An academic whose research revealed that the Ministry of Justice’s treatment of sex offenders in prison might actually increase their chance of reoffending is suing the department. She said she was bullied out of her job after whistleblowing about the results.
Kathryn Hopkins worked as a researcher in the MoJ’s Analytical Services Department. Her study of the controversial Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP) suggested that five years on from release, prisoners who had been in the programme were more likely to commit a sexual offence again.
The SOTP was a six-month group therapy course taken by thousands of prisoners serving sentences for rape, child abuse, and other sexual offences from 1991 to 2017. The controversial scheme involved bringing offenders together in groups to discuss their crimes.
Among those believed to have undergone the treatment programme are the “black cab rapist” John Worboys and several notorious paedophiles. Another alumnus of the SOTP course is Clive Sharp, who took the course after being convicted and jailed three times for sexual attacks, including rape of an underage girl when he was 17.
According to a report in the Mail on Sunday, he told his SOTP facilitator in the 1990s that he fantasised about tying up a woman, then raping and murdering her. When released in October 2012, he went on to do just that — sexually torturing, killing, and dismembering a woman. He is now serving life with a minimum 37-year term.
Hopkins said she raised the alarm in early 2012 that it was not working — and indeed that her early findings suggested it increased reoffending and was a risk to public safety.
In June 2012, an independent peer review recommended that the report could be published, subject to some changes. Instead of stopping the programme, the research was re-run in different ways over several years and eventually given to a different researcher to complete.
The hearing started at the Central Employment Tribunal in London on Monday and is expected to conclude next week.
The MoJ had a solicitor and barrister appearing in court for them. Hopkins is making her case with no lawyer and began giving evidence on Tuesday.
She argued that her career suffered after whistleblowing because she was taken off the project, given a critical performance review, overlooked for promotion, bullied by managers, and was not named as an author on the final report.
The MoJ disputed her account. It said It had issues with her performance and that she was not listed as an author on the final report because it was a “complete reset and reconstruction and analysis of the data set” undertaken after she had been moved off the project.
It was not until January 2017 — almost five years after Hopkins raised her initial findings — that the MoJ stopped the SOTP. The MoJ argued this was because the research was more robust by this point.
Despite multiple freedom of information requests, which began in 2012, the final report was not published until June 2017, and that only happened five days after the report findings were published in the Mail on Sunday following a leak. The MoJ published the latest version of the research without naming Hopkins as an author.
In a witness statement to the court, she described the horrified reaction of managers and prison service officials when she called a meeting to break the news of the results in early 2012.
“It was met with shock and anger — I was told that the results could not possibly be correct. I assured them that the methodology was robust, the datasets large, the follow-ups long, but this was not accepted. I pointed out that previous research in the area, upon which the claims of efficacy of the SOTP were based, were far inferior to the analysis I had undertaken, but I was not believed. I was told that the results must be wrong — but not given any indication as to why.”
The MoJ disputed her account of the meeting, arguing that she did not disclose her concerns that early and that the results were “insufficiently certain” at that stage for them to act.
By the end of 2013, after another year of working on the project, Hopkins said she had run the evaluation again and discovered that increasing the sample size produced results that were stronger “and therefore even more alarming” than previously.
Hopkins said that she was made to re-run the study in different ways multiple times, including increasing the sample size, but the research was still not published. She told the court: “We kept on getting the same results, over and over and over again.”
She said she blew the whistle multiple times to people within the MoJ and prison service, arguing that the SOTP should be stopped at least temporarily given the public safety implications of her findings.
In court documents she said: “I expressed my concern again about the public safety implications, and suggested that the SOTP should be stopped, even temporarily, until the research was finished. However, I was ignored.”
Hopkins’ manager at the MoJ, whom she has accused of bullying her, argued in her witness statement that Hopkins was too emotionally involved in the research and “would just re-write the same analysis without undertaking full quality assurance”.
In court documents, the manager said she considered “the problem was competence on [Hopkins’] part, as she did not appear to understand or be able to act on my and others’ concerns and/or a refusal to consider any other point of view except her own.”
The manager said the department delayed publication because of quality concerns. “Publishing something that I still had major concerns about was going to damage the reputation of the department and may have an unwarranted negative impact on operational practice,” she said in a statement.
The MoJ argued that the need for extra scrutiny and to re-run the data was because of the seriousness of the national and international implications of the subject. It said it had concerns about the robustness of the methodology and that the delays were to make sure the report was of the best quality.
However, the conclusions of the final study are similar to Hopkins’ initial findings. Hopkins’ initial report found that 7.9% of offenders who had attended the SOTP sexually reoffended, compared with 4.3% of untreated offenders. When the research was finally concluded, officially under a different author using slightly different methodology and a longer time span, the results showed a similar trend.
The final study said that 10% of sex offenders who went on the course committed at least one sexual reoffence (excluding breach) compared with 8.0% of matched comparison offenders who did not. The difference was even more marked for child sex offenders, with 4.4% of those on the course reoffending, compared to 2.9% of the comparison group.
Hopkins was told not to discuss the research findings, and in December 2013, was told to respond to an FOI withholding the report, as it was “about to be published”. She recalled: “I was not happy to do this, as I knew that there were no plans to publish the report, and felt that I had been asked to breach the Civil Service Code.”
Hopkins argued that it was “common practice to make false statements in response to FOI requests,” citing revelations by BuzzFeed News last year over the failure to release a full report into unrepresented defendants under FOI. The Ministry of Justice disputed this.
In March 2014, Hopkins emailed a long complaint about the public protection issues associated with the SOTP to managers, alleging a cover-up by the MoJ. She complained about being asked to run and re-run analyses that always came up with the same results and said that her professional expertise was being ignored. She pleaded to have the report sent for independent peer review.
One manager said that they were unable to support the report’s publication in 2014 because “I and others both within and outside the Directorate could not be confident [it] was robust, as it had not addressed all issues raised through quality assurance processes.”
In December 2014, she was told her performance “must improve”. Hopkins argued this was because of her whistleblowing and the pressure she was putting on the department to publish. However, in court papers her managers argued “there was evidence to support that her quality of work was inconsistent and had a higher volume of errors than was expected, and that she needed to demonstrate better collaborative working.”
Hopkins worked for the MoJ from 2007 until September 2016, when she moved to HMRC. The final paper was published on June 30, 2017.
Emily Dugan is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Dugan at email@example.com.
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