Previous Section Index Home Page

I have received many moving representations on the matter from constituents, who are worried about the position. I had a meeting this evening with Helen Burton,
29 Apr 2009 : Column 1006
a Unison steward and probation service officer from Hull, and Tim Wilson, who is the national officer for the National Association of Probation Officers. I have also had letters from organisations that are involved in working to reduce crime, expressing their concerns that the proposals will not help that goal.

I was especially shocked to hear that 11 trainee probation officers will have no posts to go to. That is not only a personal tragedy for those individuals, but a terrible waste of the money that has been spent on training them. I am also told that case loads for existing staff will increase—in some cases, from an average of 40 to triple that amount.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. As a former member of the Humberside probation trust board, I have seen for myself the fine work that the staff do.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have a good stated policy on probation work—they want probation workers to spend less time on office work and on computers and more time dealing with offenders—but that it would be hard to achieve in Humberside if all the cuts went ahead?

Mr. Morley: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He has a long and distinguished connection with Humberside police as a former chairman, as well as connections with Humberside probation service, which adds weight to his comments on this issue. It is essential that we have an efficient service, but I agree with him: I do not believe that what is happening is what the Ministry of Justice intended or that the formula funding that has been put in place was in any way intended to have the impact that it has had. In particular, I do not believe that it was intended to bring about compulsory redundancies in front-line services. I think that I am right in saying that Ministers from the Ministry of Justice have said a number of times that they do not wish to see impacts on front-line services weakening the efficiency of the service.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Many people affected by the cuts have also come to see me, as has Alan Cotterill, the National Association of Probation Officers representative in our area. Every person who has come to see me about the cuts has said that it is the speed at which they are being made that is so frightening. It seems that no other service in the country is making cuts in quite as headlong a way as Humberside is.

Mr. Morley: I agree with my hon. Friend. I, too, have been in touch with Alan Cotterill, who has made a compelling case on behalf of his members about the problems faced by the service. The speed of the cuts is a concern. It is not just the formula that is an issue, but how it is being applied in the service. I have great concerns about that. However, I repeat: I do not believe that that is what the Ministry of Justice wants. I very much hope that the Minister can reassure us this evening that he does not want to see compulsory redundancies or the impact that they would have on full-time jobs.

29 Apr 2009 : Column 1007

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I, too, am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has secured tonight’s debate. Does he agree that, because of the recession, when we can perhaps expect crime rates to rise, this is exactly the wrong time to cut front-line probation service staff? I understand that, in the opinion of those involved, doing so could lead to an increase in the number of criminal offences committed by people who are not supported to go on the straight and narrow. That means that the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine will be suffering from increased lawlessness as a result of the cuts.

Mr. Morley: I certainly agree that we can see the success of the probation service in terms of the reduction in reoffending rates and overall reductions in crime. None of our constituents wants an increase in crime, and the probation service is an important part of that. The Government have recognised that there are bound to be pressures when we are in a recession. For example, they have quite rightly given additional funding to jobcentres to deal with people who have been unfortunate enough to be made redundant. Such issues therefore have to be recognised.

I met the chief executive of the Humberside probation trust, Mr. Steve Hemming, to discuss the proposed cuts, following representations that I had received from constituents. He told me the steps that he was taking to try to encourage voluntary redundancies, but according to my constituents who work in the service, many staff have received formal notification that their posts are at risk of compulsory redundancy. I also share the concerns that my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole and for Cleethorpes have both put to me, as well as those made in union representations, about the timetable for the redundancies, which is due to commence on 6 May, with dismissals potentially in early June, appearing to be going at breakneck speed. According to the chief executive, part of the reason for that is to do with doubts about the availability of end-of-year flexibility to the service and the way in which the three-year budgets have been put in place. The issue is so serious that even if restructuring is needed, which is arguable, it should certainly be managed in a way that avoids compulsory redundancy.

I have three requests for the Minister tonight. I know that he is a sincere and good Minister, and he has certainly done a lot of work to improve and strengthen the probation service. I do not believe that he in any way wants to see cuts such as these. My first request is that he please look again at the formula and, in particular, at the disproportionate effect it is having on Humberside probation trust—and, indeed, a number of other probation trusts. Its impact is disproportionate. Secondly, will he please look at the issue of end-of-year flexibility and the way in which the budgets have been applied, to ensure that there is some flexibility within the National Offender Management Service budget as a whole, to prevent front-line cuts and compulsory redundancies? Thirdly, will he contact the chief executive of the Humberside probation trust as a matter of urgency and ask him to put an immediate hold on the compulsory redundancy process while the Ministry of Justice looks at the issue and discusses potential options with him?

I repeat that I do not believe that the problems facing the Humberside probation trust are consequences that the Ministry of Justice intended or that it would support.
29 Apr 2009 : Column 1008
I look to the Minister to give my constituents some hope, to look at the problem that the service is facing in a fair and rational way, and to ensure that there is an efficient, effective service and that people—especially those doing an excellent job in front-line positions—will not face the threat of compulsory redundancy, with all the uncertainty, upset and destabilisation that that brings.

8.52 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) for raising this issue. I am pleased to see a strong Humberside delegation in the Chamber tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) is on the Treasury Bench, and my hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) and for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) are also present. I confess that, as a graduate of Hull university, I feel an affinity for Humberside, but I shall leave that for another day.

The concerns that my right hon. Friend has expressed have also been raised with me by representatives of the National Association of Probation Officers—its chair, Tim Wilson, and its general secretary, Jonathan Ledger—and by Ben Priestley, the Unison organiser. They are serious issues, and I have taken care to look at them in detail.

As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, there is excellent performance in the Humberside probation trust at the moment. It is consistently rated at level 4 in the latest NOMS agency probation performance ratings, which denotes exceptional performance. Humberside is one of the six probation areas that successfully passed a capability assessment to achieve trust status in April 2008. The trust was then successful in bidding for funding for an intensive alternatives to custody project. It is good at making links to prison and at community engagement on the reducing reoffending agenda, and particularly at developing an innovative approach to working with women offenders. Indeed, I visited the trust about this time last year to see at first hand the work that it does. I visited Hull prison at the same time.

In the trust’s offender management inspection report in March this year, all six criteria inspected were found to be well met or satisfactorily met, so it is an impressive organisation. It also passes what I regard as the acid test for the operation of criminal justice agencies, because in Humberside between 2006-07 and 2007-08, there was a 14 per cent. fall in overall crime, a 19 per cent. fall in domestic burglary and a 23 per cent. fall in thefts of a motor vehicle. That shows that, along with the police, the trust is doing something right.

The national position on probation services is as follows. In response to higher expectations, the Government have invested significant resources in the probation service over a sustained period. Between 1997 and 2008, probation funding overall has increased from £540 million to £914 million—a 70 per cent. increase. The number of front-line staff has increased from more than 14,000 employees in 1997 to 21,000 to date.

From that perspective, there has been strong and consistent investment by the Labour Government in the service. Indeed, only last year we put in place an additional one-off investment of £40 million to facilitate the use of
29 Apr 2009 : Column 1009
community orders rather than short prison sentences and to improve offender compliance with community orders and licences. Again, there has been success, with the figure on frequency of reoffending falling 23 per cent. over the past six years.

The service nationally receives more than £900 million of public money, but I know that my right hon. Friend would expect us to use that public money effectively. In these times, we have to look at how we use those moneys efficiently. As has been put to me by NAPO, and indeed by Unison, we need to ensure that probation officers spend time managing offenders and not in front of a computer but doing the job for which they are paid, using those facilities as back-up to that work.

We have to accept that we have set challenging efficiency targets for probation areas and trusts. In doing so, we have been clear that the priority is public protection, and that will not be compromised. Resources must be targeted at high-risk offenders and those offenders most likely to reoffend.

In 2009, we have had to make savings of about £20 million from our total budget for probation of £914 million. However, I can inform the House that although the figures have not yet been finalised, we are expecting an overall underspend of about £20 million—the same as the savings that we are asking be made this year. That demonstrates that overall the savings are not unrealistic for probation boards and trusts across the board.

Indicative budgets have been set for each probation area and have been issued. However—this is important for my right hon. Friend to recognise—the director general of the National Offender Management Service has now made it clear that the indicative probation budgets were issued without the knowledge or approval of Ministers, and so have no authority, as there is no comprehensive spending review settlement for 2011-12 onwards. Therefore, there cannot be any accurate indicative budgets for any area of Government spending beyond that period.

Although my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear that the next spending round will be challenging for all Departments, it does not necessarily follow that all services will be affected equally in that spending period. Therefore, indicative budgets for 2011-12 and beyond, nationally and locally, are withdrawn. We will keep those under review. That will have an impact on what Humberside probation will look at for the future.

Mr. Graham Stuart: It is extraordinary to have released indicative budgets without asking Ministers first. If there was ever an area in which I would have thought Ministers were asked for their approval, it would be one such as that. Can the Minister explain how this happened and what he is doing to ensure that no such loss of ministerial control happens again?

Mr. Hanson: NOMS is an Executive agency. We look at these issues in policy terms, but the director general has a number of Executive decisions to take. Issuing indicative budgets is one of them, but we have reviewed the situation with him and reached the conclusions that I have given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe in today’s debate.

The probation budgets have been set for this year, and are indeed set for next year. Probation areas have to manage within their means in that respect. In that
29 Apr 2009 : Column 1010
context, I shall discuss the situation in Humberside. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate Humberside probation trust. Indeed, this morning, I spoke to the chief executive of the trust, meeting him and the director of offender management, Steve Wagstaffe, today to consider those issues. I say again that Humberside still has to look at the efficiency savings that need to be made at the moment. If I may, I shall put on record the overall saving requirement for Humberside for this year.

The area has been required to make an overall saving of £1 million, which is 5.4 per cent.—a budget reduction from £18.2 million to £17.2 million. When we look at the figures in detail, we see that much of the decrease relates to specific allocations such as performance bonuses, which will not be paid this year, of £223,000, or to the trainee probation officer budget, which is being reduced pending a national policy review, saving £310,000. I will touch on the point about trainee probation officers in a moment. Therefore, the actual baseline budget reduction for Humberside probation trust is about £407,000 or 2.5 per cent., from £16.3 million to £15.9 million.

However, the important point for my right hon. Friend is that provisional figures show that Humberside probation trust under-spent its budget last year by £335,000. This year, the demonstrable saving is therefore about £72,000, which is achievable and not an unreasonable savings target. We are considering specifications, benchmarking and costing programmes to identify areas where that can be achieved.

My right hon. Friend touched on linking the budget formula to the number of convictions in an area, so that resources can be allocated fairly in proportion to work loads. I will consider the issues that he raised, and return to him on the matter. To ensure that funding allocations are as fair as possible, several other factors, including current financial performance and the need to avoid radical budget changes in any one area, have been taken into account.

The Humberside probation trust is looking to take steps to ensure efficient delivery of services and prioritisation of resources on the most important areas. The trust is maximising the time that offender managers spend on face-to-face work with offenders by minimising administration and administrative tasks. Strong partnerships are available in Humberside to enable offenders to access services such as housing and employment. That work will be of importance in the future.

However, we need to consider the issues mentioned by my right hon. Friend. In his first 10 days in post, the new director of offender management for Yorkshire and Humberside, Steve Wagstaffe, met individually chief officers and chairs from every area and trust in his region to discuss budget planning. He is carefully monitoring the work being undertaken locally to reduce the number of managerial and back-office posts in order to concentrate resources on the front line.

Trade union engagement nationally and locally is also important to ensure that staff are treated fairly. The Government are doing all that we can, and I have encouraged engagement nationally, with NAPO and Unison, to ensure that positive work is undertaken through the national joint negotiating council.

On redundancies in Humberside, 58.25 full-time equivalent staffing cuts are planned for 2009-10. Within that, 16 voluntary redundancies are already confirmed.
29 Apr 2009 : Column 1011
A further 20 post holders have applied for voluntary redundancy or flexible retirement, and those are still to be confirmed with the Humberside probation trust. Therefore, 36 of the 58 staff required have already applied for voluntary redundancy. With a staff turnover of between 1 and 2 per cent. in any given year, and secondments, that will account for the bulk of the remaining posts.

Following the pressure applied by my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes and for Brigg and Goole and the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, I am confident that there are no firm plans for compulsory redundancies. I am also confident in the assessment of the director of offender management and the chief of Humberside probation trust that the savings required can be made without a dip in performance. Obviously, we will need to continue to monitor the situation.

Mr. Morley: It is only fair to put on record my appreciation and thanks. It is excellent news that there will not be compulsory redundancies. I was fascinated to hear the details of the budget, which throws a different light on some matters. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the compulsory process and notices that have gone out will be changed as quickly as possible, and that staff in the service will be reassured?

Mr. Hanson: As I have said, my official, the director of offender management, Steve Wagstaffe, is in close discussion with the Humberside probation trust. I have tried to indicate to hon. Members that the planned cuts of 58.25 full-time equivalent posts have more or less been met through voluntary redundancy requests and staff turnover. I confirm that there are no firms plans at this time for compulsory redundancies, and I am confident that the director of offender management will discuss with the chief executive of the trust how to deal with those issues. In fact, any decisions to make staff redundant in the region, including by Humberside probation trust, will need to be referred through Steve Wagstaffe, the director of offender management for the region. With responsibility now for offender management services in prison and probation, he will be tasked with exploring every option before any front-line compulsory redundancies are made—there is a willingness now to try to avoid those. That will potentially include realigning budgets
29 Apr 2009 : Column 1012
across and between probation areas, and indeed between prison establishments, where necessary. In order not to increase the staffing pressures on probation boards and trusts, the director of offender management has already determined that seconded probation staff levels in prisons will not be reduced this year.

This process is being mirrored across the country. In every region, directors of offender management are challenging assumptions, tackling the difficult questions and examining these issues. We are trying to ensure that we undertake these services in a positive and productive way. As I have said, I want to try to protect the front line, while making efficiency savings, as we all want to do. In difficult and challenging times, none of us in this House wishes to see resources from taxpayers not being put to their most effective use. I know that even the trade unions involved believe that there are more efficient ways in which we can deliver services to protect the public as a whole. There is a better way of working and we do not have to perpetuate the mistakes that we have made.

I think that we can make the savings that are achievable in Humberside this year and next year, and we can ensure that Humberside meets the tests, as it has done already, for trust status. We can also ensure that we continue to protect the public and deliver efficient and effective services, and that we do so in a way that I hope will take my right hon. and hon. Friends with us at a local level in Humberside and in other areas of the country.

These are very difficult and challenging issues, but I strongly believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe has raised them in a productive and positive way. I am grateful to my Labour colleagues for their attendance this evening, and I hope that there will be an opportunity to discuss these issues with the chief executive and the director of offender management in the coming weeks, to ensure that the budgets for 2010-11 and for 2009-10 are met. The budgets beyond that date are subject to further discussion after the comprehensive spending review, and I hope that that will allow the chief executive and the director of offender management to examine these issues in a new light and in a more productive way, with the option of helping to improve and defend these services for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Next Section Index Home Page