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Community Payback – a Lord Chief Justice’s experience

The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, believes in the benefits of properly resourced community punishment. He gave a lecture on the subject at Oxford University in May 2006 – “Alternatives to custody: the case for community sentencing”. While he accepts he may be ´liberal´ in terms of appropriate punishment for criminal acts, he does not regard himself as ´soft’ on sentencing.

In mid–August 2006, during his summer holiday, Lord Phillips undertook a day of “community payback” near Milton Keynes. Thames Valley Probation Area staff went to great lengths to ensure that he would get as close to the real experience as possible, providing him with a “cover” and keeping his identity known only to a few senior officials: even the work party’s supervisor did not know who he was.

This is his story.


Starting out

The day had been arranged with Thames Valley Probation Area. Their brief was to ensure that I experienced a typical day’s unpaid work in circumstances where no one would have reason to believe that I was not an offender. My cover had been agreed in advance. I was a solicitor in a firm of shipping solicitors, convicted of driving with excess alcohol and sentenced to 150 hours’ unpaid work and 18 months’ disqualification.

I was sent the instructions I would have received had this been the reality. To report at a pick-up point on time, in working clothes with a packed lunch, no alcohol, no mobile phone; to wear protective clothing when provided; to comply with the instructions of the supervisor.

My pick-up point was Milton Keynes Central Station at 8:45am. I travelled there incongruously first class by Virgin in jeans, denim shirt and trainers, among businessmen and women bound for Manchester. Unfortunately Virgin had not started to serve their delicious breakfast during the half-hour journey to Milton Keynes.


Talking about community punishment

There I met a Community Punishment Quality Assurance Manager (CPQA) from Thames Valley Probation Area. She was aware of my identity and was meeting me half an hour before the normal pick-up time so that we could discuss community punishment.

She told me that an individual pick-up was quite normal and would occasion no surprise. Her task is to find projects for community work and to check that it meets the requirements. She is an enthusiast, having previously worked in the private sector and having responded to an advertisement after being made redundant.

Projects included working for the local authority, for the Church and, to her great satisfaction, a Mosque had recently agreed to allow community workers to carry out redecoration.

The requirements were that there should be somewhere where the offenders could make tea or coffee and eat their lunch and that there should be toilet facilities.

Funding was a problem. The service was expected to provide interpreters and child care where the offender’s circumstances required this, but no allowance was made for this in their funding and the cost was disproportionate. Those benefiting from the work were asked to contribute to its costs e.g. paint. They were often reluctant to do so and, indeed, to accept work done by offenders. One excellent project had recently been put out of reach because of a refusal to pay for the cost of a portaloo.


Plans for my day

The manager explained to me that I would be working with a group of offenders categorised medium to high risk, the latter having been very carefully assessed for suitability. Those categories worked in groups under supervision. As a low risk offender it would have been more normal to find me an individual placement, perhaps doing some form of office work.


Aims of community punishment

The penal element of community punishment was not that the work was particularly arduous, but that it called for the sacrifice of free time and for self-discipline.

Having to get out of bed early in the morning was punishment for some offenders. The self-discipline required could create self-respect and, quite often at the end of the mandatory work period offenders volunteer to continue or seek similar paid work.

I said that it was a pity that community work could not be combined with training to facilitate getting employment. She said the Probation Service did combine them and she was hoping to engage a professional brick-layer who had applied to work as a supervisor. Health and safety requirements were an impediment to some projects – for instance there was a rule that a worker could not go more than three steps up a ladder, which resulted in some bizarre decorating.


Getting down to work

She then drove me to the project, which was on a somewhat run-down estate with problems with unruly children and graffiti.

Two overgrown seating areas, seedy as a result of moss covering benches and brick-work, were to be cleaned up. The immediate task, however, was a sloped walkway that ended in an underpass. The concrete flagstones had weeds sprouting from the joints and the underpass was filthy, with the roof encrusted in soot as a result of a waste bin having been set on fire. We were to clear the path of weeds, and clean and repaint the underpass.

The other members of the team were three men: two I would place as in their twenties and the third mid-thirties. None had met before and we stood somewhat shiftily, avoiding eye-contact, while being introduced to the supervisor, a mild and pleasant man in his forties.

The others had been picked up in a mini-bus, and spades, brooms and painting equipment were removed from the boot, together with an ‘A’ frame board advertising the fact that we were providing ‘community payback’. This produced some sceptical comments from passers-by to the effect that it was crazy to clean the place up as this would only encourage further graffiti.

We all had to put on provided work boots and bright yellow visibility jackets – the latter not necessary for health and safety on this particular project, but they identified the workers. The supervisor’s was green, with ‘Community Punishment Supervisor’ on the back.

Coffee, tea and toilet facilities were provided in a small community centre – Christian pictures and exhortations on the walls – under the care of a kindly bearded man who apparently performs the role of vicar in the community.

The four of us started, with spades and brooms, digging out and brushing away the weeds infesting the path. This was reasonably strenuous – the day was warm and I was soon dripping with sweat.

The task took from 9:30am to 11:00am, by which time the path was clear and an impressive pile of weeds had been swept up, to be collected we were told by the council.

There was then a tea break. There was little conversation among the workers, each holding his own counsel. In particular there was not the questioning that I had expected and prepared for as to each other’s offences and sentences. After the tea break we turned to brushing and washing down the inside of the underpass – attacking the black ceiling with buckets of water and squeegees. Pretty foul work, and it was a relief to begin applying cream masonry paint with brushes and rollers.


Part of a team

We worked well and harmoniously as a team. There was a feeling that we were doing a job which was satisfying and worthwhile and there was no shirking. The elder worker had obviously some experience of decorating – he was well into his work period and told us that he was about to paint his daughter’s bedroom.

He called for some black paint to paint the bottom three rows of bricks, and the supervisor obtained this. The brickwork was very porous and had poor rendering, so that there were deep cracks between the bricks. This made painting difficult and soaked up the paint. By 12:45pm we had run out and broke early for lunch while more was sought, running from the underpass to the community centre through a heavy shower.

There was little conversation over the lunch break. One of the young men had brought the Sun, which each took it in turns to read – I’d brought a paperback.


Community reactions

The path to the underpass ran from a small shopping centre and beside a childcare centre. There was a lot of life in this multi-racial community and the atmosphere was vibrant and friendly. We were very obviously performing a service to the community.

We attracted quite a lot of attention from children. Three small boys arrived on bikes and stopped to cross-examine us. They were polite: ‘What was Community Payback?’

‘Doing work to make things nicer for you’

‘Why do you like to do it?’

‘We don’t.’

‘Why are you doing it then?’

‘Because the court told us to.’

‘But why do what they tell?’

‘Because otherwise we will be sent to prison.’

‘Why did you have to go to court?’ At last I would find out, at least as far as the two younger men working near me.

One said, without embarrassment, ‘stealing and burglary’, the other ‘fraud’. My explanation of ‘drink-driving’ was accepted without comment.

We told the boys that they should behave themselves or the same thing might happen to them. This episode struck me as an excellent piece of community education.


Real results

By 4:30pm we had finished the painting and the result was impressive. All had worked as a team, co-operating in doing a good and conscientious job and finding obvious satisfaction in this.

Towards the end we were visited by a huge police sergeant, who both polices and lives on the estate. He admired the change that we had produced and congratulated us.

Then the CPQA manager appeared with a council officer, who was clearly very impressed by what had been achieved. The council were supposed to seal our paintwork, which would preserve it and prevent graffiti. The manager told me later that to her annoyance the council officer had told her that they could not afford the sealant so this would not happen. The sergeant had assured her, however, that the sealant would be found – the police had apparently contributed to the cost of the paint.

We all conscientiously washed out the brushes and rollers, and cleaned up the mess that this made in the community centre.

I was given a certificate crediting me with eight hours’ community work – from 9am to 5pm. The supervisor asked how much I had left and I said 142 hours, at which he observed that he would no doubt see me again. I felt rather sad that he would not. The man sentenced for theft and burglary said that he was in the same position, having just done the first spell of a 150-hour sentence.


Impressions of the day

The day had been an encouraging experience.

The CPQA manager confirmed my reaction that my companions had not been representative of all sentenced to unpaid work. Some are bolshy and uncooperative. I had seen community work working at its best, but I was left in no doubt that, at its best, community work is a punishment that is positive. Both the self-discipline and the work make greater demand that a spell in prison, and the experience can rehabilitate those who have lost, or never had, self-respect.

Even if those who complete a spell of unpaid work do not re-offend while they are doing so, this is plainly a preferable alternative to imprisonment for offences that do not require the latter.

It also visibly benefits the community – it really does ‘pay back’.

Once communities themselves appreciate the benefits that can flow from such projects, the demand for them should grow. It is particularly unfortunate if projects cannot be undertaken for want of what is relatively moderate funding – cost of tools and materials, or portaloos.

Community work is much less expensive to provide than prison places, and it must make sense to provide the resources needed to fund the provision of this alternative to custody.