Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-95)



  80. You also mention in your report the extra work, especially in the media, that needs to be done to get across to the public the good work that is done by the probation service. I would like you to expand on how you intend to follow that up. In my experience, the media is rarely interested in good news but always interested in bad news.
  (Professor Morgan) This is a problem which is not easily resolved. I do not pretend it is. It is neatly reflected in the fact that whereas chief inspectors of prisons are extremely well-known and their reports often attract a great deal of media attention, I doubt whether the public at large have ever heard of any of my predecessors or are ever likely to hear of me, nor is there any evidence that the media is greatly interested in the reports from the Probation Inspectorate, for the very reasons that you indicate. That does not mean to say that we cannot do more to increase the profile of the probation service and its positive aspects. I think that the probation service needs to develop media strategy so as to get across to the public at large and to sentencers, in particular—that is where it is most needed—precisely what the work of the service involves. And there are techniques for doing that.

  81. Will that mean communicating effectively with the media?
  (Professor Morgan) It certainly means that when anyone makes a public statement—this is a point I made earlier—suggesting that anything less than a prison sentence was being "let off" that has to be challenged. It should be effectively challenged. I would like to see the National Director of the probation service, Eithne Wallis, being a more significant figure in the media than hitherto she has been. I would like to see Eithne Wallis having the sort of public profile which previously Martin Narey has had for the prison service and I think she needs to be backed up by a larger press office capacity than she currently has and I think that needs to be encouraged. We need to encourage chief officers locally to engage with the local media—which is the means by which, for most members of the public, their impressions of sentencing are gathered.

  82. There was a feeling abroad that the probation service looked upon criminals as their clients or friends whom they were protecting rather than the role of protecting the public and ensuring that the criminal did the community service order or whatever order they were put on. Is that a perception which is now completely wrong and inaccurate? Have things changed?
  (Professor Morgan) I think that is almost entirely wrong. The issues about which this Committee spoke a good deal in the 1990s I think has changed quite fundamentally. One of the big changes which I think is not widely appreciated is the degree to which the probation service now works very closely in cooperation with the police. We have a number of strands to this. First of all, there is the statutory strand. There is now a provision for high risk-offenders, of which you are probably aware, which requires the probation service and the police, through what are called multi-agency public protection panels, to plan jointly for the effective supervision of high-risk offenders, particularly sex offenders. Secondly, there is routine exchange of intelligence now going on all over the country between the probation service and the police over persistent offenders who are on the probation service's books, either as a result of them being on licence following a prison sentence or because they are subject to a community sentence and because they are one of a shortlist of offenders that the police are targeting because they believe that they are "at it". Intelligence is routinely exchanged now between probation officers and police officers all over the country. That would have been unthinkable for the average probation officer 10 years ago. I visited an area recently where this had gone to such lengths that the senior probation officer in the area office now attended the routine weekly CID intelligence meetings to exchange intelligence. Unthinkable 10 years ago. Then we have bubbling up all over the country so-called persistent offender projects, of which you may have heard, where you have dedicated teams of police officers, quite often drawn from CID, and probation officers, sometimes working together with nurses from the health service (because quite often the candidates are persistent offenders addicted to class-A drugs), who target relatively small caseloads of persistent offenders either subject to community penalties or subject to licence following release from imprisonment. It is a sticks-and-carrot operation: they tell the offenders, "You are being subject to surveillance, we are watching you. If you want to address your drug addiction, we will provide additional resources to assist you, we will fast-track you into services so as to address all of that, but if you fail to comply, if we have evidence that you are "at it", you will be whipped back into prison fairly rapidly." So it is a sticks-and-carrot operation jointly conducted by probation and police services. Once again, unthinkable 10 years ago. So I think it has changed a great deal.
  (Mr Ramell) I just wanted to add perhaps another important development, which again is in the general direction that Professor Morgan mentions, which is the increasing emphasis in work with victims. Victim issues have an increasing emphasis in probation work, both in terms of work with offenders in ensuring that they are made fully aware of the effect of their offence on the victim—and our inspections show that although that work is sometimes not as fully done as it might be, it is certainly moving in the right direction and increasingly it is being covered—and the other issue being the direct contact which probation services now have with victims of serious sexual and violent offences, both in informing them of the process of the case with which they are involved and in seeking their views and concerns about the release of the offender and licence conditions which will be applied. Those victim emphases and issues, again, are moving in the same direction, moving away from any excessive focus on the offender or the client and towards the probation service intervening on behalf of society as a whole, both for the victim and to reduce re-offending.


  83. Going back to the newspaper misrepresentation, does that phrase so-and-so "walked free from court with only 200 hours community service" irritate you?

  (Professor Morgan) I think it is offensive. I think it is offensive in view of the dedicated work undertaken by the probation service to provide programmes that are challenging and demanding—in many respects more demanding than simply banging someone up for three months in an environment where nothing is going to be done in the current climate to address their offending behaviour.

  84. I have lost count of the number of times it has appeared in my local newspaper. It seems every trainee sub-journalist has to have that drummed into him.
  (Professor Morgan) Yes. I agree. I mean, I would like to see a documentary television series undertaken on the work of the probation service which would effectively communicate. There would be risks attached to this but nevertheless it would address precisely this sort of issue.

  Chairman: It would have to go out on prime time to make any impact, I am afraid. It would be a good idea.

  Bob Russell

  85. Chairman, perhaps every journalist should be required to go on a probation course to see what it actually means to "walk free".

  (Professor Morgan) I think every journalist should undertake a community punishment order!

  David Winnick

  86. There was a film made—perhaps before your time—in 1950 with Joan Collins being put on probation, I Believe In You. I see one of your colleagues nodding.

  (Mr Hutchings) I have heard of it but I have not seen it.
  (Professor Morgan) I assure you that John Hutchings is not that old!

  Chairman: Do you have a question?

  David Winnick

  87. Yes—you were the one who asked about the media and I just put that in. The fact of the matter is, as the Chairman has said, his local paper, and that would also apply to local papers up and down the country, suggest this but is it not the fact of the matter that so many of our own constituents do believe and believe very strongly that a non-custodial sentence means that the person is receiving no form of punishment. My question to you is: How far can the Government do more to try to persuade people that a non-custodial sentence is a form of punishment and an effective form of punishment?

  (Professor Morgan) I think I can only reiterate some of what I have already said. If you are subject to a community rehabilitation order today and it requires you to take part in an accredited programme, group programme, you are going to have to spend many hours uncomfortably discussing your offence and the impact it was likely to have had on the victim, in a group situation, with others, where any attempt that you make to dismiss lightly any of that or to attempt to be unthinking about it is going to be effectively challenged. That is a very discomforting experience. I have now spoken to a sufficient number of offenders who have undergone that experience and heard them talking about how it has changed their attitudes and how demanding they found it, to be convinced that if candidates who had undergone that experience talked publicly to sentencers—as in some parts of the country they do, incidentally—that would greatly impact sentencers' views about the nature of some community penalties. If we found ways of doing it in magazine articles or in a documentary series or in occasional newspaper features—and that is the scope for this: we are not going to get much attention paid to the work of the probation service in news reports but the way to do it, I think, is in more in-depth articles and features about the background to it—then I think that would change people's views that this is simply a let off or that people have walked free, particularly if that is accompanied by the reality with which I know you are much preoccupied of what is currently going on within the prison system. The prison system is doing an increasingly better job, which is now being threatened by the increasing numbers.

  88. The general impression—and I do not know whether it is shared by my colleagues or not—is that someone on community service—after a delay, which has already been mentioned, before they start this community service—does some sort of work in a old people's home, does a bit of gardening, perhaps lacks supervision, and all the rest of it. Inconvenient for the person who has offended but, nevertheless, at the end of the day, it does not really amount to much.
  (Mr Hutchings) First of all, coming back to a community punishment order, the person would be expected to start work within 10 days of the order being made.

  89. In practice, does that happen?
  (Professor Morgan) In the majority of cases.
  (Mr Hutchings) I would think in the majority of cases that would happen. I have inspected community punishment order work in a great number of different probation services. I have inspected in Sunderland, Chairman, as part of that, and there is some very demanding work that goes on, physical labour does take place. There are examples of working in homes for older people and in looking after them and performing some tasks which are demanding in a different sort of way and challenging for the offenders concerned. But I do not see those as easy options or people sitting round with nothing to do. There is a clear expectation that the probation service should arrange a minimum of five hours work per week for them during the time they are on the community punishment order. People do have to turn up to do it at weekends and in some cases in the evenings as well. But the reality is that it is not really a soft option for people to do.

  90. Do we have any statistics about the number who have received non-custodial orders who have re-offended again?
  (Professor Morgan) Yes. Those were the figures to which we referred earlier, where the target is the 5 per cent reduction and where we were pointing out that the early data coming through are relatively promising in terms of achievement against that target, albeit they are only over a two-year follow-up period and they are from a 1997 base, which means that most of the people we are tracking there will not have done the accredited programmes to which we were earlier referring. But it looks relatively promising in relation to that target.

  91. Better than the re-offending rate or less than the re-offending rate of those who go to prison?
  (Professor Morgan) That remains to be seen as to how it compares between the two. This Committee drew attention to the fact—and I know you pressed my predecessor on this—that the overall rate for custodial and non-custodial was broadly similar. Of course, as this Committee fully appreciates, there are other considerations, not least the direct and indirect costs. But the early data available for non-custodial penalties we think will show that there will be some differences in future, but that remains to be seen. I would like to underline in relation to your community punishment question the points we have been making earlier, that a very high proportion of the offenders undertaking community punishment orders are low risk, who arguably should not be doing it, who arguably could be fined, who arguably, according to all the risk assessment data, do not have significant criminogenic factors that need to be addressed by more demanding provision and intervention and costly intervention. So the probation service has plans for this enhanced community punishment which will mean greater intervention in the average case for someone undertaking a community punishment order, but it will not make sense for that to be applied for very low risk offenders who frankly do not need that intervention.

  Chairman: Let us hope the judges and the magistrates get the message on that.

  David Winnick

  92. But they will only get the message as the Chairman has mentioned when public opinion is sufficiently of the view that a non-custodial sentence for people who are not so low risk is really effective.

  (Professor Morgan) No, no, I am talking about the other end of the continuum: they will only get the message when fines are enforceable.


  93. May I just bounce off you one or two points made by Mr Watson, to whom we referred earlier, the probation officer from North London who wrote to me. He said, "What is very striking about the current way of working is that ... it is more and more mechanistic and regarded as a purely administrative task: the idea seems to be to put more and more of our work onto computers and soon anyone who can read a questionnaire to an offender and type out the result can write a pre-sentence report, and the computer system will come up with the "correct" sentence to recommend to the court. It feels rather like diagnosing a fault in, say, a motorcar—and I have no doubt that this works well with a motorcar." [4] What do you say to that?

  (Professor Morgan) I do not know Mr Watson but I suspect that Mr Watson is part of a minority of probation officers who have been resistant to the changes that have taken place, many of which I have to say I think were necessary. I mean, I think there was a time when probation was regarded as a sort of professional art form in which individual probation officers engaged in isolation, with no one very clear as to precisely what they did with their individual caseload in the privacy of their consulting room and where we did not have much evidence about the impact. If we are going to persuade the Treasury that more resources should be devoted to the probation service and if we are going to re-allocate resources within the overall correctional services budget, then it is incumbent on the probation service to demonstrate that (a) it is delivering something which we can recognise and (b) that it is having an impact, and that necessarily means that we have to record rather more than we did hitherto and it possibly means setting one or two targets and measuring outcomes in relation to them. I am familiar with all the traditional arguments about target-setting and the merits and the demerits, of course we are all familiar with those, but I think that in the case of the probation service it was necessary to have certain targets and it was certainly necessary to have standards.

  94. One final shot from Mr Watson: "We should get the offender round to our way of thinking, get them to realise that it will be in their best interests to work with us to reduce their problems and thus their offending, and get them to actively cooperate with the process and to give their consent to any order made."

  (Mr Hutchings) I do know Mr Watson, and I have great respect for him actually. My own perception of going out and observing interviews with offenders under the supervision of probation officers is that is the actual process which continues to operate, in contact between probation officers and the people whom they are supervising, and that any suggestions to become a totally mechanistic process is not how I would perceive it as operating. He has talked about reports in terms of filling in a template or to do them. This is something which I think the London probation area took on from the initiative which was originally driven in Cornwall, where the design of a template to produce reports did actually lead to a dramatic high increase in the quality of the reports being produced without in any way taking away totally the idea of people being able to write their own reports within that framework.

  95. I just wanted to put those points to you, since Mr Watson took the trouble to write to us.
  (Professor Morgan) If I could just add that perhaps the concerns that Mr Watson has are concerns that we propose closely addressing in our new inspection programme. We talked a little bit about this earlier: we propose in future reaching behind the performance data, so there is a requirement in the standard that an offender should meet their supervisor each week. That test, if it is simply measured in terms of appointments arranged, is very simply complied with: you give the offender a list of 12 dates, saying, "This is when your appointments are." But of course the important things are (a) whether they take place, (b) their duration, and (c) the quality of the work that is undertaken during the contact. It is precisely that at which we intend to be looking closely in our new inspection programme.

  Chairman: I am grateful for that. On that note, we conclude. Thank you very much for coming, gentlemen.

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