Chris Grayling, the Minister of Justice, has two big ideas. The first is Payment by Results and we all know what a roaring success that’s proved to be over at his last job with the Department for Work and Pensions. The other big idea concerns old lags. He keeps talking about them and how he sees them as being absolutely key in being able to deliver his Rehabilitation Revolution. Here he is talking to the Justice Affairs Select Committee last month and quoted on the aged member speaks blog:-
“I’m a great believer that the best mentor for a young offender is an old lag gone straight or a former gang member who’s left the gang and tries to encourage the young gang member to do the same. Now what I don’t want to do is to have a situation where in order to start delivering mentoring support, offender management support in the kind of lower risk groups that you have to have a kind of a three year degree course because that rather kind of removes the ability of the old lag to do the job. But at the same time we need to make sure that that those people do get training in how to spot problems so what we will be looking for in the contracting process is an understanding of how you ensure that you equip your people to spot the problems that when you need to call up the corridor to the public protection guy, say that this one you need to take a look at for me. How we continue to develop a very high quality specialist profession in the public protection roles and we will be looking for ideas in the development of people and how that will happen in the bidding process…”
Now first off many people find the term old lag unhelpful and insulting, conjuring up as it does ancient images of Fletch out of the BBC1 comedy series Porridge. In fact here’s an open letter to Chris Grayling from an old lag and making their displeasure clear. It begins:-
“Dear Mr Grayling,
I read with great interest your speech on Tuesday. As someone who has been to prison, and now recruits and trains mentors, I am doing the work you want to encourage. But I find your description of me as an ‘old lag’ offensive and ignorant, adding as it does to the prejudice and discrimination that people who have served a sentence have to endure.”
It’s unfortunate to say the least that the Justice Minister is so ill-informed and ill-considered in his use of such terminology that disrepute is likely to be attracted to both himself and his department, but he does of course have the germ of a good idea. This was picked up recently by Professor Senior writing on his Yorkhull Blog on the topic of peer mentoring. Like most things, it’s not a new idea and had been pioneered within probation many years ago:-
Mentoring of course is not a new idea even if this nomenclature has been coined more recently. I go back to 1975 when I first started as a probation volunteer and befriended young clients on behalf of the probation officer. The role of ‘advice, assist and befriend’ is at the heart of the traditions of the probation service and until relatively recently probation volunteers were a significant part of the supervision armoury. In the late 70s I initiated a programme funded through the Manpower Services Commission called ‘Octopus’. This meant we employed two ex-offenders as assistant supervisors in a voluntary day/drop-in centre. It was a challenging experiment not only for the individuals concerned but the probation officers too who, though used to finding clients employment elsewhere, were somewhat disconcerted to find that that employment was in their own agency. Indeed to some officers attending a case conference for their client when the supervisors were present was often a bridge too far.
The piece goes on to explain in some detail how peer mentors and volunteers can indeed play an important role in rehabilitation, but it has to be undertaken properly and cannot be the ‘quick fix’ Mr Grayling seems to imply. It concludes by saying:-
I am totally in favour of the use of both mentors and peer mentors in the criminal justice system. I think they have a valuable role to play which compliments and enhances the case management undertaken by the public services. There is a real danger however that in a rush to make such assistance available across the whole of the criminal justice system within a short period of time it will lose the careful and incremental way in which peer mentoring systems have been nurtured so far. I think we must be very careful not to make the system untenable before it has had a reasonable chance to succeed. Whilst Grayling has hit upon a germ of an idea in executing that thought he is in real danger of damaging its very prospect of success.
Yet another example of how ill-thought-out the plans to privatise probation are.
Sign the No10 petition here.
Courtesy of Jim Brown of On Probation Blog