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The hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to inadequate staffing in Greenwich and Lewisham, and I think that he is probably right about that, as it is also the view of Paul Wilson, who has replaced Mr. Scott on a temporary basis. What has emerged from work done across London Probation is that, overall, there was no shortage of resources—there could not have been; it underspent—the problem was the way the resources were allocated. The head of London Probation and the senior supervisors failed to take account of high work loads in some boroughs and lack of work loads in others, and they failed to shift resources accordingly. They failed to notice, for example, that although the average sickness rate across all London boroughs was already too high at about 13 days a year, it was running
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at 27 days a year—five and a half weeks—in Greenwich and Lewisham. That, alone, should have alerted senior managers to the problems that had to be faced.

Let me deal with the overall effectiveness of London Probation and of probation services more generally. I hesitate to use these figures—they are not being quoted by me or others in any way as an excuse for the failings that took place—but it happens to be the case that starting from a lamentable period of performance about a decade or so ago, there has been year by year improvement, including in recent years, in London Probation’s recall performance. It was down at a third 10 years ago, but it is up to 88 per cent. for the most recent period—and we intend to increase it still more.

As for money, I am happy to take lectures from some others on that subject, but not from the Conservative Front-Bench team, which is committed to further cuts. The money for London Probation has gone up by 62 per cent. since 2001 and by 16 per cent. since 2005. The probation service budget is not being cut by £30 million—not at all. In common with other public services, it is facing tighter budgets than it had before, but that is from a position of very generous settlements over many years.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is typical of my right hon. Friend to come to the House to accept responsibility for the failings of his Department, but I am afraid that what he has said will not satisfy the parents of those who have died. Anyone who has read the victim impact assessment statements will know that the parents do not feel that what has been said so far has been satisfactory. My right hon. Friend talks about an increase in resources, but last year, as he said in an answer to me, the number of sick days in the probation service was 239,000. Replacing the chief executive of London Probation is simply not sufficient. Will he give the House an assurance that he will seek a very early meeting with the new Home Secretary, who has just left the Chamber, to address the communication problems so that when a request is made in the future, it is implemented immediately rather than in 33 days, which is the time it took for the last request from the probation service to be implemented by the police?

Mr. Straw: I will talk—indeed, I have already done so—to the new Home Secretary. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) for his comments. As I have highlighted in my answers to him, the level of sickness in some parts of London Probation was simply unacceptable. Given the shock created by this lamentable failure, as with the shock felt about similar previous incidents, improvements have been made, but we have to ensure that we raise the overall standard of management of the probation service, the police and the Prison Service in the handling of these dangerous offenders.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

This is a grim and dreadful case. I agree with the Secretary of State that ultimately the blame must lie with the evil individuals who carried out these appalling crimes, but the authorities must accept some degree of responsibility where their actions have contributed to creating the opportunity for crimes to be committed.
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That is why the right hon. Gentleman was right to apologise to the families of the victims for the failures across the criminal justice system: the Prison Service, the probation service, the Courts Service and the police. However, I must question his view that all the failures were failures of individuals or of management, and not failures of policy.

The right hon. Gentleman has said repeatedly that there was not a problem with overall resources, only a problem with the way in which those resources were allocated. Will he confirm what independent research has found—that the number of front-line probation officers in London fell by more than 700 between 2002 and 2006? If resources are not a problem, why has he announced the provision of 100 more probation officers in London? Surely that announcement itself flatly contradicts his argument.

The Secretary of State referred to the £3.5 million underspend in the London probation service, but did not answer the question put to him by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). May I ask that question in a slightly different way? Will he tell the House precisely how the underspend came about? Is it not the case that underspends often happen because of too frequent changes of policy, and because politicians demand change on unrealistic time scales, so that managers do not know how to plan for the long term? Can the Secretary of State guarantee that nothing of that sort happened in this case?

What explains the extraordinary figures relating to the inexperience of the probation officers concerned—nine months’ experience in the case of one officer at the centre of these events, and only two years’ experience in the case of the supervising officer? What has happened to all the experienced officers?

Let me turn to the subject of the Prison Service and the mistakes that were made about the classification of Sonnex as medium risk. The Secretary of State recognises that part of the problem must have been the chaotic state of the C-NOMIS project. Is it not the case—the right hon. Gentleman has not answered this question properly yet—that the extra millions that the Government claim to have put into the probation service were thrown at that failed project? Do the Government not take responsibility for that failure, or is it merely managerial as well?

Finally, let me deal with the issue of the police. The crucial question is, why did they not take Sonnex into custody in the 16 days between his recall and the murders? Could that failure have anything to do with the fact that at the time national police targets were all about sanction detections, so the kind of work involved in taking Sonnex back into prison would have been a low priority?

There are questions to be answered here, not just by individual officials on the operational side of the criminal justice system but by those responsible for policy, and ultimately that includes the Government.

Mr. Straw: I have made it clear from the moment when this matter became public last Thursday that I accept responsibility for the failures that have happened. They were mainly, but of course not exclusively, failures—I was going to say “failures by individuals”, but they were
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failures within an environment as well. I am not suggesting that the authorities should not—if I may pick up the phrase used by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—accept some degree of responsibility. Of course they do: London Probation does, so does the National Offender Management Service, so do the Metropolitan police, and so do I.

The hon. Gentleman quoted a figure relating to a decline in London probation officer numbers which I simply do not recognise. The figures that I have show that between 2003 and 2007 inclusive—I do not have last year’s figures—there was a net increase in the number of senior probation officers and probation officers as a whole. That included a decline in the number of senior probation officers, an increase in the number of probation officers, and a very big increase in the number of probation service officers. Across the country, there has been an increase between 1997 and 2007 of getting on for 200 in the number of probation officers and senior probation officers, and an increase of more than 4,000 in the number of probation service officers. The money that has been put in has, therefore, gone principally on additional staff, as well as greatly improved training.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the inexperience of the probation officers who were expected to supervise Sonnex. That was terrible, and it is one of the reasons I have been extremely anxious throughout all my public comments not to suggest that that individual probation officer was responsible for the errors that were made. To do so would be unacceptable, because of the fact that somebody of such inexperience was put in charge and that they were given far too high a case load, despite neither being necessary given the resources available within the service.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned C-NOMIS. In 2007, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) made the decision to stop C-NOMIS—to reduce its scope. His decisions, for which I commend him, have been endorsed by the Public Accounts Committee, and a reduced C-NOMIS will be operational next year. It is not the case that it sucked resources away from front-line probation services.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about national police targets. They have been one of the contributory factors that have led to a significant reduction in crime, which affects all our constituents, but they had nothing whatever to do with the failures here. The police had the target, which should have been shorter, to arrest Sonnex within 96 hours—four days. They palpably failed to meet that target, when they should have done, and that should be seen along with the other failures elsewhere in the system.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): This was obviously an absolutely horrific crime and there were some inexcusable failings in how it was dealt with, such as failures to share information. The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that it was not a matter of resources, but he has also said that staffing levels were inadequate in that part of the probation service. How many cases was this inexperienced officer being asked to handle, and how confident can the Secretary of State be that officers will not be in a similar position in future given that we are expecting significant cuts in probation service budgets over the next few years?

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Mr. Straw: The officer was handling about 120 cases, and for the level of work load and responsibility, it should have been 50 or 60; that is accepted. The issue, however, is that resources were not allocated properly either across different London boroughs according to their needs, or within each borough according to the priority that ought to be given to offenders. Too little was going to high-pressured boroughs and, in a sense, too much was going to those that could have managed with rather fewer resources.

How confident am I that the service can manage? I am as confident as I can be. As my hon. Friend knows from experience, it is impossible in any system to guarantee that an offender released from prison, however long they have served and however serious their parole reassessment, will never commit a further offence. Life is not like that, I am afraid, and we would be deluding the public if we said that we thought otherwise. We are, however, taking every step we can to improve the system and ensure that this kind of appalling thing is less likely to happen.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Is the Justice Secretary seriously claiming that, if there had not been a 2.5 per cent. underspend in the London probation service and there had been some reallocation of resources, the case load, supervision levels and experience of the officers involved would have been adequate throughout the boroughs of Lewisham and Greenwich? Does he also recognise that the shattering effect on public confidence of this case and the Monckton case is so great that in order for us to have a system of licensing, which any good prison system needs, an enormous effort will have to go into winning public confidence in the fact that soundly based decisions are made and that they are effectively implemented?

Mr. Straw: I am quite clear, and I have been assured of this, that there was no reason why within existing resources there should not have been a more sensible case load and more experienced officers allocated to cover such a case, even in London. Indeed, in general, including in London, this kind of case is covered by more experienced and better supervised officers.

On resources, I must repeat the point that an almost unique level of sickness of, on average, five and a half weeks for the staff in that office was ridiculously high and should have alerted senior managers to the fact that there were some endemic problems requiring immediate effort.

I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about the issue of release on licence—public confidence has been damaged—but it is far better for such offenders to be released on licence than simply to be dumped in the community, which is what used to happen.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State to focus on the issue of early release during a sentence? Where a person is sentenced to eight years—or to eight months, for that matter—one can understand their being released after half their time if they have behaved well in prison, but if they have behaved disgracefully is there not an argument for their being made to serve their full sentence? If that does not happen, what is the point of their behaving well? I am sure that many of us would find it quite offensive to hear that this person committed 40 breaches of discipline yet still came out.

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Mr. Straw: Had this man behaved properly and also presented a very low risk of reoffending, he would have received parole—he was refused that on two occasions. I accept, however, the burden of what the hon. Gentleman says, which is that there are some offenders who ought to stay in prison until it is safe to release them. That is why we introduced, to some controversy, the sentence of indeterminate detention for public protection. More than 5,000 offenders are now on an IPP and it is having a salutary effect on them.

Mr. Malins: That is a different point.

Mr. Straw: It is not different; an IPP would have applied in this case, but the provision was not on the statute book when this man was sentenced in 2003.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): One must question the culture of an organisation that imposes the management of a criminal of this degree of evil on someone who is so inexperienced and who has such a case load—they had about 100 other cases to manage. The Secretary of State ought to be able to give the House a cast-iron guarantee today that criminals of such calibre will simply not be managed in this way in the future.

Mr. Straw: I give the House, and the hon. Gentleman, the guarantee that I am determined to ensure that this kind of failing does not happen. What I cannot do, because we are dealing with thousands of staff and many thousands of potential offenders, is give an absolute guarantee—nobody in my shoes could do so—that there will never be failings of this kind. I pray to God that there will not be any such failings, but I cannot guarantee it.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The Justice Secretary knows that hundreds of probation officers throughout England and Wales are grossly overworked and have far too many cases with which to try to deal. Why are these cuts now affecting recruitment? In Wales, 41 of the 44 probation officers who will qualify in October will be without jobs, and the situation is the same from Humberside to Somerset. I fear that this sort of thing will happen again—please God that it does not.

Mr. Straw: There is an issue to address about the fact that, at the moment, those on training to do probation work are not necessarily matched to jobs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) is about to issue a new consultation on changing the training of probation officers, and I commend that to the House. Part of that will involve ensuring that there is a direct match between the places available for training and the guarantee of a job at the end of it; that will be better all round. There has been a reduction in vacancies because of the overall economic climate, but I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the probation service, be it in Wales or elsewhere, will suffer serious cuts. Money is tighter than it has been, but it is tighter from a high base.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): To return to the issue of length of sentence raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), this criminal was imprisoned for eight years and, according to the Secretary of State, behaved violently there and admitted to a
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prison medical officer that his reactions could kill, so many people will be surprised to learn that the maximum sentence that he could serve was only five years. There does not seem to be much transparency in sentencing, and that will not restore the confidence of the British people. If a sentence is eight years, should it not be eight years?

Mr. Straw: This should not be a party political issue, but this man was sentenced under Conservative legislation, he had to be released at the two thirds point and the licence lasted only until the three quarter point. We have tried to change that structure. We could say that prisoners should serve exactly the sentence that is awarded by the courts, or we could have minimums and maximums, as the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) suggested—effectively what we have at the moment. However sentences are denominated, we need to have incentives for good behaviour and penalty periods for bad behaviour. We also need to take into account the fact that the prison population is rising and will continue to rise, and resources—although they should be increased—are finite. Those are realities that affect Governments of every persuasion.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): The statement understandably concentrated on the probation service, but if events on 16 May had been handled correctly, two young men would be alive today. Sonnex was brought before the courts on a completely separate offence and was granted bail, when that should never have happened. In the statement, the Secretary of State says that it is still not clear exactly what transpired on that day. How can we have no idea why someone was given bail when he should have been in prison?

Mr. Straw: I try to tell the truth in this House, and I wish I could give a better account of what happened in that court, but I cannot. Magistrates courts are not courts of record, and there is a wholly inadequate record of what transpired. It is clear that no application to oppose bail was made by the prosecution. It also appears clear that the reason no application was made was that inquiries had suggested that Sonnex was due to be rearrested for a breach. It is clear that the information available to the court was flaky. The answer to the question about whether he was about to be rearrested was not pinned down, and the Attorney-General, the police service and Her Majesty’s Courts Service are determined to ensure that this does not happen again. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that if this man had been remanded in custody on 16 May, as he had been on 3 May, none of the rest of this would have happened.

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