Saturday, 5 August 2017

Reprint 1 A Cautionary Tale

I'm rather conscious of having got into a bit of a rut of late, endlessly regurgitating bad news stories about MoJ incompetence, the TR omnishambles, the demise of our profession and virtually nothing about practice. The issue was touched upon yesterday with Russell Webster's guest blog about 'What Works?' and the importance of the officer/client relationship, necessitating a dip into the archives. 

Basically, in the early days of the blog, I wrote extensively about practice issues, but had hardly any probation readers and the early posts have only ever been viewed a couple of hundred times. My audience at that time consisted mostly of magistrates and police officers for historical reasons and comments or contributions were thin on the ground. The stuff has pretty much languished unread for a long time ever since. So, prompted by this from yesterday:- 
"For what it's worth, I miss that content on day to day practice and wish we could see more of it. There are many of us with 10ish years in service who look around our workplaces now only to find we're the old hands. I really value and miss the experience that's been drained away and would love to hear from those of you with that perspective on how you navigate some of today's crap."
I thought I'd have a root around and select some stuff that might bear re-printing. So to kick off a season from the archives, here's something from 29 December 2010, but notice particularly that in those days it was definitely 'What Works' not What works?'

A Cautionary Tale

The Probation Service that I joined in 1985 used a tried and tested method of dealing with clients and it was known as the Casework Method. It basically involved looking at an individual, their history and background and through the building of a trusting relationship, attempts were made to change that persons attitude and situation for the better in the hope that offending would either cease or be reduced. This philosophy had developed over many years, was widely understood and became to be known as 'advise, assist and befriend'.

Now possibly like many other people, I just assumed this was the only way of doing things and it would just continue. I assumed it must work for some people, but if it didn't it was because of environmental factors such as unemployment, homelessness, abuse, mental health etc. and as a result the probation service was clearly set up by society to try and deal with these environmental issues. We duly got stuck into setting up projects that sought to address the environmental deficits such as housing, training, employment etc. These were exciting days and I just assumed we were doing the right thing, that it would work and just carry on.

But then I became aware of what became known as the 'What Works' agenda. Basically academics, mostly in North America, were saying that evidence showed that we were barking up the wrong tree and that the problem lay with clients thinking. Apparently if these cognitive deficits could be tackled in structured and specially designed groupwork programmes, evidence proved that such an approach was more effective in reducing re-offending. This was seized upon as the magic bullet solution and programmes were started first in prison and quickly rolled out in the community following some limited experimental pathfinder projects. The timing was perfect because the 43 independent services were effectively nationalised and programmes became the holy grail imposed from above that replaced all the ad hoc local groupwork projects. Entry and training requirements had changed and all new recruits were required to train as programme tutors.

Basically the massive focus on programmes came to highlight even further the cultural shift within the Service. Many old-style officers refused to have anything to do with it and remained deeply sceptical that such a proscribed intervention that did little to address environmental issues would work. In essence, right from the beginning the joke was that 'What Works' didn't bloody work and was never likely to. Of course it did for some, but not the majority and certainly not to the extent that anywhere near justified the resources put into it. When at a conference I tackled an academic on this point she said 'well 'What Works' was always meant to be a question, not a statement'.

Anyway the whole sorry saga is about to come to an end as one of the inevitable results of spending cuts. Of course management and the unions and possibly some academics will say it's all a terrible mistake and sex offenders and domestic violence perpetrators will go 'untreated'. Indeed that would be a mistake, but the answer is that we return to something we had before, namely an holistic approach with some old-fashioned groupwork and casework tailored to an individuals needs, not the present factory-style attempt at processing people and trying to localise the causes of crime onto individual pathologies. I've never been impressed with the thinking deficit argument alone and never will be.


It garnered one comment from a seasoned colleague:-
"Good to read your latest crimbo offering within striking distance of 2011.. I recall a rather over-excited ACPO (sic) at a Napo AGM regaling bemused colleagues on the revolutionary import of the newly minted correctional findings around 'thinking deficits' & how this cognitive tool might somehow lead to 'minority report' style behavioural interventions.!!. Looking forward to more pithy snapshots of case work practice in coming posts..   

The sharp-eyed will notice that I've edited the comment above because it included a link to an article that appeared to be no longer available online "interesting if selective overview of this topic from former SPO.."

I've found this to be a recurring problem and I guess will worsen as time marches on and to be frank, is why I've got into the habit of republishing lengthy quotes, if not complete articles. Anyway, on having another go this morning, I've managed to track down the elusive article and here it is:- 

Probation and the Sonnex Case

Martin Gosling asks, when is funding, recruitment and training going to be the priority?

In November 2004, David Monkton, a City financier, was murdered. His killer, Damien Hansen, had been released from a prison sentence three months previously and was subject to the terms of a licence supervised by the Probation Service. Press headlines proclaimed that probation had allowed the tragedy to happen and had failed dismally in their duty to protect the public. Now that the details surrounding the murders of two French students last year have also become public, an unseemly process of buck passing has begun in which the subject of probation funding has become predominant. But this time there appears also to be a much more enlightened debate concerning the limitations inherent in supervision in the community, the assessment of risk and the management of dangerous criminals.


For most of the 100 years of its existence, the Probation Service in England and Wales required its officers to supervise offenders who had demonstrated a wish to avoid further court appearances and who were deemed to present a low risk of harm to the community. The onset of the parole system released into their care only those prisoners who were assessed as being predisposed to co-operate with the process of supervision and importantly, also had a viable release plan — accommodation, employment and, ideally, supportive domestic arrangements.

But with the inception of the automatic early release from custody, large numbers of prisoners became subject to statutory licence, regardless of their motivation to avoid re-offending or their capacity to benefit from probation supervision. Included in this group are an unknown number of offenders with undiagnosed dangerous, severe, personality disorders, (psychopaths.) Alongside these changes there have developed sophisticated systems of risk assessment which aim to identify specific areas of concern that can inform the method of probation intervention.

Those released into the community who have been rated as being at high risk of committing a serious offence of violence or of a sexual nature are subject to the rigorous oversight and direction of multi-agency protection panels headed by police and probation.

But even when harsh strictures are imposed and enforced — conditions of residence, curfew, participation in therapeutic programmes and drug rehabilitation courses — all reinforced by frequent reporting, there still remains ample opportunity for the determined, ruthless individual to commit serious crime. As round the clock surveillance is impractical, all that can reasonably be done by the Probation Service is to minimize the likelihood of such an occurrence.

The Benefits of Change?

Although die hard traditionalists have bemoaned the introduction of National Standards which stipulate the frequency of probation contact with offenders, it can be argued that these have raised the overall quality of some aspects of supervision. The setting of targets in relation to the speed of enforcement action has also concentrated the minds of officers who may have been unrealistically reluctant to breach a parolee for failing to report at the appointed times. But other aspects of the revolution in probation practice are seen to have gone beyond the bounds of reasonableness.

Engaging Minds

A cornerstone of traditional probation supervision was the establishment of a relationship between the offender and the supervising officer who, in earlier times, was enjoined to befriend each one of his flock. By adjusting the content, frequency and pace of interviews to the circumstances, characteristics, deficits and abilities of each individual, an officer was able to anticipate crises and was permitted to be flexible in enforcing sanctions if a longer term goal could be achieved by their postponement. Against this background the greatest effect of the revolution on previously well established probation practice has been the introduction of “what works” theory and “evidence based” interventions.

The New Approach

The route of change in political priorities and their effect on the structure and morale of probation are immensely complex. (A detailed account of the painful metamorphosis of the service is vividly set out in The History of Probation — Politics, Power and Cultural Change 1876–2005; by Whitehead and Statham — published Shaw and Sons Ltd., 2006.) One of the most startling pronouncements from the newly created National Probation Directorate was that all previously existing forms of probation intervention with offenders were ineffective, unproven and unscientific. They would be replaced by accredited forms of groupwork that would teach cognitive skills to those offenders, in custody and in the community, who demonstrated measureable deficits in their thinking patterns. Such was that emphasis given to this diktat that in prisons where groups were being run by seconded probation staff — victim awareness; addressing relationships and others — governors issued instructions that they should be immediately halted, even if mid-way through, and should not be completed. In the eyes of the new regime, established probation theory was de trop. The old methods were deemed primitive and a waste of everybody's time.

The Structure Grows

One of the great strengths of the earlier probation system was its simplicity of organization and accountability. Appointed by and accountable to the courts, probation officers worked within a flat pyramid of hierarchy and were conscious of a light touch from the Home Office demonstrated by occasional circulars and instructions. The creation of the National Service diminished the autonomy and authority of Chief Officers and Probation Committees, while creating a more directive style of overall management. This is acknowledged to have been a mixed blessing but one which could have produced a changed but viable ethos within the Service as a whole, had it been left at that. But the Carter report followed and in its wake came the increased pace of change and disastrous, total restructuring that flowed from the establishment of NOMS.

It could be reasonably argued that a trained and qualified probation officer working with a large case-load of offenders can function best when given a logical framework of law and good practice within which to operate. Targets and time-frames for contact and the production of treatment plans, assessments and court reports are likely to be seen as reasonable and achievable but it is the quality and content of the face to face contact with the offender that is more likely than any other factor to bring about a change in behaviour. An individual may complete a parole order or a community sentence without re-offending but unless the beginnings of longer term positive change have been engendered during that period, the success is limited. If follows that the relentless drive towards more structured groupwork for offenders leaves less time for these basic skills of probation practice to be exercised.

The Sonnex Case

It is probable that most who have commented upon the circumstances surrounding the Sonnex case, will have had little or no experience of confronting dangerous criminals on their own. Probation officers undertake to do this on a daily basis — not within a police station or prison where there is support close at hand in the event of difficulty, but in an office where colleagues may be similarly engaged. So it was refreshing to note the comments of Marcel Berlins who, writing in The Guardian, questions the Government's treatment of the Probation Service by starving it of funds necessary for full staffing at all times. The mistakes made in this case were wide-spread and included errors on the part of police, prisons and the courts as well as those of the overstretched probation officers at Lewisham. Nevertheless, the National Association of Probation Officers assert that none of the failings attributed to the service in this case led directly to the commission of the offence. They also point out that had an adequate, integrated IT system been in place, enabling probation, prisons and police to access a common data base, the failings would not have happened. But, as has been widely reported, the Government has abandoned its ambitious C-NOMIS project which had cost £155m but which, if brought to fruition, would have contributed enormously to the speedy exchange of vital information between criminal justice agencies.

Visiting Prisoners

In order to establish an understanding of the frame of mind and aspirations of an offender at the pre-release stage, it is vital for the supervising officer to visit the prison where he is held, regardless of the distance involved. Yet funding shortages have for years inhibited this practice with the result that frequently, newly discharged prisoners at the most vulnerable point in their licence, meet their supervisor for the first time on the day of release.

All this points to the obvious conclusion that funding for the Probation Service is best directed to the recruiting, training and deployment of sufficient numbers of qualified probation officers (not PSOs) to enable the difficult task of working effectively with offenders to be achieved. It is reasonable to assert that probation officers could work professionally and effectively without the existence of NOMS — an enormous, costly and still burgeoning monster that looms over them while devouring much of the criminal justice budget.

Probation areas are now planning to reduce numbers of front line staff in order to meet budget constraints imposed by NOMS while more than half those due to qualify as probation officers this year (following two years of training) have been told that there will be no jobs available to them.

At the same time, NOMS is actively recruiting headquarters staff for its Probation Performance Management Group — an outfit dedicated to performance management framework and systems.

It may be imagined that the irony of all this will be apparent to those hardworking and dedicated probation officers at Lewisham and elsewhere.

Martin Gosling MBE — former Senior Probation Officer
Date: 24th July 2009


  1. 'What Works?' a cautionary tale for police at the moment?

    At a recent police conference I noticed similar thinking to above:

    'The old methods were deemed primitive and a waste of everybody's time'

    Will (does) funding tend to go where there is academic 'evidence' it makes a difference? Great in theory, but in practice can be hugely damaging as seen with probation.

    As always, those not on board labelled 'resistant to change'.

  2. Just confirms for me the sustained & systematic abuse Noms & their ideological masters have visited upon the probation service. As with the most sadistic self-serving violators they shamelessly justify their own gains at the expense of others' losses, they rewrite history to reflect THEIR story, they blame others, & there is a shameful train of apologists, collaborators & associates who plead ignorance.

    And, as with the most vile perpetrators of abuse, the unforgettable stench of their presence hangs forever in the air; an institutional equivalent of the bad breath, cheap cologne & stale sweat of the serial abuser.

    Nice job!

    1. Chris Fixed It For You & You & You-oo-ooo!

  3. It's never just one thing that works, in my humble opinion. It's usually a combination of things. Probation staff should have resources at hand and apply these according to their professional judgement. And as we all know none of it will work without that relationship in place of course. My experience over the years has been that as the powers that be have taken over the show probation staff themselves have become these annoying employees that you can't trust with anything, let alone with the direction their work should take. And staff take up so much money! There's not enough left to employ consultants!
    It's a wonder they will even let staff in though the doors to come to work in the mornings now. Staff are regarded as incapable of making sound judgments and are not trusted with the work or with any resources there may still be knocking around. The only thing we're allowed to touch are the computers and phones. And that is so that we can demonstrate our ability to do "our job". We do this by ticking boxes of course, endlessly fiddling about on the system with the minutiae of details pertaining to service user or the "management" thereof.
    For years I have done what I consider my real job not because the powers that be have put their clever schemes in place but in spite of it. And still survived and still got somewhere with my "cases". Now I am finding it almost impossible without working an amount of hours I haven't got.
    But I want to keep the tone positive which is what is being attempted on this blog today. So my question is:
    How do we get out of this mess while still remaining employed? I have tried some things, suggested others. I want to find a way of putting pressure on my senior managers to begin to turn the MOJ down on certain issues and/or to get MOJ to approve things we know will help. I am not asking my senior managers to lay their jobs on the line. I am only asking them not to be complete push overs when dealing with MOJ individuals. I am asking them to use whatever people skills they may possess to sow some seeds of doubt or a tiny flicker of understanding onto the MOJ minds. Just as I do myself in my own dealings with my own line managers.
    Should I just cut a long story short and invite the MOJ to my office? Anyone else have any ideas?

    1. Spot on assessment

    2. Sounds very familiar - PO NPS