Wednesday 21 September
THE SPACE AGE DAWNS ON THE PRISON
At the Zahid Mubarek inquiry this week, a panel of experts
discussed how information systems in prisons could be improved.
Round a table sat furry-eyebrowed inquiry chair Justice Keith
and a group of earnest robot officials in charge of the National
Offender Management Service Information System (NOMIS for short)
which aims to drag the Prison Service away from the prehistoric
paper era into the digital age.
This dramatic leap in civilisation from the messy files of
yesteryear to dazzling online databases was almost too much to
Justice Keith said he wanted to look at information-sharing in
NOMS (which he pronounced ‘gnomes’ – was a jolly
little man with a red nose a far more pleasant concept than the
looming digital age?).
Then the robots launched into much talk about the joys of NOMIS,
extolling the delights of “business process,”
“automating property,” and “non-association
While Justice Keith promised the session was not going to be
about “blue-sky thinking,” it flew higher and higher
into outer space as the afternoon progressed.
“It’s click as much as it is type,” NOMS
official Michael Spurr enthused.
He then went into the realms of Star Wars, suggesting the
introduction of a new species known as “free walkers”
who would walk up and down helping staff to come to grips with the
When Spurr mentioned the formidable-sounding concept of
“data migration,” Justice Keith, for all his eminent
brain, had to stop him and admit it was a phrase he was “not
so familiar with.”
Canadian NOMIS whizz Randy Fediuk (that is his real name) droned in
Dalek-tones: “Some of the functionality is already there, it
is just obviously they have to work it into the business change
that has to take place. Automating property and visits, things of
that nature, those are being done annually now and the training
that has to take place is obviously huge, so they are staging the
release of those models even though they are finished to further in
the future so they can train everybody in the timeframe that they
have to get them off the legacy systems.”
Justice Keith seemed hypnotised by this, merely answering:
When asked what would happen to prison paper records when the
digital revolution came, Fediuk chillingly declared: “They
will never be destroyed.”
Inquiry member Alistair Papps expressed concerns that the
“neanderthals” among prison staff could feel
“left out” of the New Age of Randy if they were not IT
Justice Keith mused: “The younger one is these days, the
more one is computer literate. The difference between our
generation, Alistair, and our children is astonishing”.
He was intercepted by bullish Prison Officer’s Association
chair Colin Moses, (uncharacteristically quiet until this point)
who dryly remarked: “If you look at people who are buying
computers it is usually pensioners.”
After reflecting on the changes on the prison services since he
joined 20 years ago, Moses concluded that it was no longer
And the robots and Justice Keith and his cronies all
Monday 22 August
Oh to be in England, now the silly season is here. While parliament
has disappeared for the summer and the Prime Minister is snapped by
paparazzi showing off his chest hair on holiday, newspapers are
struggling more than usual to fill their pages.
A diet of terror, terror and yet more terror is bound to give
readers indigestion, some editors seem to fear. Without the usual
human zoo of parliament to entertain them, step in the next best
thing – animals.
“CAT ATTACKED BY YOBS” screamed one of many juicy
headlines in the midst of sunny England this week, courtesy of the
Suffolk Evening Star.
A cat named Harry was said to be recovering after suffering
“horrific” injuries in what his owner believed was an
attack by “yobs.”
The cat allegedly suffered a broken hip, broken jaw, broken ribs
and lost several teeth in the incident. Harry’s jaw needed to
be wired up and he needed staples in his wounds.
His owner, who wished to remain nameless through fear of
repercussions, said she believed Harry was targeted by drunken
“yobos” walking home from town last Friday night .
She told the Suffolk Evening Star: “He can’t eat anything and
finds it difficult to even drink, meaning that he is very weak and
is sleeping most of the time.
“He is fairly happy to be home and he still finds the time to
purr and enjoy our fuss over him.
“What upsets us more than anything is that the lady who rescued
him told us that Harry was rolled up into a ball like a hedgehog
and that he was in no way run over by a car, more like attacked by
yobos who use the footpath after a binge drinking night and
regularly intimidate other walkers there.
“We often hear the yobos shouting and showing off in the early
hours at this footpath.”
Is the journalist desperate for a job on the Daily Mail?
Other headlines this week:
SNAKES ARE INVADING NORWICH HOMES – “In days gone
by, the most exotic animals people found in their back gardens were
hedgehogs, but now it appears snakes have taken over.”
(Norwich Evening News)
GOOSE GETS INTO ANOTHER FINE MESS – “A pet goose
named after one half of comic duo Laurel and Hardy has found itself
in a fine mess after it flapped its wings, realised it could fly
and disappeared from its home.”
(Norwich Evening News)
WELLARD THE DUCK MURDERED – “A duck which survived
having a screwdriver embedded in its side for more than a year has
been found shot dead.”
Come back Mr Blair, all is forgiven…
Wednesday 27 July
Despite behaving antisocially, the great Asbo czar
Louise Casey has kept her job because Tony Blair loves her,
Could the reason be that antisocial behaviour policies are now
the last hope in New Labour’s rapidly sinking ship, and are
therefore treated with impunity?
The war on Iraq, Blair’s love affair with George Bush,
much-criticised anti-terror legislation and now the shooting of an
innocent man as part of the “war on terror” are making
New Labour look decidedly ropey.
But good old Asbos are still riding strong – hence La
Casey keeps her job despite making an antisocial shambles of
herself and being named and shamed by that supposed bastion of
Civilised Behaviour, The Daily Mail.
While everything else about New Labour may be savaged by
parliament, the public and the media, antisocial behaviour still
rules the populist roost – and it seems the government will
do everything it can to keep it that way.
Criticism of the policy seems to be increasingly taboo, started
by the bizarre chorus of agreement between the so-called
“watchdog” of the government, the home affairs select
committee and the government itself in the recent inquiry into
Many well-respected organisations and frontline workers provided
the inquiry with enough evidence to shoot antisocial behaviour
policies to pieces, but their views were largely dismissed.
Further evidence of the government’s apparent conspiracy
to silence any criticism of Asbos for fear of further rocking their
ailing ship came this week amid claims that a critical study on
antisocial behaviour was allegedly “disowned” by the
Audit Commission as too controversial.
The study, by Judy Renshaw, then a senior manager at the Audit
Commission, writing in a personal capacity, Mike Thomas, vice-chair
of the association of youth offending team managers, and Msc
student Kim Vuong, found “scepticism” among YOT
managers about the effectiveness of Asbos. It also said generating
publicity about young people on Asbos was “clearly
The study, commissioned by the Association of Youth Offending
Team Managers, was eventually published by NACRO in Safer Society
magazine last year after the Audit Commission decided not to
A little bird with links to the Association of YOT managers,
told me recently that the Audit Commission had refused to publish
it because it was “too controversial.”
While the Commission denied the claims, Renshaw, who has since
left the Commission, admitted that the decision not to publish
“may have been influenced by entrenched opinions from certain
Renshaw said: “If the study had been published by the
Commission it would have got the publicity it deserved. There is a
lot of hot air about Asbos from all sides of the political
spectrum, and this would have been a useful addition to the
Debate? What debate?
Is it coincidental that “hot air” rhymes with
Tuesday 5 July
The newly updated “who’s who at the LGA” leaflet,
available on their website, cites – among the other
responsibilities of newly promoted deputy chief executive John
Ransford – “pubic health”. Lovely. It’s not
often you see that classic typo and it’s a real pleasure when
it crops up. Actually it appeared in an intro in Community
Care in 1991…..
Wednesday 29 June
In the Commons this week, home secretary Charles
Clarke was asked by Conservative MP Tim Boswell whether he was
concerned that the number of Asbos served on adults was being
overtaken by the number currently being served on children.
Boswell asked: “I am ready to concede that some of those
children may be right little perishers, but will he [Clarke] bear
in mind the fact that apparently, some of the children on whom
Asbos have been served are suffering from attention deficit or
other behavioural disorders? Will he therefore think seriously
about the absence of criminal intent, and the possible danger that
public authorities may be breaching the spirit of
Clarke replied: “With respect to the honourable gentlemen, I
must point out that even little perishers – however
charmingly we may choose to describe them- ought not to be
disrupting and making miserable the lives of others.”
Conveniently forgetting that breaching Asbos can lead to prison
sentences, Clarke uttered with pride New Labour’s addition to
the Ten Commandments: “Let us remember that the purpose of an
antisocial behaviour order is simply to say ‘you should
not commit antisocial behaviour’. It puts no penalty in
place and there is no prison sentence.”
Clarke blathered on: “If the young perishers of whom the
honourable gentlemen is so tolerant are going round making the
lives of individuals on the estate where they live a misery, in my
opinion it is right that there is a legal vehicle for saying
‘stop doing that’ – and that applies irrespective
If this wasn’t enough to turn any intelligent liberal purple
with incredulity, Elfyn Llwyd of Plaid Cymru asked: “Will the
home secretary speculate on how a properly directed tribunal could
ever slap an Asbo on a youngster for swearing when he suffers from
Clarke’s ears seemed to malfunction completely at this point,
as he launched into a long ramble on the “major difference in
the outcomes of particular localities” and said it was
important for the local police and local authority to work together
to put in place a regime “to attack antisocial
Having firmly kept on-message (was Louise Casey in fact hiding in a
moth-eaten cupboard in the Commons controlling Clarke’s
brain?) he then flew away into a cloud of vagueness, completely
failing to answer the question.
“To be quite candid, there is no universal position across
the country by any stretch of the imagination,” he continued.
“There is not even a universal position between parties in
the House. Some members of some political parties in the House and
in local authorities do not want to get in engaged in this sort of
work, while others do. I hope that [the government’s]
assessment [of Asbos] will reveal the variations that the
honourable gentleman described and enable us better to implement
what needs to be done.”
Mr Clarke is the proud recipient of this week’s best
parliamentary non-answer, and the prize is…an Asbo!
Thursday 23 June
Those of you who thought former chair of the health
select committee David Hinchliffe would be taking it easy after
standing down from politics would be greatly mistaken. Is he
swatting up on continuing care? Is he concentrating on how to deal
with an ageing population? No the former social worker is …wait
for it… rumoured to be aiming to prove that Robin Hood was a
Yorkshire man… You heard it here first!
Wednesday 22 June
When Dave met David…
Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, told UNISON’s annual
conference that he recently met David Blunkett, who told him he had
taken up bungee jumping. “It’s great,” Blunkett told Prentis. “It
scares the s**t out of the dog.”
GREMLINS ATTEND THE UNISON NATIONAL CONFERENCE FOR THE
Were gremlins invited to the UNISON annual conference? It seems
the little critters managed to infiltrate a computer system which
typed up text for delegates with hearing impairments simultaneously
on a big screen as speakers delivered their speeches.
Gremlins or not, the computer occasionally made goobledegook out
of the most lofty rhetoric.
During an impassioned speech on keeping far-right fascists out
of public services, the computer struggled to keep up, offering
translation: “Facests do not cake,” (or, fascists do not care).
A “district branch” became “doctor is tricked,” while the fairly
straightforward word “scapegoat” was slimmed down into “shape
goat,” and then hurriedly deleted and replaced with “scrap
This was truly “O di yus” (odious) behaviour by the gremlins in
Was it was anarchy at work, against the overwhelming “eye
dwyological” (ideological) one-sidedness of the speeches?
“We welcome the fat” (fact), declared one solemn speaker,
“with utmost serious mess.”
Many “pro po sowls”(proposals) were examined, along with a plea
for more “yootsh klurps” (youth clubs for gremlin teenagers?).
But the most stunning victory for the gremlins came when they
mistakenly rendered the name of one South African UNISON member as
“shock cash” – a subtle gremlin statement in agreement with
UNISON’s anti-privatisation agenda perhaps?
Thursday 9 June
A very high up source in the voluntary sector told me Paul
Goggins spoke in “platitudes” when he recently spoke
about his new role as minister with responsibility for voluntary
E-commerce was highlighted as one of the ways to bring the
voluntary sector forward into the “modern age” at the
ACEVO conference. But this seemed to be lost on new work and
pensions secretary David Blunkett as he addressed the issue of
electronic communication methods. With a non-too distant hint of
pure Luddite spirit, he told delegates at the ACEVO summer forum:
e-this and e-that. I call it e-bah-gum.” Not a promising
start for the man now in charge of one of the most infamously
incompetent computer systems responsible for the shambles of the
Child Support Agency…
Tuesday 24 May
I’ve never known the difference between social work in
Scotland and social work in the rest of the UK seem as stark as it
did at this month’s ADSW conference.
I wouldn’t say I’ve never heard a senior English social
services manager talk with pride of being a professional social
worker, but it hasn’t happened much. There’s a self
consciousness about being proud to be a social worker, probably
born of so much carping and cynicism from the media. Cynicism is
contagious as well as dangerous.
In Scotland, the ADSW (equivalent of ADSS) has commissioned a poem
“for the social workers of Scotland”. They probably did
it because they feel social work is beleaguered, but in fact it
just made it clear that it isn’t beleaguered at all in
comparison to the situation south of the border.
There isn’t space for the whole poem here (and it’s a
bit sentimental for my taste in places) but here are some
“We don’t give up, that nothing is easy
Makes it even better not to give up.
Everyone alive is subject to change.
Hope lies where you least expect it.
There will never be a paradise with people like angels
Walking and singing through forests of music,
But let us have the decency of a society
That helps those who cannot help themselves.”
(From Brothers and Keepers, by Edwin Morgan)
It’s moving stuff actually, and I feel I must be on shaky
ground calling it sentimental, as Edwin Morgan is the Scots
equivalent of the poet laureate, but I did have a few doubts about
its artistic merits.
At the conference there was a quote from the poem on the Powerpoint
backdrop to every session. It’s just unimaginable that ADSS
would do something like that. Actually, you can kind of imagine
Tony Hunter suggesting it, but everybody else disagreeing.
You’d never get the title past the political correctness
vetting procedure anyway (I’ve noticed before that the Scots
really don’t bother with PC – and I don’t mean
that as a compliment).
But it’s funny how people show their confidence when they
think their backs are to the wall. Actually in Scotland they
don’t know they’re born in terms of public esteem,
professional identity – and even investment, but don’t
tell them I said that. So no surprises that at the same conference
the chair of the Scottish executive’s 21st Century Review of
Social Work (of course, you have to believe social work exists in
order to review it, so no surprises there isn’t an English
equivalent) announced that having considered whether or not a
unifying profession of social work still existed, the review had
decided that it does.
Interestingly, the most passionate tribute to social workers
I’ve heard for a long time in England came at Community Care
Live from Jane Campbell, chair of SCIE and a user of social care
services – but not a social worker herself. You
couldn’t write a sentimental poem about someone like Jane
– in fact the very idea is so ridiculous it makes you realise
how dangerous sentimentality can be. But there’s no doubt
social work in England needs to find its own voice.
Anyway, don’t take my word on the poem – read it
Friday 20 May
“Yesterday I witnessed quite an unusual sight at
Community Care Live. Liam Byrne the new community care
minister, walked out to meet his seated audience at his address to
Community Care Live in the manner of a pop concert
performer. Stephen Ladyman’s successor took the roving mike
walkabouts amidst delegates at the conference in his debut
appearance to the social care sector. Watch this space readers –
maybe this time next year we will be witnesses to crowd
Thursday 19 May
“People attending the British Association of Social Workers AGM
last night at Community Care Live were jolted to attention
when a speaker fell of the podium after trying to clarify the
organisation’s voting system.
The session continued with Ian Johnston, director of BASW,
telling members that the past year had seen two BASW marriages and
two BASW babies. He added that membership had swelled to over the
10,000 mark and that he hoped that it would increase even further
in 2005……..more BASW babies could be on the horizon