Big rise in deaths of offenders on probation
More people under probation supervision are dying.
Cause of death
Dean isn’t here to take out a library book or use the free wifi. He is on probation for an offence that’s deemed him to be of “medium risk” to the public and has come here for his weekly meeting with his probation officer.
“I’m sorry, we don’t have any rooms available so we’ll have to have a chat over here,” says the probation officer when she arrives, gesturing to a table near teen fiction. Dean shuffles after her, looking tired and dishevelled. He is clearly conscious of the suspicious looks being cast in his direction.
The whole conversation between Dean and his probation officer can be overheard – it includes his fears of becoming homeless again, his difficult relationship with his family, and an update on how his course of methadone is going.
These are personal issues that you would expect to discuss in private. But with only one interview room between six probation officers, highly sensitive and potentially volatile conversations such as this are having to be played out in public.
Until last year, Weston-super-Mare’s probation team were able to meet offenders at their purpose-built facilities by the courts. But 15 months ago, its staff were moved into the town hall, where they share office space with the council’s housing team and the Avon and Somerset police. The aim is to bring services closer together in an attempt to reduce offending behaviour.
Now the six probation officers have to interview at least a dozen of the 25 people they typically see a day in public, due to alack of meeting rooms.
“This is the most untenable, dangerous situation I’ve witnessed,” says Julie Wright, a probation officer with 10 years’ experience in various English towns and cities, before moving to North Somerset. But she was so appalled by the service she was expected to deliver in the public library that she quit her new job after just two days.
“The staff are on their knees, it’s putting the public at risk, and the service users are being stigmatised and denied a proper chance to engage in rehabilitation,” she says.
In June 2014, 70% of probation work in England and Wales was outsourced to 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) in England and Wales. Only the most dangerous offenders – those deemed “high risk” – are still supervised by the public sector, under the remit of a new National Probation Service (NPS). Critics of the controversial probation privatisation say what is happening in Weston-super-Mare is symptomatic of – and a grim indictment of – the poor service that has followed.
The arrangements for interviewing clients in a public library are absolutely unacceptable.
The arrangements for interviewing clients in a public library are absolutely unacceptable,” says Ian Lawrence, general secretary of Napo, which represents more than 8,000 staff working in probation and family courts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The number of serious crimes such as murder and manslaughter committed by offenders under supervision in the community has risen by 25%since privatisation. In 2012-13, 409 serious further offence reviews were triggered, yet by 2016-17 this had increased to 517. The Ministry of Justice says comparisons are misleading, as it reformed the system so the numbers of offenders on probation are now significantly higher. “Our probation reforms have meant that around 40,000 offenders who previously would not have been supervised – because they had been in prison for less than 12 months - are now being monitored for the first time,” says a MoJ spokesman. “But we have been clear that we need probation to work better. We want more intensive rehabilitation to take place in the community, particularly to tackle offenders with substance misuse and mental health needs. And we want tough community sentences that are consistently and effectively enforced so they command the confidence of the courts and the public.
But it is not as if the MoJ were unaware of the potential problems. A leaked document in 2013 by senior officials warned that there was a more than 80% risk that the privatisation proposals introduced by the then justice secretary Chris Grayling, would lead to “an unacceptable drop in operational performance”. In Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire, community probation services are run by Working Links – a global company delivering government welfare-to-work, criminal justice and learning and skills outsourced contracts. It also won the contract to run the CRC in Wales and covering Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.
In August, Working Links received a damning report from the probation inspectorate for its service in Gloucestershire. The quality and impact inspection found that “painful staffing reductions”, “unacceptable workloads” and facilities that were not fully functioning were putting the public at “more risk than necessary” and denying service users the chance to turn their lives around.
The Working Links service in North Somerset has yet to be inspected. But HM chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, said of Gloucestershire: “This CRC’s work is so far below par that its owner and government need to work together urgently to improve matters, so that those under supervision and the general public receive the service they rightly expect, and the staff that remain can do the job they so wish to do.”
Conducting interviews in public is particularly detrimental for vulnerable women, says another ex-staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity. She describes a situation with a female offender having to be interviewed within earshot of her ex-partner – a perpetrator of domestic violence. “He deliberately sat at the nearby computer station in order to intimidate her.”
Sometimes unsuspecting members of the public will sit on the same table and settle down with a book, she adds. When I was there a man interrupted an interview to ask about the wifi password, mistaking the probation worker for a librarian.
“Situations like that happen all the time and it undermines what we are trying to do – we can’t challenge people about their offending or go into any meaningful detail,” the ex-staff member explains. “A lot of the people we work with are very traumatised, vulnerable people who are a risk to themselves as much as they are to others.” Welfare changes, benefit sanctions, a huge shortage of affordable housing and cuts to support services have limited the help that probation offices can signpost for ex-offenders, she adds.
“We anticipate that the rollout of universal credit will make life much tougher for our client group as many of them survive on limited benefits or zero-hour contracts.”
In a town where 40% of people live in poverty, she says her clients arrive in increasingly more desperate states and many are sofa surfing. “There is only housing association accommodation that people can bid for, some voluntary sector social housing such as accommodation for people with mental health problems and the private rented sector. But very few private rented sector landlords will rent to people on benefits.”
Emotions can run high – sometimes people become angry and abusive and the public library setting doesn’t help to de-escalate things, says the ex-staff member.
Probation colleagues in Bristol are also having to compromise on privacy. The CRC’s building better relationships group, run for perpetrators of domestic violence, has been moved from purpose-built offices to a shared space run as a community enterprise. “The group is held behind a door but it has no security. Reception staff is limited and anyone could walk into the group room,” sources close to Bristol CRC say.
“There have been incidents, including a chair being thrown through a door. There is a creche on site and vulnerable women who attend the centre for various community events. The programme’s team is under-staffed, so often the group is run by two women on their own in the evening.”
Napo says senior management consistently blame staff for their failings, saying that the problems are due to maternity leave, sickness and staff shortages. Says Lawrence: “All of this should have been factored in before they made nearly 40% of their staff redundant. We have little confidence that they will make a recovery from this or that they have an adequate plan to address these issues.”
Asked about concerns raised in Weston-super-Mare and Bristol, a spokesman for the Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire CRC says: “Weston Town Hall is part of our wide network of community hubs, designed to bring services closer together to reduce reoffending behaviours. We share this venue with Avon and Somerset police and North Somerset council’s housing team – two of our main partners delivering important services affecting our service users.
“At all times we aim to deliver a safe service, working in an environment enabling us to build up trust and relationships with the people we support. We are talking with the council about the facilities and are exploring options to ensure we continue to deliver safe services that deliver results for our service users and the wider community.”
A spokeswoman for North Somerset council says: “Following concerns, a new health and safety assessment has been undertaken to review existing arrangements and the CRC are currently looking for alternative locations to see some of their service users. The Town Hall reception and library area has a security officer present during opening hours.”
failing service after part-privatisation introduced by Chris Graylinghttps://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/dec/06/liz-truss-calls-rapid-completion-probation-privatisation-review
The local Conservative MP, John Penrose, who had been informed about the concerns raised by probation staff says: “I’m very pleased Working Links accept that they need to find alternative, better accommodation and are exploring options with the council.”
I speak to Dean outside after his interview and ask whether he would have preferred to be in a private room. “Yeah, that might have been nice,” he says. “A bit of privacy, a bit of quiet and the chance to have a proper chat – I don’t really have that in my life, but it’s just one of those things,” he says with a shrug. He doesn’t seem to expect any better.
Later I tell the ex-staff member about our exchange. “A lot of our service users have been disadvantaged all their lives and have come to expect very little from the world,” she says. “It’s very sad – they deserve a proper chance to turn their lives around.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman says: “We are looking very closely at these issues as more needs to be done. Public protection is our top priority and it is vital that we have in place probation services that not only keep people safe, but help offenders turn away from a life of crime by ensuring they have the correct levels of supervision and support.”