Previous Section Index Home Page

In conclusion, probation officers do a fantastic job. We need more in the way of voluntary organisations getting involved. We need additionality, not a replacement, and certainly not the spectre of privatisation that one or two colleagues and Opposition Members have raised. We need new approaches and drivers. None of us has a crystal ball to see how the Bill will map out in the future. Despite the doom and gloom predicted by Opposition Members, we are seeing a development of
11 Dec 2006 : Column 650
the legislation and the system, which we hope will reduce reoffending. As we have seen in the past, a purely financial approach is not an answer in itself. For that reason, we need the Bill and I will support it tonight.

7.57 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I do not wish to repeat many of the excellent points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), but I would like to address a few specific issues that my local probation service has raised with me about the Bill. Under the existing arrangement there is partnership and collaboration with a wide range of services, and many imaginative and innovative schemes are in operation. However, the key to success is the fact that there is a strong core probation service. The partners that it works with are fellow professionals and they are integrally linked to the service.

We must remember that probation officers deal with very difficult and damaged individuals, many of whom have multiple problems, such as poor home support, mental health problems, substance abuse problems and low educational achievement. They are not like a group of customers who can shop around to find the goods that they want to buy. Many of the client group have difficulty even co-operating with the people who want to help them. That is why we need the dedication, professionalism and stability of the staff in the national probation service. Let us be clear about this: the task can be absolutely thankless. We are talking about individuals and circumstances for whom and in which there are often no easy solutions.

The worries that my local probation service has about contestability include the following. It is worried about the amount of time and energy that is going to be spent on the bidding procedure. Putting together the bids, vetting the providers, judging bids and then monitoring the services provided will take up considerable management time. There is also the difficulty of liaising with providers who may have little experience of the work and of the client group. There are worries about their experience and, in particular, liaison with them.

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend will recognise that, within the probation service, there are different levels and grades of probation officer. There is the higher range, consisting of the more experienced probation officers, and there are also probation support officers. People operate in different spheres of skills and influence. It is not true to say that all probation officers do everything at the same level. I hope that she accepts that.

Nia Griffith: The important point is that the people working on the interventions are part of the same team and in the same office. If we were to farm out work on basic skills to people who have experience of only very mature adults in evening classes, there would be a danger that they might not fully understand the needs of the client group. It would be difficult for those people to turn to other members of the team if difficulties were to arise.

Additionally, when people are competing against each other, it is difficult to share best practice. We
11 Dec 2006 : Column 651
experienced that problem in schools in the early 1990s. While there was an absolute obsession with league tables, teachers became very cagey about sharing good ideas. Given that we are all trying to find solutions to difficult problems, it would be an absolute tragedy if, instead of sharing good ideas, one group tried to keep ideas to itself so that it could compete against another.

A further problem could be a lack of stability and motivation among staff. If one provider group suddenly found out that its contract would run out in a few months, with the next phase being taken on by another group, what sort of motivation would the staff of the first group have to continue their work and do it as well as possible? In such circumstances, there would be a tremendous tendency to leave things half finished.

It is thus small wonder that the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), acknowledged in the House last year that the overwhelming majority of responses to the consultation expressed considerable concern about contestability. Only four years on from major change, the national probation service needs a period of stability. I thus strongly urge the Minister to rethink the plans for contestability that are proposed in the Bill.

8.1 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Minister and the House for missing a great deal of the debate. That was due to absolutely unavoidable earlier commitments and no disrespect was intended. However, I have had the privilege of listening to several speeches—I have been pleased to do so.

I begin by declaring an interest. I practised as a lawyer for many years in Surrey in the criminal courts. For the past 14 years, I have sat part-time as a Crown court recorder. I was a metropolitan stipendiary magistrate and am now a district judge. I am thus familiar with the probation service and I echo many hon. Members by saying that I admire the service greatly.

In my early years in Surrey, we looked up enormously to the probation officers who served the county. Michael Varah was a distinguished head of probation in the county and Peter Sturge was a distinguished probation officer who was honoured. Indeed, my dear wife, Lynda, was partly involved in setting up community service in Surrey all those years ago. That since became community punishment and is now unpaid work, but it boils down to the same thing.

I do not have much to say tonight. I want to talk not about the general principles of the Bill, but about a couple of matters that worry me very much. I hope that the Minister will take what I say on board.

From my experience, the probation service is very stretched. There are fewer probation officers than there were in Greater London, which is where I sit. When I asked a parliamentary question on the matter in June, I was told that there were 874 probation officers in the area covered by the Greater London magistrates courts in the second quarter of 2004-05. By the first quarter of 2005-06, that number had dropped by more than 50 to 820, and I do not think that the situation is getting much better.

11 Dec 2006 : Column 652

The probation service works very hard indeed, but if one sits as a district judge, one sees day after day the strains and stresses on it. We must address that situation very strongly. Not long ago, I was in court in south-east London. We had ordered a probation report—a pre-sentence report—on a defendant. The report that I received from the probation service read:

I had to sentence with the knowledge that there would not be a report, which was a pity.

As a result of the fact that the probation service is stretched, there has been a slight drop in morale. We live in a complex world. New sentences are introduced year after year, and they require the intervention and work of the probation service. Many years ago, there was a standard probation order. Indeed, much of the work of the service was carried out by the police officer in the towns in which there were courts. That officer would probably present the case to the court and give his or her version of the defendant’s history—he or she would probably have known the family well. That process made it easier for the court to pass sentence. However, life has become more complex, especially in the courts around London in which I sit.

Is the Minister aware of the pressure that the probation service is under? Whatever else the Government do with the probation service, does he think that it is likely that they will be able to ensure that, over the course of the next year or two, there will be more probation officers in post who can produce reports than there are at present? In a court centre in London, if five courts are active all morning, with 30, 40, 50 or 60 defendants who need sentencing in each, difficulties are caused if there is only one probation officer between those courts, with huge delays as a result.

The problems of pressure and the service being stretched have not become easier. Indeed, I venture to suggest that since the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was passed, the burdens on the probation service have become heavier. Section 177 of that Act introduced the community order, which is the new form of sentence for defendants that is, by and large, supervised by the probation service. I say straight away to the Minister that aspects of the new community order are good, but they need strong back-up.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s experience in this field for the reasons that he has told the House. However, does he think that it is absolutely necessary for a probation officer to be involved in the whole aspect of unpaid work? Obviously an officer would initiate an order, but would he or she have to be responsible for its delivery?

Mr. Malins: I think that the answer is yes, because under section 177, one of the aspects of the community order can be unpaid work. The Minister will have seen during his visits to the courts that the probation service has the job of finding out whether there is work available in the local community for the defendant to do. The service then has to interview the defendant at some length to find out whether he or she is suitable to
11 Dec 2006 : Column 653
carry out such work in the community—an alcoholic or a drug addict probably would not be suitable, but others could be. The service then has to produce a report on the matter and then provide supervision. It is no good saying to defendant, “Off you go and do some unpaid work,” and trusting him or her to do it. The probation service is involved throughout the process.

The Minister will be aware that under section 177 of the 2003 Act, there are at least eight forms of community penalty that will require the intervention of the probation service:

Given that most of the criminal justice legislation that has been passed has never been introduced, let me pause to ask the Minister which of those eight aspects of the penalty have been introduced by the Government so far. I see that the Minister is not rising. Let me put the question to him again: which of those aspects of section 177 have so far been brought in?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I will deal with that in due course in the wind-ups.

Mr. Malins: The Minister says that he will deal with my point in due course. I am grateful to him—he is a courteous and good man.

Mr. Garnier: As my hon. Friend and I are both recorders, I am sure that he will agree that the Judicial Studies Board’s Crown court bench book sets aside about 20 pages to explain the way in which those community sentences will be passed and carried out. I hope that that little intervention has allowed the Minister time to think and to refresh his memory of the Act of Parliament about which he spoke so proudly on many occasions.

Mr. Malins: My hon. and learned Friend is correct: the complexities behind the different penalties are enormous, as can be seen in the training given to us in our judicial capacity.

Welcome though one or two of the new penalties are, they all require, first, to be introduced—I am really looking forward to learning how many of the eight have been introduced—and, secondly, a lot of input from the probation service, as does the provision in section 181 of the 2003 Act. The Minister will be very familiar indeed with that new sentencing provision of custody plus whereby a sentence can be passed by the magistrates court that, in future, has to be expressed in weeks—it must be at least 28 weeks and cannot be more than 51 weeks. What is interesting is that part of that sentence of up to 51 weeks will be custodial and part will be served on licence subject to supervision by the probation service. The maximum period of custody is 13 weeks, which is an interesting reflection of the overcrowding in our prisons. The judge will say, “Stand up, Minister”—well, he would not say that. He will say, “Stand up, Mr. Smith,”—Mr. Smith is the defendant. The judge will tell Mr. Smith, “You are sentenced to custody plus, which will involve 13 weeks’ custody and
11 Dec 2006 : Column 654
a minimum of”—this is the key point—“26 weeks of supervision under licence.” That is something new.

Remember that the provision was introduced in the 2003 Act, which, unless I am mistaken, is three years ago, but has custody plus been implemented? Answer: no. Why has it not been implemented? At the time, it was lauded as a terrific new sentence for the courts. Ministers told us, “Custody plus is just the job. We shall give offenders a harsh regime for 13 weeks and supervise them for 28 weeks. My goodness, we’ll get this introduced quickly.” But three years later, nothing has happened. A few weeks ago I tabled a parliamentary question asking what had happened to custody plus. I received an answer that had been beautifully crafted by the civil servants, the gist of which was, “We can’t afford to introduce it.” That is terrific—there is no money to introduce a flagship measure from three years ago. No wonder the probation service and everyone in the judiciary and the courts are scratching their heads in disbelief.

Mr. Garnier: Is my hon. Friend also concerned that intermittent custody, which was produced as the great answer to the ills of modern society, having been introduced with some success in certain areas—Luton Crown court was employing it quite usefully—has now been abolished, because they, the Government, cannot afford it?

Mr. Malins: My hon. and learned Friend brings up yet another section of the 2003 Act. We could spend the whole evening going through sections of legislation that have not been introduced. What a brilliant intervention. To be frank, I had missed that section in my excitement over the others. Intermittent custody, set out in section 183—what on earth has happened to it? It was a terrific idea at the time, but is now not available in practice where I sit.

The problems are overstretch and shortage of money. The Minister must in his reply deal with the overstretch in the probation service, the funding position and the number of probation officers. I would like from him today an absolute commitment on when those various provisions, so heralded as the answer to everything three or more years ago, will come into force. He will, I hope, give us a day or a month when that will happen, because the judiciary and the courts, not to mention defendants, would like to know.

I have a final tip for the Minister, which I hope he will take on board. There is one way in which the burdens on the probation service can be lessened. He will know that in the community penalty provision in the 2003 Act there is a very important measure, namely, a community order with a drug rehabilitation requirement—the DRR. There will be other opportunities, so I shall not spend time this evening going into the tragic backgrounds of so many defendants in our courts who are addicted to heroin or crack, having started on the gateway drug, cannabis. By the time they are 17 or 18, they steal—they cannot help doing so—to feed their habit. By the time they are 25 or 26, they are ruined specimens: they look twice or three times their age, they shake and they can barely speak, and it is heroin that has done it. What is to be done with them?

11 Dec 2006 : Column 655

The DRR introduced by the 2003 Act is beginning to operate, not least in a couple of the drugs courts that we have in this country. I shall talk about those on another occasion. Under a DRR order, the defendant is required to submit to testing and sometimes to enter an institution for treatment. I feel very strongly that the DRR order is a tougher version of the drug treatment and testing order, which was introduced and then abandoned because it failed. Some Opposition members, myself included, feel that the DRR may make some progress. It is an order that the defendant stay off drugs and submit himself to treatment, counselling, advice and all the rest of it.

My message to the Minister is that it is time that we involved to a far greater extent the drug charities, which are committed and expert and which provide excellent drug programmes. Examples include the crack day programme, the Blenheim project, Druglink and Drugline. They are private charitable bodies that, by definition, have nothing to do with the state, they are terrific, and they are available to the courts. The judge could say, “Stand up, Smith. You are given a DRR. You will go to Druglink on a day course. You will do this. You will do that.”

I do not think that all the staff of the probation service are properly qualified to supervise a drug addict. Some are, but some are not. Some expertise is required. I believe that it is time that we all realised that drugs are such a terrible thing in our country, especially for young people, that the more expert the advice and supervision that can be given to defendants given a DRR, the better. Why not gradually phase the probation service out of drug supervision and give that function to those wonderful private charities that are so well placed to supervise addicts? We would win both ways: there would be fewer burdens on the probation service and a much better chance of the defendant receiving the benefit of expertise.

I have spoken too long offering a few passing thoughts, which I summarise in one sentence. Bills are one thing, but what happens out there in the real world is terribly important. Great though the probation service is, the shortage of money, its staff’s morale and the burdens on them are matters that the Minister will have to watch as closely as he can.

8.18 pm

Next Section Index Home Page