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House of Commons

Tuesday 16 June 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Probation Services

1. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for probation services; and if he will make a statement. [279663]

4. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What assessment he has made of the likely effect on probation services in the period up to 2011 of reductions in probation service budgets. [279667]

7. Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for probation services; and if he will make a statement. [279670]

9. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of levels of funding for probation services; and if he will make a statement. [279673]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Probation funding has increased since 1997 by 70 per cent. in real terms, a faster rate than the increase in case load and almost twice the growth rate of the Prison Service. Staff numbers have increased by 50 per cent., with a 54 per cent. increase in front-line staff.

The budget for this year is £894 million. Taking account of a £17 million underspend in 2008-09, the required efficiency savings will be less than half of 1 per cent. No final decisions have been made about the budgets for 2010-11.

Paul Rowen: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he accept that in the past three years more than 300 people on probation have been charged with murder, and 130 with attempted murder? What has caused that, if not a lack of resources?

Mr. Straw: I wish it was that simple. The hon. Gentleman must take account of the comments of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of probation, who has pointed out a simple truth that would apply even were there ever to be
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a Liberal Democrat Government: some people who go on to commit the most serious offences have already committed less serious offences and will therefore be on probation at an earlier stage. That is a matter of great regret, but it happens to be a truth. There is no point in misleading the public that there is some promised land where doubling the amount of money available would mean that no one who committed a murder had ever committed previous offences for which they had been punished.

Mr. Dunne: The Justice Secretary seems to be in denial. He keeps harking back to what has happened since 1997, but people involved in the probation service are worried about what is happening this year and next. The budgets for next year and the year after that were set out in the comprehensive spending review have now been withdrawn, and probation trusts do not know what they are dealing with. In my area, West Mercia probation trust, 30 out of 390 posts are being lost. None of the trainees due to complete their training period this year, or of those expected to do so next year, can be sure that there will be a job to go to. What sort of service is the right hon. Gentleman running?

Mr. Straw: I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what sort of service we are running. In his area, funding has increased by 70 per cent. in cash terms, whereas prices have gone up by less than 25 per cent. The probation service across the country is worried not about stable funding under Labour, but about a 10 per cent. cut under the Conservatives. Moreover, I have heard the shadow Chancellor say time and again that spending would have been much less this year and in previous years. There would have been a lower platform, and lower spending now.

Paul Holmes: Although funding for the probation service has gone up in recent years, the case load has gone up by even more. In the past four years, the average case load per qualified probation officer has risen by a third. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has said:

placed on it

I know that staff at Derbyshire probation service would heartily concur with that.

Mr. Straw: I wholly disagree. In the hon. Gentleman’s area, Derbyshire, probation funding has gone up by an even greater proportion than it has in West Mercia. It has gone up by 78 per cent., and that is since 2001, not 1997. There has been an astonishing increase in resources that exceeds the case load, and there is every reason to believe that Derbyshire probation service, which is well run, can meet its responsibilities. I hope it gets some backing from the hon. Gentleman in that.

Sandra Gidley: When confronted with the realities of probation overstretch in the case of Daniel Sonnex last week, the Secretary of State claimed that there had been a net increase in the number of probation officers over the previous five years. Will he admit, however, that that figure relies largely on the massive increase in the numbers
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of probation service officers, who are qualified to a lesser degree and cannot supervise high-risk offenders? Will he confirm that the number of qualified probation officers actually fell over the same period?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Lady reads too much of the briefing from the National Association of Probation Officers. I shall give her a health warning—it is often inaccurate, as it is in this respect. I can give her the figures since 1997. In 1997, there were 6,827 probation officers and senior probation officers, the latter being, by definition, more qualified than probation officers. By 2007, 10 years later, there were more than 7,000 probation officers. Probation service officers fulfil a very important function and their numbers have gone up. They take loads away from probation officers, and their numbers have gone up from under 2,000 to over 6,400.

John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the good, hard work of probation needs much wider back-up and support, particularly in relation to people who are released from prisons such as Armley prison in my constituency, where 50 people a day come in, and 50 a day come out? The main issues are drugs, alcohol and mental health. Would it not be better if his Department was backed up a bit more substantially by other Departments in providing skills and training, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation services in the community, so that all the burden was not on probation services?

Mr. Straw: I very strongly agree with my right hon. Friend, and my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health, and for Children, Schools and Families increasingly recognise that their services, particularly mental health, drug and alcohol treatment services, have an important role to play in diverting offenders from crime.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that part of the problem in assessing the effectiveness or otherwise of the probation service is that there is not a settled view as to what works, in terms of alternatives to custody? Does he agree that there is a case for holding an inquiry along the lines of the Carter review into sentencing, looking specifically at alternatives to custody, and including the probation service, so that we can arrive at a clearer picture of what needs to be done?

Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. At one level, it is much easier to assess the effectiveness of prison—provided prisoners are kept locked up—than the effectiveness of probation and other non-custodial sentences, but I agree with him that we need the most rigorous analysis of all methods that are used by probation services and others, so that we can arrive at the best approach for dealing in the community with those offenders who do not need to go to jail.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I hear what my right hon. Friend says about the increase in resources, but I am told that in Northumbria, for example, of the 24 probation officers currently in training, at a cost of £90,000 per course, only half will be offered temporary contracts at the end; the other half will be
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offered nothing at all. How does he explain the gap between the figures he has quoted, and what we are hearing on the ground?

Mr. Straw: The budget for Northumbria has increased dramatically in recent years, as has the budget for other services. Last year, there was a £600,000 underspend in Northumbria. The major problem is a mismatch between trainees and vacancies; that has to do with the overall economic downturn, but we are now dealing with it—I agree that this cannot deal with the historical problem of that mismatch—through profound changes in the training system, on which we are consulting. Those changes will mean that trainees will not be offered a traineeship unless there is a guaranteed job for them to go to.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that in Huddersfield and Kirklees we have an excellent probation service, and its members are very grateful for the Government’s investment over a number of years, but there is a communication problem. They are not happy at the moment, and from Huddersfield to Harry Fletcher, there are feelings of neglect. Can we make communication with the probation service a bit better?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I think that we do have to improve it. One of the things that I have been doing is holding very regular meetings, at least once a month, with senior officials from Unison and the National Association of Probation Officers to work through a range of issues, not least budgetary problems, where they arise, in an effort to resolve them before they cause serious difficulties locally, and I think that that process is working.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The right hon. Gentleman quoted some global figures, and mentioned increases. What he did not say is that we expect far more from probation officers today than we did 10 years ago. He will know that the young woman who is unfortunately ill now, having tried to do her best to supervise Sonnex, had 127 cases on her work load, whereas 40 would have been more than adequate. She is not unique, and the right hon. Gentleman must realise that if we are pushing for community penalties, and for probation officers to do all the other things that we expect them to do, we need resourcing, and we need officers on the ground.

Mr. Straw: There has been a significant increase in the number of officers. As became clear in the various reviews of the Sonnex case, all of which I published, the Greenwich and Lewisham division of London Probation was grossly mismanaged. The fact that there was a sickness level of 27.5 days—five and a half weeks’ sickness, on average, for every person working in the Greenwich and Lewisham area—compared with the average across London of about 13 days, which is too many, indicates the outrageously low level of management of that probation area. The senior management of London Probation should have noticed that. That is one of the reasons I agreed the suspension of the then chief officer of London Probation. I have every sympathy with the young woman who was in direct line supervision of Sonnex, which is why I have gone out of my way never to criticise her or her line colleagues; she and her colleagues, on the front line, were not to blame.

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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): On the point that my right hon. Friend just made, sickness levels often reflect staff morale. Virtually every year since 1999, I have met Ministers about London Probation, and although we have received global figures for increases in budgets, they do not seem to be reflected in the front-line staff increases that the staff report. To gain an accurate assessment, the justice unions parliamentary group is holding an evidence session on 15 July, inviting London probation officers to explain what is happening on the ground. I would welcome the Minister’s attendance at that session.

Mr. Straw: I shall do my best to come. There has been an increase of 63 probation officers in London. Sickness levels are principally a symptom of poor management. If one looks at levels of sickness in schools or local authorities or, for example, police stations in the Metropolitan police area, one sees that similar police divisions have very different levels of sickness. Of course that is a reflection of morale, but fundamentally of management. With decent management at divisional level, levels of sickness almost always go down.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Justice Secretary might know that there are proposals in relation to Staffordshire, some details of which we received as a result of a meeting today with senior management. In Staffordshire, we believe strongly in local identity and the local community, and we pay tribute to the probation service. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there are those of us who are seriously worried about the idea of a merger into a west midlands probation service? What is the rationale behind that, and will he review it?

Mr. Straw: I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, as is my hon. Friend the Minister of State, to discuss the matter. We have—I think there is general approbation for this—established the process of probation trusts. The first initiative on the boundaries to be followed is a matter for local decision, although there is a further decision level.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): In the past five years the budget in the west midlands has gone up a lot more than the case load. The number of probation officers has gone up, the number of probation service officers has gone up markedly and the percentage spent on administration has fallen, yet there are redundancies and there are great concerns among probation officers and probation service officers. That seems to be the case around the country. May I suggest that my right hon. Friend consider some inquiry into why there is a mismatch between the figures that he has been given and what seems to be happening on the ground around the country?

Mr. Straw: I accept, against a background of rising budgets for the past seven years, that budgets this year and next are tight. I established the process with the trade unions and with the Probation Association, which represents probation employers, to ensure that they are helped better to manage their budgets without the need for panic cuts, which are not justified by budgets this year or next year and are not likely to be justified the year after.

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David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Does not the whole debate about the resources available to probation illustrate the point that resources should be targeted ruthlessly on what works to reduce crime? One can go further than the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and say that we know what works in many circumstances—restorative justice, drug and alcohol treatment and mental health treatment. Does not the debate also illustrate the point that we should not waste money on what does not work or on programmes such as bibs, which are aimed more at manipulating public opinion than reducing crime? One can make the same accusation about the vast prison building system, which is based more on penal populism than on a genuine desire to get the crime rate even lower.

Mr. Straw: I gleaned from that when the hon. Gentleman talks about bibs, he means high-visibility jackets for offenders. If he wants—there is now overwhelming evidence of this—greater public confidence in the less expensive and often more effective community punishments of unpaid work, he must support measures to increase public confidence in those disposals. One of the best means that we have used recently to increase public confidence in those disposals at very low cost has been the introduction of high-visibility jackets. It has worked.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Teesside probation services received significant increases in funding over the years, but I am receiving letters from trainee probation officers who tell me that their chief probation officer has stated that indicative budgets for 2010-13 indicate clearly that they will not be employed after March 2010. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the concern of the young women who have written to me makes it clear that they believe that grass-roots officers are being penalised because there is a financial shortfall?

Mr. Straw: As I said earlier, all those concerns must be set against a very high base of spending by the probation service, and the service itself will recognise that, I am sure. I have some information detailing that, of a cohort of 42 probation trainees, 18 will be offered probation officer contracts, 12 will be offered probation service officer contracts and 12 will be considered for other junior roles. I have already referred to the problem that has arisen, which is principally to do with the shortage of vacancies due to the economic downturn and the fact that we are changing the whole system. However, a probation service career is still a very good career, and it will remain so as long as there is a Labour Administration who are not going in for blanket 10 per cent. cuts in spending.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): The Justice Secretary has told the House that the system cannot be made perfect, and I agree, but he has had an opportunity to hear comments from all parts of the House about the state of the probation service. It is clearly untenable to maintain—I am sure he would not seek to do so—that, in the light of those comments, the Sonnex case is a one-off. Indeed, the statistic that one in seven homicides charged is to a person on probation is appalling. The Justice Secretary has told us about figures, but what is he doing to try to remedy the situation?

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