Advise, Assist, Befriend - life in the National Probation Service

or, 'Enforcement, Rehabilitation and Public Protection'. You know the drill: any views expressed here do not (necessarily) represent the views of the National Probation Service.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


Thursday saw the publication of "Improving Prison and Probation Services: Public Value Partnerships" (see here for your very own copy), the latest glossy pamphlet about the proposed introduction of contestability/privatisation into the Probation Service. It begins to read like a prospectus, extolling the virtues of private enterprise over the dinosaur of public servants. Maybe this is the first draft of the catalogue for the closing-down sale of the nearly-100-year-old Probation Service?

There are some bizarre things about requiring Probation areas to double the proportion of services that are contracted out, but on a voluntary basis (my emphasis) - which is it, guys? A voluntary requirement makes as much sense as a chocolate fireguard. I'm also a bit alarmed by the specific focus on faith organisations - what happens to people who don't happen to share those beliefs? But the main contention I have with the document is its claim that contracting out services will lead to an end to the "one size fits all" approach to offender management.

Firstly, this betrays an ignorance of what probation officers do. We work very hard to match the right things to the right people; if we put offenders onto the same offending behaviour programmes, that reflects the fact that the Home Office has set targets for the number of completions, and not necessarily a belief that they are right for each individual. Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren't; the fact that there's limited room for manoeuvre here is not the fault of the probation officer. We try very hard to make the standard programmes relevant for each individual, but we're constrained by instructions handed to us by the people who are now telling us to work around them.

Secondly, the contestability/privatisation agenda will not, actually, end up in a situation where an individual officer can make decisions about what is right for an individual offender; we won't see a whole raft of different options coming onstream, or a smorgasbord of possibilities to choose from, even though this document tries to propagate this illusion. It will actually mean Service Level Agreements struck at senior levels to replace existing options, not a greater amount of choice. The PO at the ground level will simply be forced to amend their report proposals from Unpaid Work to "100 hours of SERCO Service to the Community", or whatever. This does not mean choice! Rail and bus privatisation did not mean a choice between companies for the consumer: only one company operates the route I have to take to my office, so they get my custom. The same is true with contestability/privatisation: it means taking public services out of the hands of publicly-accountable people and placing them into the hands of private companies whose duties are to their shareholders.

The document claims that this is all in the interests of driving up performance. I have no problem with that; in fact, I'm very much in favour of improving standards and the way in which we work. But it's predicated on the same dogma that has sustained this Government for over nine years, that private is best; it's a position that has been shown to be untrue in so many different cases that I'm, frankly, astonished that it's still being pursued. But it is. It will end up costing more, without any significant improvement in performance (and in all probability lower), across an increasingly fragmented and confused sector, with increased room for abuse of the system. We've seen it so many times before.

Over 700 responses were received when a consultation document was sent out earlier in the year; all but two of them were negative about contestability/privatisation. The message was clear: if you want to improve performance standards, you need to provide proper resources, ensure that those at the front line feel valued and supported, and give them time to react to changes before dunping a whole load of new ones on them.

I don't have an objection to working with different agencies and companies (although I do have a problem, ideologically-speaking, with the public good being farmed out to private profit); in my day-to-day work I have regular contact with central government agencies, local government, charities and even private companies. But I do object, in the strongest possible terms, to this hacking away approach, taking chunks of the public sector away and handing them out to the highest bidder, whilst the unprofitable core (and most difficult) tasks remain to an undermined, under-appreciated and demotivated set of staff.


Monday, August 14, 2006


I've recently noticed that I've been dealing with a lot of offenders whose birthdays fall in August. This is by no means a scientific sample, of course, but is there something in this? Long-burning resentment at having had childhood birthday parties when all their friends were away on holiday? Who knows.

I'm not going anywhere with this, by the way - just felt like saying it.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Victims and justice

Tomorrow SmartJustice, a campaign for more effective sentencing, will publish a study saying that 62% of victims of crime do not believe that prison sentences are a deterrent to future non-violent crime, according to the Observer.

It's trailed as a "surprising finding", but I think that's over-stating it; I think there's a tendency to assume that being a victim of crime automatically means someone will want the person who committed that crime dealt with in the most punitive way possible. My own experience of working with victims of crime - which is a completely unscientific sample - suggests that everyone reacts differently, and you really can't predict how someone will react to being a victim.

The common thing that victims of crime do say, however, is that they don't want other people to go through what they have. A lot want to understand why the crime was committed, and why it happened to them. Restorative justice schemes, which bring offenders face to face with their victims, are much more developed within the youth justice system than in the adult services, although it does happen on a case by case basis (Thames Valley Police are amongst the leaders in the field with adult offenders). The Sycamore Tree programme (pdf) is run in several prisons, aiming to get adult offenders to face up to the effect that their crimes have had on others, and to accept responsibility for that harm.

Such schemes also have a benefit for victims; in many cases they can begin to feel that they weren't specifically targeted, which often helps them to feel safe again, and they may develop an understanding of why the person offended in that way, and a desire to see social or policy changes that would help prevent such crimes in future.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Easy - or perhaps not

It hasn't always seemed that HM Inspectorate of Probation has been the friend of the probation officer over the last 12 months. Of course, there has been much to criticise, and one of the tasks of the inspectorate is to say some tough things - in many ways, an HMIP critique is more widely-respected than any from home secretaries. But the inspectors are also in the business of recognising and promoting good practice.

That's the function of the Effective Supervision Inspection (known as the ESI, though anyone who's been through this gruelling process will tell you it certainly ain't easy), which has involved selection of a large number of individual cases across England and Wales, in the name of finding out exactly what probation officers actually do (apart from wearing sandals, making mung bean casseroles and reading The Guardian).

A thematic inspection report, entitled 'Half Full and Half Empty' has just been published (see here for the key findings and here for the full report). The theme of this report is the substance misuse work that the Probation Service does with offenders, and it notes a large improvement in provision of drugs treatment but nowhere near as much for alcohol misusers (hence the title). This is despite the higher prevalence of alcohol as a offending-related factor (the report indicates 30-50% of offenders in the Probation Areas sampled had a problem with alcohol, compared to 16-23% who had a problem with drugs, although it does also suggest that this is an under-estimate).

This won't come as a surprise to many people working in the field; despite the tremendous harm done by alcohol, it simply isn't seen as being as much of a problem as drugs. This has a lot to do with the lobbying influence of the drinks industry, and the preoccupation of public debate with demonising drugs and drug users. It also has a lot to do with the way that treatment provision has developed.

Treatment of substance misuse has long been the domain of other agencies, and it's only in the last few years that drugs treatment has really come into the criminal justice system. Historically, drug and alcohol agencies had been reluctant to take clients who had been 'coerced' into treatment, arguing that their commitment to complete treatment was questionable. However, research gradually began to suggest that it didn't matter how someone got into treatment, as long as they did. The Powers of the Criminal Court Act 2000 created Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTOs), and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 enabled courts to make drug rehabilitation requirements (DRRs) and alcohol treatment requirements (ATRs) as part of a Community Order.

DTTOs attracted a lot of publicity and a lot of funding; and they were also the subject of lots of cash-linked targets. Therefore the average Probation Area diverted its resources to meet this challenge, which meant cutbacks in other areas (and often a drop in performance in these other aspects of Probation work). This has carred on with DRRs; drug treatment via the criminal justice system is now well-established, but ATRs are by some way the poorer cousins. It's no wonder that they aren't as far along the road, since they haven't been travelling as long.

Anyway; it's nice to know that someone's interested in what we do, rather than what we're not doing...

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