The primary objective with regard to Probation appears to remain that of looking tough on crime.)

In any event, the part privatisation of Probation reflected a specific ideology regarding the diminution of the role of the state, and the purported strengths of the market in delivering imaginative and cost-effective interventions in what have traditionally been seen as public duties and responsibilities. In practice, the well-rehearsed litany of systemic failures across both the CRCs and the NPS post Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) appear to have contributed to the current process of reintegration.

On June 30, 2021, returning to my office base for my first working day as an employee of The Probation Service, I was thrilled to see that a number of staff were already present – in itself a novelty, after the 15-month hiatus of remote working, implemented via the Exceptional Delivery Model, put in place to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. I was even more excited to see that a number of the attendees were former colleagues, and amazed to realise that it was seven years since we last shared an office space. For the first time in a long while, it felt as if I was back with my tribe – a warm sense of belonging suffused the catch ups and the chats…

But I swiftly realised that this benign sense of wellbeing is likely to be limited to a minority of staff, and possibly to be short lived. The majority of probation workers will have known no other context than working for a CRC, or for the NPS. The two organisational cultures remain vastly different, and there are anxieties and tensions on both sides. CRC staff are being welcomed, which slightly gives the impression that it is the NPS which is hosting the party – a perception compounded by the lengthy lists of mandatory training (online) which staff will be required to complete; the inevitable glitches as IT equipment is distributed and operationalised; the eternal conundrum of navigating the Single Operating Platform (SOP); and, much more seriously, worrying concerns for some practitioners regarding their former CRC role in The Probation Service model. Each individual will experience reintegration in very different ways, and, for many, the sense of diminution of autonomy and authority is likely to be a significant feature.

The Probation Service will inevitably take a period of time to settle, and to start to perform effectively. The Probation Service Target Operating Model for future practice has many good things to say about aspirations and expectations in the Service’s future – much of it recognisable as the basis for the traditional principles of probation work: valuing the individual, recognising the possibility of personal change, and the integral role of the one-to-one supervisory relationship, sustained over time. In the aftermath of Transforming Rehabilitation, many practitioners described a sense of feeling deskilled and uncertain in their professional role. It seems likely that this sense of dislocation will be a feature of the early stages of probation work in the coming months.

Two things give me optimism for the future of The Probation Service. Firstly, the characteristics of people who work in probation, which have remained astonishingly consistent over time. And, relatedly, the culture of probation as an organisation. In their study of probation practice and culture, Mawby and Worrall refer to the characteristics of probation work, including the drive to achieve job satisfaction, notably through building relationships with the people subject to supervision; and, relatedly, a sense of meaning derived from the job, which many practitioners regard as a vocation. Pre TR, they argued that this approach had survived, notwithstanding the myriad restructures and reorganisations of probation. Whatever the challenges of reintegration, it is not a naive aspiration that recent and future events may continue to assert the continuity, and validity, of this judgement.

Anne Burrell is a Social work trained Probation practitioner, still at the workface, whilst undertaking a part time PhD at De Montfort Uni, researching professional identity in probation.

Monday 2 August 2021

Chain Gangs?

Just like a child being naughty, our Prime Minister does it deliberately of course just to get a reaction and in the hope he can recover some of his former popularity. It's probably partly to distract our attention as well because Rob Allen mentions in passing here that another Tory favourite, tagging, is in trouble:- 

Pulling the Chain Gang

Boris Johnson can’t see any reason why lawbreakers “shouldn't be out there in one of those fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs visibly paying your debt to society”. If that isn’t a nod to Britain First whose policies include the introduction of chain gangs to provide labour for public works- it’s at least an evidence free appeal to the public’s baser instincts to punish and humiliate people in conflict with the law.

The Prime Minister is probably unaware of Recommendations made by the Council of Europe about prison and probation services, but if he is serious about this chain gang proposal – which I doubt- they provide a number of important grounds for avoiding it.

The 2010 European Probation Rules, developed by leading international experts and approved by the 47 CoE member states including the UK, make clear that probation agencies must respect the human rights of offenders, with all their interventions having due regard to their dignity, health, safety, and well-being. Community service, in particular, “shall not be of a stigmatising nature.” The Commentary to the Rules say that “uniforms that identify community service workers as offenders at work are unlikely to support reintegration”.

In 2017, the CoE adopted Rules which require community-based sanctions to be implemented in a way that does not aggravate their “afflictive nature”, because to do so would be unjust. Gratuitously punitive measures “can also be expected to create resistance and unwillingness to co-operate in any attempt to secure the individual’s law-abiding adjustment in the community”.

The 2017 Rules also require adequate safeguards to protect offenders from “insult and improper curiosity or publicity”, because community-based penalties may expose them to the risk of public opprobrium or social stigmatisation.

In fact, many people doing unpaid work already wear bibs- Jack Straw introduced the idea in 2008 in one of its many rebrandings as “Community Payback (CP) ”.

A 2016 inspection of unpaid work found that “a small number of offenders expressed concern at having to wear the high visibility tabards as they felt it was stigmatizing” . One told inspectors that “some members of the public see the CP vests and look down on you. I bet they think ‘what’s he done’ or ‘is he a sex offender’. I have said good morning to people and been ignored. But others appreciate what we are doing so that’s good.”

While the Beating Crime Plan may amount to less than the sum of its parts, it actually contains one or two good ideas. The best unpaid work is already delivered in consultation with local partners so requiring schemes to support community objectives and meet identified needs should bolster public confidence. As the CoE say, “work should have purpose and wherever possible should be of genuine benefit to the community.”

More problematic is the pledge to increase the use of electronic monitoring. Expanding EM has been promised countless times since then Home Secretary David Blunkett launched the pilot “Prisons without Bars “ in 2004. Will this finally be the time for satellite technology to take off?

In their latest assessments of confidence in various government programmes, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) rated the MoJ’s EM project as amber/red. That means it’s in doubt, with major risks in key areas. Urgent action is needed to address problems and/or assess whether resolution is feasible.

The IPA mention specific concerns about delays & the quality of case management being provided by suppliers. Apparently “the Project is working collaboratively with suppliers to identify contingency options”. This does not sound like the strongest basis for the promised expansion.


Comment piece from Guardian:-

Crime always pays for the Tories – that’s why they turn to it again and again

The government’s law and order crackdown displays the performative cruelty that Priti Patel has made her own

It is not difficult to see why Boris Johnson’s first post-isolation photo op was to appear alongside the home secretary, Priti Patel, and talk tough about crime. Ministers are keen to wrench the political argument towards a post-Covid domestic agenda. Yet there are fierce internal arguments in government about public spending, taxes, health and social care. What better way, meanwhile, to signal a return to supposed political normality than to reprise that old Conservative favourite, a dose of law and order?

There is also an immediate reason for that choice. July’s opinion polls have not been as good for the Tories as those of the spring. The lead over Labour, which was often double-digit in June, is mostly in single figures now, and was down from 13 points to four in YouGov’s survey last weekend. The decline of the earlier vaccine bounce seems to coincide with the messy ending of England’s Covid restrictions. A crime crackdown is a way of reassuring the voters that, whatever the appearance otherwise, the government really is in control.

Except that actually the government is not exercising control over crime. This week’s package is for show. To dignify it as a real anti-crime strategy is to miss the point of it, which is rhetorical. The object of the exercise was to create headlines and to frame public debate. Johnson duly obliged with his racially freighted remark that antisocial offenders should be “out there in one of those fluorescent chain gangs visibly paying [their] debt to society”. The headlines and the argument duly followed.

In reality, the so-called “beating crime plan” that Johnson and Patel announced on Tuesday is not about doing anything innovative, difficult or expensive to address the problems of crime. It is about looking as if they are doing so. The plan is a rehash of old and existing ideas, such as more hi-vis clothing for community service offenders, electronic tagging on prison leavers and the relaxation of restrictions on stop-and-search powers, and very little else. It will not work because it has not been designed to work. It has been designed to be noticed.

The plan hasn’t even been discussed with the police, which is a giveaway about its lack of seriousness or content. On Tuesday, chief constables queued up to give the Guardian’s Vikram Dodd some scathing private judgments. “It is like there has been an explosion in a strategy factory,” said one. The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers and which last week expressed no confidence in Patel over the latest police pay freeze, dismissed the whole thing as a gimmick.

You would never guess this from the way Johnson and Patel talk about crime and the police. “This government is utterly dedicated to fighting and beating crime,” Johnson announced. This is not actually true. What is true, however, is that British governments have long become addicted to doing what the American criminologist Jonathan Simon calls “governing through crime”, in which the sorts of measures that Johnson and Patel announced this week – often modest and even pantomimic by some American comparisons – are accepted as necessary responses to unacceptable public risks.

There are particular crime crises in Britain. These range from rape prosecution failures and child abuse scandals to the pandemic explosion of fly-tipping. Policing reform has also been allowed to wither on the vine. But if the Johnson government was as engaged with crime and policing as it claims, it would never have snubbed the police so conspicuously as it has done over pay, or made such deep cuts to the police and the criminal justice system more generally. Patel’s claim in the Daily Mail this week that “From day one as home secretary, I’ve made clear that I will back the police” does not withstand scrutiny in policy terms. But it makes total sense in terms of political theatre.

Political campaigns like this are best described as performative cruelty, a policy-light approach whose central purpose is to savour the potential anguish of those it defines as threats. Donald Trump was a master of it; for him, the cruelty was all. Among all current British politicians, performative cruelty is also Patel’s particular stock in trade. It is to be found everywhere in her politics: in her approach to asylum seekers in the Channel, to the penal system and to crime. It is there in her approach to officials – a charge of bullying against her was shamelessly overridden by Johnson. It was there when she was international development secretary – a department whose role she made little secret of despising.

It is a reasonable bet that a framed copy of Tuesday’s Mail front page will soon be on display somewhere in her office. The headline – “Priti: I’ll make yobs clean the streets” – incarnates what she aims to achieve. It shows not just that the government machine mounted an effective bid for the public’s attention this week. It also shows that Patel has been granted the rare press accolade of being identified by her first name not her family name. It will certainly bolster her belief in the political rewards of performative cruelty. Where Maggie first trod, and Boris more recently followed, there now arrives, if she has anything to do with it, Priti.

Patel is not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. But she has the huge advantage of being focused on becoming Conservative leader. This singlemindedness would give her a considerable advantage if, over the coming months, the party becomes consumed with the possibility that Johnson may quit before the next general election. This is far from a certainty, and it is important not to believe every piece of gossip and to avoid wishful thinking. Nevertheless, the coming year may see the start of a leadership battle. And, in that battle, Patel will be a contender.

Patel would at present be an outsider in that contest. Her ratings among activists have declined this year compared with last. She would struggle to win as many nominations from MPs as Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Liz Truss. Some prejudice is also probable. But her popularity at the grassroots level is high. This week it will have got a little higher, not least because of her press support. If she has a big party conference success in the autumn, on which she will now be focused, it will rise again. Her chosen route to the leadership owes much to Johnson’s own. The question is whether the Tory party of the 2020s is willing to be defined by another ambitious populist and by the performative cruelty that Patel is making her own.

Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist


Extract from another Guardian opinion piece:- 

But the Oxford Street pile of mud did its job. It got people talking. In that respect, Boris Johnson’s Tuesday crime strategy announcement was also a pile of mud. Expect to see “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs” of offenders, the prime minister declared, the words immediately ringing my woke alarm bells. I consulted humanity’s hive mind. As I thought. About 65% of the Google image search results for the words “chain gang” were shackled black men, while 4% were of a convict Mickey Mouse, and of some chained babies, doing time for cheese theft and milk concealment offences respectively.

Boris Johnson may of course have invoked the hot potato of race here deliberately, under instructions from his culture war guru, the former sex party fixer Dougie Smith (though it’s understood Smith may have been reined in now the government are being blamed for the football racism they actively encouraged). Was the chain gang idea announced to appeal to horrible Tory voters knowing that it would have to be quietly withdrawn later, a classic strategy of the Boris Johnson government?

In the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s worst newspaper, an unnamed spokesperson swiftly clarified that “chain gang” was just “a turn of phrase”, like “piccaninnies”, “watermelon smiles”, and “bum boys”. But one could be forgiven for thinking there were plans to shackle litter-pickers, given that the home secretary floated stashing child migrants on Ascension Island and is in the process of criminalising lifeboat volunteers if they assist drowning foreigners. If Priti Patel announced she was personally going to tar and feather shoplifters it would seem plausible.

The shoe repair millionaire James Timpson took to Twitter to say he employs lots of ex-offenders and makes them wear not shackles and luminous waistcoats but a shirt and tie – “same people, different approach, a much better outcome”. Come the revolution Timpson will be home secretary while Priti Patel will be in a booth at Oxford Circus tube station reheeling a pair of Topshop sling heels and burping.

Next we learned that a Boris Johnson crackdown on drugs will focus on London, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle and Wakefield. But surely this must include Westminster itself where, in 2019, Vice magazine found cocaine in four out of nine parliamentary nooks – toilets mainly – that could only be accessed by passholders, or their guests. That can’t all have been Michael Gove in the 1990s, or the young Boris Johnson, sneezing his way through his single ineffectual snort.

Black Lives Matter want to defund the police and invest instead in community resources to keep people out of crime. Doing the Marxists’ work for them, the Conservatives have been defunding the police generally since 2010 (officer numbers still have not recovered), and personally in 2021 by refusing them the pay rise given to other public service workers. But dumping the mud of these unworkable new law and order pronouncements has worked. A prime minister who as London mayor allowed £126,000 of public money (£11,500 of which came from a City Hall-funded agency) to go to a pole-dancing businesswoman he was having sex with, and whose ministers routinely appear to have awarded without due process contracts worth millions to cronies, continually escapes imprisonment, while petty offenders will be paraded in fluorescent jackets, like Chinese thought criminals in the Cultural Revolution.

But it’s always edifying to hear a lecture on criminal behaviour from a prime minister who, after a simple YouTube search, can be heard agreeing to conspire with a convicted fraudster to have a journalist beaten up on the understanding that he remains anonymous. Done. Now, maybe I will go up that mud after all.

Stewart Lee