Horrific murders may not be last'
PUBLISHED: 10:33 15 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:50 25 August 2010
In the wake of the shocking killing of two French students, a whistleblower issues a warning... JUSTICE Minister Jack Straw has apologised for
In the wake of the shocking killing of two French students, a whistleblower issues a warning...
JUSTICE Minister Jack Straw has apologised for "unacceptable" and "tragic" failures in the probation service that led to the horrific torture and murder of two French students.
Dano Sonnex, 23, and Nigel Farmer, 34, were jailed for life for stabbing Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez 244 times for their bank cards, last Thursday.
The murders could have been avoided were it not for shocking failures by the police, court system and Greenwich and Lewisham probation service, who took weeks to arrest Sonnex for breaking his licence conditions six weeks before the murders.
After the sentencing, Mr Straw apologised for the "very serious failures" in the criminal justice system, adding: "There may be those who assert that insufficient probation service resources was a factor in these failings. This is emphatically not the case.
"Probation spending has increased 70 per cent in real terms in the last 12 years. Last year London Probation underspent by £3.5million on a budget of £154million, and the service as a whole underspent by £17million.
"The fundamental problems - as the independent reports emphasise - were managerial."
But, according to one whistleblower, this may be just the first horror to come from a probation service hampered by inexperienced, unsupported staff and untenable target-driven practices.
Preferring to remain anonymous out of loyalty to his former colleagues in south-east London and Kent, he claimed that the problems come from a "culture of isolation" that runs deeper than financial or management problems alone.
These are his words:
For nearly 20 years, I worked in areas adjoining New Cross and Lewisham - that part of south London where Sonnex lived. In probation terms and, anecdotally, the area is noted for street crime, drug- related activity and troubled estates, although I lived there myself quite happily for a while.
The probation offices there were, in my experience, functional at best but things worsened about 18 months ago with the amalgamation of some units on grounds of finance.
Traditionally, the area was staffed by mainly newly qualified and relatively junior officers who would after a period seek to move away to gain a more qualitative lifestyle. Probation salaries after all do not meet the high housing and living costs of that part of the world. I am aware also that the very unpopular amalgamation of five London areas into one unwieldy authority prompted many experienced officers - myself included - to move away.
More recently, those working in courts in the London area became aware of apparently chronic staffing difficulties in the probation service. Often requests for reports would result in a letter from a senior officer claiming there was insufficient staff to provide the report. When a report was eventually forthcoming it was often of poor standard and occasionally compiled by someone who is not of officer grade.
It was not a surprise to me, therefore, that the case of Sonnex was allocated to an officer of limited experience. This does not make it excusable, though, for the previous offence and the sentence alone should have prompted MAPPA (Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements) involvement whatever the computer-generated assessment of level of risk.
It does not excuse the lack of supervision. Commitment to supervision in recent years has dwindled as senior officers are increasingly required to meet and measure achievement targets. When I was at the level of experience of the officer concerned, I was required to attend for supervision weekly and I welcomed the support. Poor supervision is inexcusable in any circumstances, particularly in London where, in spite of staffing shortages, travel is relatively easy.
I believe the change was consequent to the introduction and development of computers in the service - the more senior officers were stuck to their machines, the more supervision seemed to take the form of examining compliance with targets at the expense of personal support. Technology, it seemed to me, appeared to isolate officers, and field offices seemed to lack much evidence of offenders attending. I am sure they did attend; it's just that you never seemed to see them.
In the case of Sonnex, the officer appears to have had an enormous caseload and reports suggest that she felt unable to ask for help. It is almost a tradition in the service to complain about the size of caseloads, and it is true that there have been attempts nationwide to introduce a 'caseload weighting' system to avoid anyone getting swamped, but I never saw a scheme that made much sense. In my area there were plenty of tales of officers being required to exceed the maximum because of the volume of work around.
In this case the officer concerned seems to have been required to hold on to a particularly heavy list of cases, being too junior to feel able to object. By rights, a junior officer should have a protected caseload and should not be required to take on many more than 20 or so cases. Mine never got higher than 65; that was when I was more than five years in and still my very attentive senior at the time expressed grave concern.
Every field probation office has its share of chaotic, damaged and persistent offenders who demand disproportionate attention, although thankfully the level of malice and capacity for violence demonstrated by Sonnex and Farmer is rare. Such people can be experienced as very draining and unnerving. It is imperative, therefore, that officers should have good supervision and that there is a climate of mutual support in the unit so no one feels alone in the face of the high risks such people pose.
Last year I was allowed to seek early retirement in response to area financial difficulties (I am not sure what Mr Straw means by an increase over the years 'in real terms'. I don't recall a time when finance restrictions were not in place). I, along with several long-serving officers, retired in the spring, which consequently meant a loss of considerable experience to the area.
After 30 years, I was relieved to go. The move to 'offender managers' instructing 'case managers' to require offenders to attend for a variety of approved activities as guided by a computer programme does not lend itself to the personal, consistent and creative approach that is necessary in dealing with chaotic people. The real problem with the service lies in its culture of insularity and isolation with too much emphasis on achievement targets and not enough concentration of support for front-line staff. I fear this dreadful incident, which is every probation officer's nightmare, may not be the last.
As told to Kate Mead.