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.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


This week is Inside Justice Week, "your chance to see behind the scenes of the justice system in England and Wales" (without committing an offence, which would be another way to get an insider's view...) There are a lot of events going on around the country, and quite a bit of press coverage the length and breadth of the land:

The Northern Echo

Lincoln Today

Worthing Herald

York Press

Someone's even had the crazy idea of getting a probation officer to write a blog (it'll never catch on)

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Taking a leak

The Sunday Times has seen some leaked cabinet papers that show that Gordon Brown has attacked the Home Secretary's tough sentencing agenda, and asked him to reduce costs by making better use of non-custodial alternatives, both before and after sentencing. The point about the high cost of John Reid's punitive agenda was made at the time when the brouhaha about sentencing first arose during the summer, though at the time it seemed that the Treasury's approach was to keep quiet.

In a roundabout way, this is pointing out the cost-effectiveness of community sentences, fines and electronic tagging as compared to custody. However, if this really is going to be properly sold to the electorate, someone needs to be explaining exactly how and why non-custodial penalties do work to reduce re-offending and to protect the public. But unfortunately the pro-privatisation agenda within the Home Office runs firmly in the opposite direction.

One person who is standing up for the Probation Service is John Raine, chairman of the Probation Boards Association, who wrote to the Home Secretary last week. His letter was eloquent and deeply passionate, and particularly critical of John Reid's choice of audience to whom he would attack the performance of the Service. The letter was quoted quite heavily by the Yorkshire Post, and attracted mention on the BBC website and in The Times - all three of these are worth a read, if only to counter some of the rubbish that has been coming out of the Home Office recently.

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On Friday Gerry Sutcliffe*, the Under-Secretary of State for criminal justice and offender management, wrote to Chief Probation Officers and the Chairs of Probation Boards in England and Wales about the soon-to-be-published Offender Management Bill. His letter was published on EPIC, the Probation Service intranet, so that all of us front line grunts would have a chance to see what was what.

The letter starts off well; Mr Sutcliffe mentions his "appreciation of the professionalism of probation staff and your dedication to the difficult, and often dangerous, work which you do on behalf of the wider community." He also acknowledges that the Service has delivered real improvements over recent years - this is a point which cannot be stressed strongly enough: the NPS is performing well against the targets set by the Home Office despite the unremitting barrage of new initiatives over the past few years. There has also been a reduction in reoffending rates (though you wouldn't know it from the way the politicians are speaking), based on the most recent figures - though these figures relate to November 2003 and so bear very little relation to how things are right now.

But, of course, all of this comes within a missive that is intended to "clarify again what we have in mind and the reasoning behind it", and so again it becomes very clear that this is central government diktat, ideologically-motivated and imposed from above without any meaningful consultation (and where there has been pseudo-consultation, the responses were overwhelmingly negative).

Still, at least this letter is something of an acknowledgement that there are rumblings and grumblings within the Probation Service - but it won't do anything to dispel them.

* It might have been fair to expect that, given the sweeping nature of these changes, that the letter might have come from the Home Secretary, but given that he was reported as talking about "those f***ing social workers in the Probation Service" recently, it's not in the least bit surprising

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Someone's got their eye on a prize

Elsewhere, there has been some coverage of a report published by Barnardo's, the children's charity, which calls for the use of lie detector testing and satellite tracking in the supervision (though surveillance is probably a better word) of sex offenders in the community.

The report was mentioned in several different newspapers (the sub-editors at The Sun showed their usual restraint with the headline "Eye in the sky to spy on paedos"), and all managed to pick up on the point that the chief executive of Barnardo's is Martin Narey, who was the first head of NOMS until last year, and oversaw the beginnings of the privatisation agenda in the Probation Service. This does have the effect of making this report look like a first skirmish in the contestability battles - what does Barnardo's think it might be able to provide?

I'll fully admit that I haven't read the Barnardo's report (enough bumf comes from official sources to keep me more than fully occupied during my working week), but it appears that it makes reference to a study of the use of polygraph tests which showed that 80% of those tested made greater disclosures about their offending. Again, I haven't seen this study. But I have very little doubt that its sample size was very small, and those who did take part were probably selected for their willingness to do so. Whilst not wishing to undermine this work, which may provide some valuable insights into new methods of public protection, it is extremely dangerous to attempt to make public policy on the basis of such limited information. Probably just as dangerous as trying to privatise huge chunks of the Probation Service without so much as publishing a business case.


Queen's Speech

Today was the Queen's Speech, and as predicted it contained an Offender Management bill. It's been separated from the Criminal Justice bill, which suggests to me that the Government is anticipating a fight over both pieces of legislation, and is adopting a divide and conquer approach. Presumably the hope is that offender management will be much easier to slip through if they can win a public argument about what the Probation Service 'should' be doing, despite never having been given the resources to do so.

I've just been watching BBC News 24 (far too busy today to pay attention to any of the earlier coverage of the speech), and their news ticker thing says it's a bill to "improve supervision of offenders". Those in the Home Office and the hierarchy of NOMS who have a massive stake in this bill going through (because their jobs would be meaningless if it didn't) must be delighted - how can anyone oppose something that would improve the supervision of offenders?

Except as I've pointed out in previous posts, and as Napo and the Probation Boards Association - amongst others - will be making clear over the coming weeks and months, this Bill will do nothing of the sort. By introducing 'contestability', it will introduce the pursuit of private profit into the management of dangerous individuals, lead to serious cuts in service provision, and fragment the system of public protection that is currently operating.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006


Last night's Panorama programme was not as bad as I had feared. Yes, there were some incidents where warning signs had not been reported properly, or action taken when necessary (I was very concerned that the police did not appear to have taken action on the information received - but then of course we don't know that they didn't; who knows how many of these kinds of allegations are received by the police on a daily basis?), but in general the impression I got was of two sets of staff trying to operate a very difficult system with very strained resources. They did come across as too aware of their limitations; however, I suspect the editing process probably weeded out any of the times where staff were going above and beyond the call of duty, as most people in the Probation Service will do. Those hammy 'de-briefing' sessions with the undercover journalist did nothing for my confidence in it as a piece of unbiased reporting.

The thing that this programme did make abundantly clear is that there is a huge gap between the public perception of what 'supervision' means, and what actually goes on within the Probation Service. This gap has grown because senior Probation management have 'sold' the Probation Service on the idea that it can deliver "public protection", without actually describing what that means. Rehabilitation is not a fashionable concept at the moment, but rehabilitation helps protect the public by reducing the number of offences that are committed. This needs to be the selling point of the service, but it is being lost in favour of an entirely false image of probation officers as people who follow offenders around and check up on what they are doing. If you want surveillance, you need to get the police involved (and you need to give them a hell of a lot more money, because such operations are massively resource-intensive.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

More on the speech

A rumour that I've heard from more than one source today is that John Reid's Live From San Quentin (sorry, Wormwood Scrubs) gig was originally going to be about sentencing policy, but someone rewrote his speech after learning of the Panorama programme due to be broadcast tonight. If this is true, it does at least suggest that it's simply naked political opportunism on the Home Sec's part, rather than a shadowy conspiracy involving the BBC to place journalists inside the Probation Service to discredit it before launching a massive reform programme (hey, conspiracy theories are fun!) Anyway, it's still all about neutralising the opposition before the National Offender Management Bill comes in in a month or so.

The speech, unsurprisingly, got a bit of press coverage today. The Guardian had pieces in the news and its Society section, in which Helen Edwards, the chief executive of NOMS, was wheeled out to try to justify her own job, and those of the 10 regional offender managers, who are muttering about commissioning services without really having a service to commission them for. The Telegraph's article starts off with a fanfare about private firms rescuing 'failing' Probation Areas, but then does at least quote Martin Wargent, of the Probation Boards Association, who stands up for realism in demands of criminal justice agencies. Deborah Orr at the Independent has quite a nice little article which points out that there has been a near-endless series of probation reforms since Labour came to power in 1997. It's enough to make you vote Tory.

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

John's back

A spot more probation bashing from the ever lovely John Reid, who's been visiting HMP Wormwood Scrubs in London to talk to the 'residents' about how the Probation Service isn't up to scratch (a quick aside for the benefit of Dr Reid, who I'm sure reads this blog assiduously: it'd be nice if you'd give probation areas enough money so that we officers could actually go and visit them, but that's another issue).

This is little more than political opportunism, given that the Panorama programme tomorrow night will undoubtedly make a few cheap headlines, and he can then point to the new National Offender Management Bill which will be in the Queen's Speech. This, as I've pointed out on previous occasions, forces probation areas to put out considerable areas of their operations to tender to other providers - this is described as contestability but in reality it's privatisation by another name. This is continuing despite the Home Office's failure to make public any kind of business case for this move, and the overwhelmingly negative response that it received for its public consultation document.

Last year Napo, the probation officers union, very successfully ran a Stop the Bill campaign, which significantly contributed to the last NOMS bill from becoming law. It's resuming the good fight; I only wish that they'd called it Kill the Bill, so that this year we could have Kill the Bill Vol 2... (only me then? right). The central message of this campaign is, quite rightly, that the enforced fragmentation of the probation service will damage local accountability and prevent this core component of the criminal justice system from working with other services to protect the public. When have we ever seen a private company operating a public service better than the public sector can? Without the massive subsidies that privatisation almost always involves, as a sweetener to the businessmen to take these troublesome do-gooders off our hands? Private companies will cut corners, because that's what they do to maintain or increase their profits. This will damage the service that is provided, and disaster will follow.

Mind you, the Home Sec did make a good point about POs writing too many reports and not doing enough of the actual supervisory work. You won't - unusually - find me arguing with him on that one.

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Monday, November 06, 2006


Two television programmes will be broadcast this week that will hopefully shed some light on the mysterious world of Probation. That, or grossly misrepresent reality in pursuit of ratings and press coverage.

The first, entitled 'Lock Them Up or Let Them Out', will be broadcast tonight on BBC2 at 9:00pm. It looks at how the Parole Board makes decisions to grant or refuse early release to prisoners serving over four years in prison, and will follow the fortunes of violent offenders going through the parole system. On a day when it was reported that the proportion of lifer cases granted parole has fallen to 1 out of every 9 applications (compared to 1 in 5 some time ago), this programme should give some interesting insights.

Whilst tonight's programme does rather revel in its title, at least it's suggestive of a balanced look at the issues. I'm rather less optimistic about the second, 'Exposed: The Bail Hostel Scandal', to be shown at 9:00pm on Wednesday. If this didn't come under the Panorama banner I would have written this off as mere red-top fodder, but - depressingly inevitably - it is an 'expose' of the goings-on inside probation hostels, claiming to have footage that was secretly filmed by undercover journalists who obtained work there. Leaving aside the issue of whether reporters who do this should be charged with obtaining pecuniary advantage by deception, clearly this raises serious questions about some Probation Areas' recruitment methods! No doubt it has kept a few PR departments busy this week too...

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