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Last Updated: Monday, 6 November 2006, 21:53 GMT
Interview with Avon and Somerset Probation Services
Jeanette Whitford, chief officer of Avon and Somerset Probation Area
Panorama's reporter Paul Kenyon interviewed Jeanette Whitford, the chief officer of probation for Avon and Somerset Probation Area which runs both the hostels where Panorama went undercover.

PAUL KENYON: When we're told that offenders are monitored and supervised in approved premises, what does that mean?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: I think the first thing to understand is that an approved premise is not a prison and it's not a police station. Offenders are kept a close eye on and they are expected to comply with hostel rules and to be in the hostel at certain times. Certainly overnight when there is a curfew imposed. And to ensure that they are talking to the staff about where they're going and what they are doing.

PAUL KENYON: Supervised and monitored though, what does it really mean on a day to day level? All we've seen is people signing in during the day, occasionally, and meeting a curfew?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Supervision means a number of things. One of the things that will happen, and it is always the starting point, is that risk assessment is done to ensure that we pull together all the information that we know about the offender who is coming into the hostel.

That information will then dictate what sort of supervision, what sort of intervention, takes place, how often they will meet with their key worker. They will have a hostel key worker who will be meeting with them, reviewing their progress, probably at least once a week, quite apart from the normal day to day working of just being in the same building as someone. That kind of information will be shared and worked with.

They will also be meeting their probation officer, they will also be doing other bits of work in relation to their offending and work that needs to be done to reduce their offending. So supervision can mean a lot of different things, depending on the sort of offender you're dealing with and the level of risk that they present.

Our primary concern is to manage public protection and to do that on the basis of assessing the information that we know and putting that into the risk assessment to determine what happens next.

PAUL KENYON: Isn't it the case though that high risk offenders are basically out in the community during the day? There is no supervision, there is no monitoring. Once they're outside the hostel you don't know what they're doing?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: When people are outside the hostel my staff will not be following them around, they're not allowed to do that. That is not what hostel staff or probation staff do.

PAUL KENYON: But nobody's following them around are they? They're not being supervised at that point?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: They're not being followed around by probation staff because that's not what we are required to do.

PAUL KENYON: But they're not being supervised and monitored in any way once they're out of the building are they?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Monitoring in those terms does not mean following the offender around, so that's absolutely clear. Some of the offenders will be going to their jobs. They will be in work and they will be doing their jobs. So we will know exactly where they are.

PAUL KENYON: But once they're out in-between signings during the day, in what way are they being monitored and supervised then?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: They're not being followed around, so that's absolutely right to say they're not being followed around. Because that's not what is required of probation or hostel staff. Because they are not police officers, they are not prison officers, what we are providing in the hostels is a measure of supervision.

It's not 24 hour supervision and I think that's what people don't necessarily understand. People think that when offenders are being supervised they are going to be tracked 24 hours a day and that is simply not the case.

PAUL KENYON: You can understand the public would think that the kind of phrases the Home Office uses would mean that they're safe. I mean phrases like, 'carefully supervised', 'closely monitored', 'intensive risk management', all this seems to suggest that we're safe from these people, they are being watched, but they're not.

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Well they are ... They are being monitored and they are being supervised but that may ...

PAUL KENYON: But only when they're in the hostel?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: ... but that may not mean that they are being followed around and that we know what they're doing every moment of the day. That is probably a very unrealistic expectation on behalf of the public.

There will be, from time to time, surveillance that is taking place as a result of us working very closely with our colleagues in the police but that probably will be on a very, very, small number of offenders who present the absolute highest level of risk. Because you will understand that that certainly will take an enormous amount of resource and if we did put resources into that then clearly there would be other choices that would have to be made.

PAUL KENYON: Do you think these wordings are accurate though, do you think that really the words a little bit optimistic perhaps?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: I don't think it's about optimism, I think it's about an understanding, and I do think that there is a lack of understanding about the sort of work that probation does, whether that's with offenders in hostels or in the community, I think that's absolutely clear that there is a misunderstanding about what supervision means.

I know when I talk to people, when I talk to victims, when I talk to offenders, that people do not necessarily understand that supervision may mean contact, may mean finding out what people are doing, but will not actually mean following them around every moment of the day.

PAUL KENYON: Do you think that the public's being mislead because we all have this perception they are being followed around and they're watched and closely supervised. Do you think it's the language that has misled us?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: It's not an issue of misleading and I don't create that language. I do the job that I'm required to do with my staff members, doing that to the very best of their ability, and I believe your reporter has already indicated the dedication and knowledge that the staff bring to their work. I think people do not understand what it is probation does, and can do with what we work with. And I think that is probably the issue but it's not about misleading anybody. If anybody wants to come and talk to me about how we work with offenders and what supervision and monitoring means then I will be very happy to talk to the public, and indeed I do that.

PAUL KENYON: How comfortable are you with the idea that we're safe from some of the high risk offenders in your patch during the day?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: We can't eliminate all risk. People would love us to be able to say 'nothing bad will ever happen' and obviously planes do crash sometimes, houses do burn down sometimes. It's unrealistic to say that we will eliminate all risk.

What we can do, and I think what we do, do, is make sure that we gather the information that we need to have, put that together to make the very best picture about an offender so that we can make proper measured professional decisions based on the level of risk that they present at any one time. But we won't be able to guarantee that sometimes something might go wrong.

PAUL KENYON: We've seen a paedophile killer who's in the care of your probation area out during the day, mixing with children, taking photos of children, where's the supervision in that?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Well at that moment I guess the supervision was by your reporters and I would have expected that if you were seeing things happening that were in your view inappropriate then I would very much have liked to have had that information.

PAUL KENYON: We informed the police as you know. But if we hadn't been there who was watching these people during the day, that's the point?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: No, the information was not passed to the probation staff, I don't know whether you passed it to other people, but it wasn't passed to probation staff to enable us to ensure that we have the best information to make the risk assessment.

PAUL KENYON: But I think people watching will be alarmed that had we not been there he'd still be doing that right now, there's no other reason for anybody to know what he was doing, apart from the fact that the BBC was there. You can't be reliant on the BBC to do the surveillance.

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Absolutely not, but if you were producing information which you felt raised the level of risk, or you were seeing something which you thought raised the level of risk, then certainly we would have needed to have that information in order to take some action, which undoubtedly we would have done.

PAUL KENYON: If the BBC doesn't have these people under our watchful eye during the day, who does?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Offenders are not monitored 24 hours a day.

PAUL KENYON: But who's watching them just during the day?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: During the day people are not watching offenders, because that is not what is required, they are not in prison. They are not in prison so we are not following them around and watching them.

What we are doing is knowing about the offenders, knowing them quite well because we are living with them in the hostels, and understanding information that is given to us. And that's what we have to do to make the risk assessments in order to make the very best professional decisions. Now the offender that you mention, as far as I am aware, unless you have other information, did not commit any offences.

PAUL KENYON: You say it's not against his license conditions, how appropriate is it do you think for a paedophile killer to be playing with children during the day and taking their photos?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Again, if you have that information I think that's information that you should pass back to the probation service.

PAUL KENYON: But if it's not against his license what would you expect to do with it?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: We would certainly take action if it was against his license, if there were warning signs that we knew about and maybe that's information that you've uncovered, you should give that to us because then we can put the whole picture together. That's what's important, that we put that picture together to enable us to take the most appropriate decisions in that particular circumstance.

PAUL KENYON: This paedophile killer had a young woman in his room at the hostel, taking pictures of her semi-nude. Most people would imagine that would get him recalled to prison, but it didn't.

JEANETTE WHITFORD: The context of that is that this young woman was somebody that he knew, she was over the age of consent, she was an adult, and she consented to the activity. It was against the rules of the hostel, it was against the rules, no doubt about that.

That was then considered as to whether that constituted sufficient risk to have him recalled. A decision was made that in that circumstance, although he had been very foolish, clearly no offence had been committed, and he was actually doing this on behalf of somebody else.

He was not committing an offence and it was not a vulnerable young person who was being brought into the hostel.

He should not have taken somebody into his room, that's absolutely clear. That was reported to the Home Office in the normal way, as we would always report routinely on incidents that occur. On that occasion, quite properly in my view, a risk assessment was made and he was not recalled.

PAUL KENYON: How appropriate do you think are bail hostels in dealing with high risk offenders like these?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: They're not bail hostels, I think that's an old fashioned term, these are hostels which are increasingly geared up to working with the most serious offenders, and staff become very expert.

Your own reporter indicated that our staff were very knowledgeable in the work that they did and that they work carefully and understand the remit that they are given to work with the most serious offenders.

PAUL KENYON: Do you think you have the resources to deal with the high risk offenders that you're dealing with, because I know that you've said before that perhaps the resources were more appropriate for lower risk offenders, more traditional fare, if you like, of bail hostels.

JEANETTE WHITFORD: I don't think that's what I've said, I think what I have said is that clearly we manage the resources that we are given. That means we must prioritise the workload and the workforce. Yes, of course, sometimes the resources don't follow the work that we actually have to do, but if you asked me, if you asked anybody, a chief constable, a teacher, a nurse, if they wanted more resources yes, of course we would have more resources and we'd use them well.

PAUL KENYON: But it says that your funding formula doesn't fully reflect the offending profile of the people that you're working with. Can we not read into that that these are higher risk offenders than you are really set to deal with in terms of your resources?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: No, I think what it reflects is an old formula which is currently being reviewed which does not reflect the cases which happen to be managed in Avon and Somerset.

PAUL KENYON: Is it not the case that you've had increasingly high risk offenders to manage over the years?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Over the years certainly the work of the probation service has changed, and, yes, we now work far more with higher risk offenders, but also we have had increasing resources.

We have had extra staff, staff I think are much better trained than they were, and they're not now dealing with the low risk social work, high need offenders, that we might have been dealing with when I first qualified.

PAUL KENYON: At Ashley House, the staff there know that there are people who are daily testing positive for heroin, who go out and steal to fund their habit, and very little seems to be done about it.

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Ashley House has a programme which is about dealing, long-term, with offenders who have quite entrenched drug problems. That is the kind of person that goes into that hostel.

The work with those offenders is based on people who've got serious drug problems usually, and who by the very nature of the problem may well lapse from time to time.

So drug testing, which is done randomly, is an important part of the regime, as is doing room searches. I think what that brings is honesty into the relationship of working with offenders because if an offender tested positive and we're able to say that, then I think that enables us to do more realistic work with those offenders. I think it's not accurate, it's not true to say that action isn't taken, that people don't understand what's going on.

PAUL KENYON: What kind of action is taken?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Well action would be taken in relation to working with the other professionals, the drug experts, the people who know how to work best with offenders. Action will be taken with the GP who comes to the hostel, who provides services and who may prescribe drugs for some of these offenders, quite properly. I mean the ultimate action is that offenders are recalled if they are not co-operating. Home Office guidance tells us that we should not be recalling people if they are testing positive unless they are clearly not co-operating and that present a picture of risk. I can tell you that over the last six months, 25 offenders have been recalled from Ashley House alone, I think that demonstrates that when things are not going as they should do, that offenders know, and they know this from the very beginning, that they will be recalled to prison. Action will be taken.

PAUL KENYON: Shouldn't it be the case that anybody who tests positive for heroin, a Class A drug, should be challenged at the very least about their behaviour?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Oh certainly, I mean, that's the whole point of drug testing.

PAUL KENYON: Otherwise there is no point is there?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: The whole point of drug testing is that you are able to work with the facts of the offenders situation, so drug testing is important.

It may not be challenged by the person who does the test, it's more likely that it will be challenged by the people who are the experts, the drug professionals who come in to the hostel to do work with offenders, by the key worker or by the probation officer, or all three, so I think that's the issue.

It may not be tested, it may not be challenged there and then on that moment, but the information is then used to enable the active and proper work to be done with an offender, given the information that we have.

PAUL KENYON: Some of these individuals go out and commit persistent crime to pay for their habit, indeed it's the only way they're going to get their drugs in the first place, the people in your hostels. The staff know that and feel helpless to do anything about it.

JEANETTE WHITFORD: They may assume that offences may be committed to fund a drug habit, and that is why offenders come into the hostel, and that we work carefully with them on their drug problems in order to reduce offending and to stop it.

PAUL KENYON: But they know it really, don't they, but it's the only way they can get hold of drugs?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Of course it isn't the only way, some of these offenders are working, some of these offenders are getting into debt, some of them are borrowing money from their friends and their families in order to fund their habit. Yes, it is quite possible that some offenders are offending, but if they are then we can take action if we have evidence of that.

But if we have no evidence we may make assumptions, but that's not the same as being able to deal with it. What we do is work with those offenders in the way that I've explained to you to ensure that wherever we can, we can challenge them very effectively, and robustly.

PAUL KENYON: How do you challenge them?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: The challenge is about what the lifestyle is, what's happening in their lives, how are they, what's their motivation, how are they behaving, what symptoms and signs are they presenting about themselves? All of those things, including the drug testing that takes place are put together to build the picture. Many offenders will say, 'yes I am using again', and that enables us to work with them positively. If that's not happening then we may need to review the level of risk that poses and how we work with them.

PAUL KENYON: Are you happy that people who persistently take drugs in your hostels are being punished or they're being penalised effectively?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: You're assuming there that people are taking drugs in the hostels. That is possible but we do not follow them around, we do not have cameras in their bedrooms and we're not allowed to do body searches.

PAUL KENYON: Why aren't you allowed to do body searches?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: We're not allowed to do body searches because we're not operating a prison, this is a hostel, and people might wish that could happen but that's not what we are allowed to do.

PAUL KENYON: Is it your interpretation that it's against the Human Rights Act?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: That's just not the regime that we have to run, so whether it's against the Human Rights Act is another matter entirely.

PAUL KENYON: Yes but I'm genuinely interested in why, because a number of staff said, 'we're not allowed to search', and I just wondered if it was the feeling at the moment within probation that you'd probably get challenged on that?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: No, no, absolutely not, that's why we do random room searches, that's why we take people off if they're dealing, clearly have positive drug tests and so on.

PAUL KENYON: But if somebody's in your hostel and you're highly suspicious, even with evidence, that they are carrying drug paraphernalia, would you be allowed to stop and search?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: That would be an issue for the police and we would have to call the police and then ask them to search them. I mean that clearly is unrealistic. From time to time, yes, in the hostel, drugs paraphernalia is found, but if you don't know who left it, if you don't know who's paraphernalia it is, that is not evidence that any particular individual has committed an offence.

PAUL KENYON: No, but drug taking is an offence in itself and you have evidence of drug taking, don't you?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Drug taking is an offence, drug dealing is an offence, what we have to do is work with the offenders who are tackling their drug problems, and that's why we work so carefully with them. And there's very clear guidance, actually, from the Home Office about how we do that and.. and how we must work as hard as we possibly can to ensure that offenders are challenged properly, that their offending is challenged always and that we take that up with them.

PAUL KENYON: Isn't it the case that a lot of these conditions of offenders' licences are just unenforceable?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by enforceable, really. Our job is to enforce the licence conditions as far as we can, so if we know that somebody is applying for a job to work in a children's home, for example, then clearly we would stop that, and we would ensure that that did not happen.

PAUL KENYON: But if they're barred from travelling to a certain town for instance, that is unenforceable, isn't it?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: Well, it's not for me to enforce with my staff.

PAUL KENYON: But who is it to enforce?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: I think you have to ask others that question.

PAUL KENYON: But who do you think is enforcing it?

JEANETTE WHITFORD: That's not a question that I can answer. That's a question for others. What I can enforce are the things that are within my control, and some of those things are within my control. Other things may be enforced by other organisations, but I can enforce the ones that I'm expected to within the rules that I am expected to operate.


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