Saturday, 28 January 2023

In The Wake of the SFO's

Probation is not generally known for having a particularly high profile, but this week it's been in the full media glare and it's made uncomfortable reading, particularly the accusation that there is 'blood on our hands'. This hurts, has made staff angry and I sense stirred a widespread desire to get the wider back story told and out for discussion and debate. Lets start with two responses to the article published by the Guardian:-

Your article (Probation service and ministers have ‘blood on hands’, say Zara Aleena’s family, 24 January) identifies the undeniable case work failures by the National Probation Service (NPS) that led to the appalling murder of Zara Aleena. But what it overlooks is the impact of the privatisation of the probation service. In 2014, it was split in two, with private “community rehabilitation companies” supervising low- to medium-risk cases, and the pre-existing NPS supervising high-risk cases.

As HM Inspectorate of Probation’s independent serious further offence review of Jordan McSweeney spells out, in 2021 McSweeney was the responsibility of the profit-driven London Community Rehabilitation Company. Despite McSweeney’s known risk being present in custody, such as his possession of weapons and threatening behaviour, as well as subsequent information received about the serious risk he posed to women, the company assessed him to be medium-risk.

With inaccurate risk assessment a key feature of the case, the inspectorate concluded that, had McSweeney been correctly assessed, the planning for the release, licence conditions and action taken by the NPS when he failed to turn up for appointments could have been considerably different.

The funding arrangements for the private, profit-oriented companies provided a monetary incentive for employees not to assess cases as high-risk, as this would result in them being passed on to the state-owned NPS, and a loss of income. Consequently, risk was routinely downgraded. If anyone has “blood on their hands”, it is the neoliberal ideologues in this government who, ignoring warnings issued in 2015 and 2016 by the inspectorate that resettlement arrangements were not fit for purpose, pursued this flawed and ultimately doomed experiment to its predictable tragic end.

Sue Hobbs
Co-author, Privatising Criminal Justice

In 2015, my twin brother, Adrian Munday, was murdered in his own home in Devon. Adrian’s killer, Stuart Hodgkin, was under the probation supervision of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall Community Rehabilitation Company, one of the new probation companies set up after Chris Grayling’s catastrophic attempt to privatise the service. Adrian had mental health issues, so was also in receipt of privatised community support.

At the murder trial, it was revealed that Hodgkin had more than 80 previous convictions, over 40 of them for assault, and three current restraining orders. This information should have been easily available to probation officers.

In 2018, Devon county council published the multi-agency safeguarding adults review (SAR) about the circumstances surrounding Adrian’s death. This report found 40 agency failings – but two pivotal mistakes came from failures to assess a “high” level of risk: first at court, when Hodgkin was sentenced to probation, not custody, for a previous crime, and second by the community rehabilitation company, which relied on the first assessment. A correct assessment would have radically changed the fatal outcome.

Following the SAR, we were assured that lessons would be learned and that these would be shared at national level. Nothing has changed. It is surely time to set up a comprehensive national database by which probation officers can access an offender’s full history easily and quickly.

Like Zara’s family, I believe the government has my brother’s blood on its hands. Let no other family have to go through this unnecessary suffering.

Sarah Compton
Glangevlin, County Cavan, Ireland

This went out to all members yesterday from Napo HQ:-

Government is failing Probation Staff

Over the past fortnight the Probation Service in England and Wales has been in the spotlight following the publication of two Serious Further Offence (SFO) reviews by HM Inspector of Probation Justin Russell.

The inspectorate’s findings in relation to the shocking murders which took place in Killamarsh Derbyshire and Ilford East London last year, have been the subject of extensive and highly critical media coverage on mainstream television and radio on two successive Tuesdays.

General Secretary Ian Lawrence, supported by the Napo Press, Media and Campaigns team has been exceptionally busy in trying to respond to numerous media opportunities where Napo has tried to offer its perspective on the contents of the SFO reports and the wider questions that have arisen about public safety, the state of the Probation service and it’s role within the Criminal Justice System.

Striking the right balance

Ian told Napo Magazine: “Given the widespread public revulsion that these serious further offences, and others before them, have caused, it needs to be remembered first and foremost, that innocent lives have been lost and families torn asunder by grief and anger.

“This means that the right balance has to be struck with the media in respecting the understandable feelings of the victim’s families whilst robustly calling out the increasingly desperate circumstances which too many of our members are facing on a daily basis.”

In the media coverage of the two SFO reviews, much has been made about the ‘failings’ of the Probation Service as identified by Probation Inspectors, but the reports also reference a host of underlying circumstances that Napo has been highlighting for many years. These include huge numbers of vacancies in most Probation Regions, the departure of highly experienced staff and the consequential pressure placed on new trainees with increasing numbers telling Napo that they are not likely to stay in the service for long, if at all.

In his engagements with the media, Napo’s General Secretary has been trying to articulate these issues and the impact of them on our members, but has also referenced the disastrous Transforming Rehabilitation reforms implemented by then Secretary of State for Justice Chris Grayling nearly 10 years ago.

Ian adds: “It’s one thing seeing politicians talk about the need for more training and vigilance by Probation staff, whilst they choose to ignore the egregious damage to the profession that was caused by their government’s part-privatisation of what was once a gold standard public service.”

Changing the polemic

As well as the publicity that has followed the two SFO reviews, last week also saw the release of a separate report by the London Assembly to which Napo gave evidence last year.

This mirrors the findings of Justin Russell’s team about serious operational shortcomings in probation service provision in London and the need for more strategic oversight by senior leaders at Regional and National level.

Napo National Chair Helen Banner is the Link Officer for Napo London Branch and has already started talks with the Branch Executive Committee in advance of an urgent meeting with the London Regional Probation Director.

Feedback from Napo members and independent commentators who have been following Napo’s contact with the media, suggest that the union has been successful in making the case that despite the welcome reunification into public ownership in June 2021, the Government has failed the public and failed Probation staff by its failure to adequately invest in the service and restore it to a position that resembles its former self.

Political pressure mounts

This week has seen further political developments that will only add more pressure on beleaguered Government Ministers.

In Prime Minister’s questions this week, Labour Leader Keir Starmer specifically devoted 3 of his 4 questions to the state of the Probation service and the findings of the London SFO review. Yesterday news also reached Napo of a Justice Select Committee session covering Prisons and Probation next Tuesday, and at the time of writing Napo and the Probation unions have been invited to an urgent meeting on Monday with Damien Hinds MP the Minister for Prisons and Probation.

Ian concludes: “It’s a tragedy in itself that it takes the loss of lives to make this Government sit up and take notice of things that we warned of many years ago. 

“We obviously welcome an opportunity to meet with Ministers but I am very skeptical that we will see much change this side of a general election.” Adding: “I will certainly take the message from our members that it’s time to implement serious solutions rather than offering undeliverable promises.”

Over the last fortnight Napo’s General Secretary has taken part in a number of televised interviews with the BBC, ITV, Channel 5, Sky News and GB news and radio engagements with BBC 4, BBC 5 Live, BBC London and Times Radio as well as interviews with the Independent and Daily Mirror.

Then there was an interesting piece in the Independent which has stimulated much discussion on the 'secret' Facebook group:-

Ex-probation officer says offenders will always fall through the net after Zara Aleena murder

A former probation officer has warned that some offenders will “always fall through the net” and go on to rape, murder or commit other serious crimes after being released. Laura Webb, who was a probation officer for 17 years until 2022, said she and her colleagues went into the job to protect the public but they could not predict the behaviour of every offender. She spoke to i as the Probation Service faces intense scrutiny following the murder of Zara Aleena by a career criminal who had been released from prison just days earlier.

Ms Webb once worked with a young offender who had a referral order – a sentence for young people with no previous convictions who plead guilty to any imprisonable offence – for smoking cannabis who went on to commit murder.

“How would you expect me to understand this guy is likely to go out and stab someone. The two things don’t link. I’d love to have foreseen it. But really and truly, what did I have to go on? Hindsight is a wonderful thing… I didn’t have the information at hand. I don’t go out thinking I’ll just do a bit of a shit job and if someone gets killed, they get killed. No probation officer goes out like that. They go into the job because they want to protect the public but people are always going to fall through the net.”

The Probation Service needs, she said, a major overhaul with a renewed focus on retaining staff with experience. “If they are hell bent on killing someone, they’re just going to wait until their curfew and then go out and do it then… There’s only so many restrictions that you can put on someone who’s not in prison,” she said. “When someone dies, [you] want somebody to blame for it, and I would be the same if I was the family… But it’s bigger than an individual person.”

Probation officers have been accused of having “blood on their hands” after Jordan McSweeney sexually assaulted and fatally attacked Ms Aleena in June 2022, just nine days after he was released from prison on licence.

Justin Russell, the chief inspector of probation, said McSweeney should have been treated as a high-risk offender rather than medium. And chances to get him back behind bars sooner were missed. A review of how probation staff supervised McSweeney, who had a history of violence, has been ordered by the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab.

Ms Webb said Ms Aleena’s case highlighted the systematic problems existing in the probation service. “We all feel like we’d be hung out to dry… It’s not one probation officer that’s not done their job.” She said some probation officers were missing the experience necessary to handle high-risk criminals, which is down to the way the service was partly privatised and then re-merged.

During the privatisation, the National Probation Service supervised high-risk offenders while Community Rehabilitation Companies dealt with low and medium-risk offenders. Ms Webb left the private sector for the public sector over concerns about how criminals were being designated risk levels: “I was thinking I don’t want a serious case review on my hands. I can’t manage 100 cases on my own… I didn’t want my name to be in the paper for the wrong reasons.”

When the probation service was merged back together, Ms Webb could see officers had been trained to different standards. “You haven’t got the same quality officers, you haven’t got the longevity and it’s just a recipe for disaster.” Ms Webb once saw a female probation officer “thrown under the bus” over a case failing. “It could have happened to any one of us. A case goes wrong and they’ve thrown her to the wolves. But what supervision was she having, how many cases did she have, what was her experience?

“They’re not all her fault. It’s everything around that person. Individually you’re no one, it’s all the experience you’ve got, the training, support, management. So just to throw one person under the bus to say we’ve sorted it, you haven’t sorted it. It’s a national problem. It’s an institutional deficit.”

Still, the difference between a medium and high-risk assessment for any offender is “nuanced” with probation officers likely to disagree among themselves about designations, she explained. “You could get 10 probation officers, and five might say let’s put him in high and another five might put him in medium.”

Ms Webb said probation officers made decisions about offenders based on their past behaviour. “Say for instance, their latest offence wasn’t very violent, you might think to yourself, as a probation officer, [the] risk seems to be levelling off, even going downwards. You’re always looking at patterns. You don’t always judge somebody from the worst thing they’ve done if that was 10 years ago or 20 years ago because you’re looking at the most recent behaviour,” she said, adding that officers also consider someone’s personal and family situation. “If someone’s got no history of rape or sexual assault, or very limited years ago, that wouldn’t be at the forefront of your mind. The thing they always teach you as a probation officer is the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.”

Prisons and Probation Minister Damian Hinds said: 

“This was a despicable crime and I apologise unreservedly to Zara Aleena’s family for the unacceptable failings in this case. We are taking immediate steps to address the serious issues raised by the Jordan McSweeney and Damien Bendall cases. This includes mandatory training to improve risk assessments, implementing new processes to guarantee the swift recall of offenders and we have taken disciplinary action where appropriate. We are also investing £155 million a year into the Probation Service to recruit the thousands more officers who will deliver tougher supervision, protect the public and ensure these sorts of tragedies can never happen again.”


Finally, I want to thank all those readers who have responded to my appeal and shown willingness to speak with an experienced journalist in the hope that the circumstances surrounding the recent SFO's can be put into the wider context of probation's politically-induced plight. I'm really happy to report that so far eight current or former colleagues have come forward and interviews have started. 

I must stress that confidentiality is taken very seriously indeed and of course is particularly important for any current member of staff willing to speak out. With public and political interest now aroused, this could prove to be a seminal moment in determining probation's future and has indeed attracted the attention of further journalists. There is a real opportunity here to develop a differing narrative to that promulgated by the HMPPS hierarchy. Contact details on the profile page.


  1. While trawling the web pages for relevant info I found this in the BBC news archives.

    It seems that even when probation officers *do* make appropriate & explicit assessments to flag up serious risk issues & (I presume) oppose release on parole, it still doesn't stop someone committing murder when circumstances push their buttons.

    It would be interesting to know if that perpetrator was released by the Parole Board & subject to probation supervision after such a clear warning. Perhaps things were different in 1999? Perhaps the PO's parole report was useful?

    Raab certainly doesn't want such professional assessments to be placed before the Parole Board in 2023.

    1. Yes he would have been released by either early by the parole board or at his release date. Both predicting correctly and incorrectly still does not stop it happening. You can predict you may or may not have a road accident, you wear your seatbelt, use a hands free and drive carefully. You still might reverse into that lamppost when parking after having that glass of wine at the office Xmas party.

  2. company assessed him to be medium-risk. The label is a cover it would have still been a qualified officer po.

    1. Please let's not forget that the CRC initial assessment would have been based on a pre-sentence assessment by an NPS member of staff. TR meant multiple risk assessments, adding layer upon layer of paperwork without anyone having sufficient time to read and digest them, let alone consider whether they were valid.

  3. … but Napo and Ian Lawrence had the opportunity to secure better pay for probation service staff which would have helped staff recruitment and retention. Napo failed and we got a measly 3% pay rise for a salary that’s still grossly underpaid. Napo is the problem too!

  4. “In his engagements with the media, Napo’s General Secretary has been trying to articulate these issues and the impact of them on our members”

    We need better pay. The pay deal was shite. Stop ignoring this.

    1. No rewards for failing . Napos GS is doing pr but I have not seen any . He has definitely been a player in these probation failings no question. The jr was kept secret from members. He won't be saying anything about his cowardice to fund proper legal challenge. By dumping cynically judicial review based on cost he cannot even claim Napo fought tr. Lawrence you fool you helped wheel it in . Now you should wheel off . The Napo job is no joke now you might appreciate the implications . Not fight tr properly legally this is what your foolish clowning achieves shoulder your portion of responsibility.

  5. “We are also investing £155 million a year into the Probation Service to recruit the thousands more officers who will deliver tougher supervision, protect the public and ensure these sorts of tragedies can never happen again.”

    This is such nonsense from Damien Hinds. Nobody can “ensure” serious crimes do not happen.

    What the hell is “tougher” supervision?

  6. “Ms Webb once saw a female probation officer “thrown under the bus” over a case failing. “It could have happened to any one of us. A case goes wrong and they’ve thrown her to the wolves. But what supervision was she having, how many cases did she have, what was her experience?”

    This is the sad thing about being a probation officer. Those of us that have been around long enough look at our managers, senior managers and chief officers knowing that every one of them will do this to every one of us in the blink of an eye and without warning. They really do not pay us enough to work under these conditions.

  7. Lawrence has being doing his best but unfortunately that really isn’t nearly good enough. Napo needs a kick ass media presence as there is plenty of testosterone but no strong arguments coming through. Need someone with the skills of a lawyer who can think on their feet and has some political nouse. The officers should have him on a final warning for capability but they also need to step up as they are always a bit too busy doing something else. They were elected to do something. He seriously needed to call in reinforcements and let them take the lead in interview’s as he is clueless when it comes to professional issues. No Ian it is not a vocation. Yes Ian probation is understaffed and underpaid. No Ian we are not prepared to take the flack for systemic failure due to Tory fuck ups. It is sometimes forgotten that Lawrence has never been employed by a probation employer and has no professional criminal justice experience. If he had he would understand why staff are leaving in droves and the new recruits will not be up to speed for another year or two if they even decide to remain. There are people like Napo stalwart Carole Doherty that should be used more but the fear is they fight lone battles and against Napo HQ to actually hold probation HQ to account. We should ask Napo HQ to tell us what the contributions of each member of employed staff are exactly and what they believe their skills are and what their actions have been on behalf of members. Let’s have the facts and figures. Lawrences amateur attempts to explain the intricacies of the profession are frustrating to listen to and damaging but probation HQ are not much better. Where is Napo’s chair? MIA whilst serial wet sponge Asst. General Secretary Ranjit Singh, apparently tipped as a possible GS candidate, has proven to be too timid/scared to step up into the limelight and earn his salary in the media rounds. For goodness sake don’t vote for him if he appears on the GS ballot paper. As for the missing press secretary - it was a bit nippy so probably not worth the effort. An opportunity to fight probations corner mostly missed.

  8. We absolutely do have blood on our hands! We may not be able to ‘predict’ the future but we can take measurable steps to reduce such risks which includes the ability to do an accurate risk assessment and use whatever resources we have to try to manage these people well! At least then when the worst happens we are able to offer some conviction we did what we could! The failings are disgraceful and I don’t blame the victims mother for stating as such. Probation is broken (for whatever reason) and it’s only getting worse! Wake up parliament - we need a miracle because these SFO’s are becoming more and more frequent. So many lives lost and there’s always more to be done! The service is drowning in inexperienced staff, set up by their managers to do a body of work they lack experience to do then they get the blame when it all goes wrong. The training for all new starters is awful! The service is failing all its front line staff and the public. It’s the worst I’ve seen it in 20 years. God bless the families of these despicable crimes.

  9. Whilst working in the crc we frequently raised the question of why someone was not assessed as high risk. What we was told was that the risk was assessed on the length of sentence and current offence. We knew full well that we were working with people who previously were deemed high risk and dangerous sometimes only a couple of years previously. When we tried to raise this or to get someone escalated we frequently hit a brick wall and were left managing people at medium risk. Most staff work hard to get it right but there is never enough time to learn new processes or to undertake meaningful training. Staff in the crc's were deskilled, demoralised and looked down on by former colleagues. Suddenly there is an expectation that those staff will be competent and knowledgeable in areas that we have not worked in for several years.

  10. NAPO is ineffective as it as no membership who are willing to take action to fight for their terms and conditions , the employer know this , third rate young female criminology graduates are not union orienteered and that my friends is why you are all treated like rubbish

    1. Napo has no membership because all the members left because the Napo executives and as a Probation union stopped listening to the members, failed to effectively represent members issues and squandered member’s subscription fees on themselves.

      A Union is only as good as its members, but if the Union officials fails to represent the members then there is effectively no union to be part of, particularly not one that has a racist, sexist element running through its veins at all levels.

  11. In other news I note Teflon coated serial bully Dom Raab is quietly slipping away from being held to account again as complainants have mysteriously withdrawn or are deciding whether or not to proceed. PM is desperately trying to close down sleaze and disasters on all sides. There’s a smell of rancid Tory sweatiness and rotten tomatoes at the heart of the MoJ as senior civil servants are whipped back into line.

  12. Can anyone connect me with a journalist who is conducting these interviews? As an ex probation officer who repeatedly raised my concerns with management to little effect and consistently highlighted risk issues, I have a lot to say on this. Great article

    1. Anon 13:10 - Yes - my contact details are on the profile page.