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4 Nov 2009 : Column 273WH—continued

NAPO has discovered that it is not uncommon for staff who are supervising low-risk offenders to have case loads in excess of 100. Those involved in supervising medium and high-risk offenders have case loads in excess of 60. A rough figure for a norm should be 25 to 30. Therefore, it is not rocket science to deduce that staff are under huge strain, and that affects their health,
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the service and so on. The problem is not about their ability or commitment; it is simply that there are insufficient people on the ground to do the work.

The gloomy and rather dangerous situation is likely to worsen as a result of the proposed cuts in budget announced for 2010-11. The probation service faces a cut of 4 per cent. in real terms in 2010-11. Further cuts of at least a similar amount will occur in 2011-12. Such cuts are bound to lead to the loss of posts and curtailment and reduction in the number of offender programmes that the probation service provides. The probation budget will be cut by £24 million in the financial year 2010-11 from an out-turn in the previous financial year of £894 million. However, that is an improvement on the indicative budget, which we heard about in October 2008, with an anticipated cut of £50 million. Therefore, we are grateful for the reduction in the cut, but it is still very serious. NAPO calculates that at least 1,000 people will lose their jobs over the next two years, half of whom will be front-line staff. Currently, there are just over 6,200 qualified probation officers in England and Wales. It is highly likely that the staff lost through natural wastage or voluntary redundancy will be the most experienced. When it happens, that scenario will place untold strain on the service, with potentially serious consequences. It is obvious that we are on the brink of a precipice.

Some time ago, on 12 October 2009, the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) tabled a question to the Minister that read:

The Minister responded:

Imagine our surprise, then, to find the information in a document that was to hand in December 2008. I understand how such things work; I understand that the Minister signs off parliamentary questions. However, I am afraid that it is an untruth. We can dress it up however we like, but a question was posed in October 2009 about whether the information was available, and the answer-a belt-and-braces answer-was "No, it's not." But here it is, available from nine months before, in December the previous year. It is all there to be read.

Maria Eagle: I do not like the use of the word "untruth", and I refute it. The document to which the hon. Gentleman refers was a one-off exercise. It was basically a ring-round to some probation areas to get a snapshot-not statistics that would stand up to any rigorous process of the kind that we expect in our parliamentary answers. Although I accept that there was some information, it was a snapshot. It was certainly not a statistical estimate. On that basis, I refute the idea that I have been telling untruths to Parliament.

John Cummings (in the Chair): I think that perhaps the hon. Gentleman might wish to withdraw the word "untruth".

Mr. Llwyd: Well, maybe the Minister unintentionally misled Parliament, if I can put it that way-I think that that is acceptable. But whether or not it is a snapshot, it
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is quite a bulky document, at 30 pages in length. She could at least have said, "Yes, some work is being done," and referred the hon. and learned Member for Harborough to the work of this particular delivery plan. Unfortunately, it has come out purely by accident. The existence of the document has only recently been made public. I leave it there. I certainly do not impute any unfair motives to the Minister, but somebody somewhere needs to explain what is going on. I do not lay any blame on her; I appreciate how such things work.

The document to which I refer has just been handed down. It shows that the information, albeit a snapshot, is available. The document, entitled "Offender Management Direct Contact Survey of Probation Boards and Probation Trusts", shows that 24 per cent. of time is spent engaged in direct contact with offenders, either face to face or by telephone, 41 per cent. of time is spent engaged in computer activity, whatever that means-

Maria Eagle: To illuminate slightly for the hon. Gentleman, some of the computer activity referred to includes completing OASys risk assessments of particular individuals. I would call that front-line work.

Mr. Llwyd: I am sure that is right, and I am glad that the Minister intervened. Some 35 per cent. of time was spent on non-computer activity, such as drafting correspondence and reports, administration and travel. The percentage of time spent with offenders falls to 18 per cent. in north Wales and an incredibly low 13 per cent. in west Mercia. A probation officer who was interviewed said:

It is the old problem of "statistics, statistics".

NAPO, not surprisingly, believes that it is an extraordinary state of affairs. Information from its members over the past 12 months shows that no more than 15 minutes a week is spent on low-risk offenders, rising to at most 30 minutes with high-risk offenders. In NAPO's view, that is woefully insufficient for the amount of supervision required.

The situation is even more serious. Over the past few years, the number of sex offenders housed in hostels has risen sharply. The hostels hold 2,500 offenders, predominantly on parole, and half are now sex offenders. The premises are now taking significant numbers of released terrorists, yet staff ratios have been reduced at night and those working in hostels are less well trained, increasing the risk of public protection compromises.

The Prison Governors Association has called for the abolition of sentences of one year or less. Last year, 75,000 people received such sentences. If such a measure were passed, it would ease prison overcrowding by reducing the daily prison population by at least 5,000. However, the probation service could not take them, as it is over capacity, and the vast majority of such offenders are unemployed and would be unable to pay fines. Indeed, early evidence suggests that the amount of fines collected has fallen. It is no doubt linked to offenders'
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ability to pay and a reduction in the number of enforcement officials. That analysis illustrates that the criminal justice system is beyond capacity.

The Government say that the probation service received an uplift of more than 70 per cent. between 1997 and 2006. However, there is no evidence of any increase in the number of trained probation officers. Indeed, since 2007, numbers have been in decline. What happened over that period was a two-thirds increase in the number of middle and senior managers. The truth is that we require more and more from an already overworked probation service for less.

The story on recruitment is also depressing. According to NAPO, it costs about £93,000 to train a probation officer for three years. The Government may argue that it costs £74,000, but both figures are high. It is therefore a waste of public funds to train someone without viable employment at the end of that training period. According to the most recent figures, announced last week, 459 trainees are expected to qualify this year. Of those, 59 have already left, 44 will be made redundant, 129 will be given temporary jobs until March and 27 do not yet know their future.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): That is certainly reflected in the Dyfed-Powys probation service, where seven or eight trainees were trained at great expense and only one was given full-time employment at the end of it. Several were given temporary employment until next March. That is surely a waste of resources that could have been put back into employing trained probation officers who could have coped with the case load a lot better.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He has hit the nail on the head. More to the point, as he knows, courts are being encouraged to consider properly structured and supervised community penalties, but there are fewer people to supervise them.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. The figures he quoted are from before the budget allocations. One would hope that they will improve significantly. The money in the budget additional to what the probation service expected is enough to employ 625 probation officers.

Mr. Llwyd: I hope that the Minister is right, but I have no confidence that the money will end up in the right place. The National Offender Management Service is a huge monstrosity and every right-thinking person thought that it was a waste of time. That huge empire is billowing out and spreading its tentacles all over the place. It was a waste of money from day one and is bound to fail. I suspect it will be reviewed yet again before long.

David Taylor: I secured an early debate on the Carter proposals that led to the creation of NOMS. As the hon. Gentleman said, the cost is one of the worst aspects of this issue. The training costs and two years' salary aggregate to a cost of about £100,000 for each trainee probation officer who is lost. That is serious money that could be better deployed to drive down crime in this country.


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Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman is right. I am not often accused of understating a case, but perhaps I understated the financial case by saying that training costs £74,000 or £93,000. Perhaps the cost is more than £100,000. That is undoubtedly a significant figure.

More than half of this year's trainees will be redundant and have no secure future beyond 2010. That is the pre-budget situation and we will see what happens. According to a parliamentary question in May 2009, seven trainee probation officers in Dyfed-Powys are expected to qualify this year, nine in Gwent, seven in North Wales and 21 in South Wales. Earlier this year, estimates suggested that the seven officers in Dyfed-Powys had been told that there were no vacancies and that any that appeared would be subject to competition. Eight were in the same situation in North Wales, eight in Gwent and 18 in South Wales. We must hope that the partial reversal in the cuts will assist that situation. Even if it does, we are in deep trouble. If the aim is to ensure that we have properly supervised community penalties, we should not be maintaining the status quo, but increasing resources.

After I raised concerns over this issue in Parliament earlier this year, I was contacted by several trainees who were bitterly disappointed that, having gone through rigorous training, they would not be offered employment. When Gwenno Jones wrote to me, I wrote to the Justice Secretary to raise the complaint. On 5 September 2009, I received a response from Lord Bach, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, on behalf of the Justice Secretary. He thanked me for the letter and wrote:

The letter closed with the usual infamous local democracy clause:

as if they could employ staff with insufficient resources.

The Minister said that I had confined myself to the situation in London so I will move on to other areas. In Avon and Somerset, 16 trainee probation officers will not be offered jobs, eight will not be offered jobs in Dorset, nine in Lancashire, nine in Lincolnshire, nine in North Yorkshire, 18 in South Wales and 28 in the West Midlands. In Cumbria, 10 trainees will compete for two posts. In Durham, 10 trainees will not be offered posts after March 2010. In Gloucestershire, 10 trainee probation officers who are qualifying in the autumn have been offered temporary 12-month contracts only.

For the sake of the probation service and society, I hope that the Minister was right that things will change because of the change in the budgetary scenario. Whether
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it costs £93,000 or £100,000, training probation officers and not offering them employment when their services are desperately needed is the economics of the madhouse. In total, it is estimated that £20 million is wasted. At the same time, there have been huge overspends on large centralised projects. The National Offender Management Service headquarters has cost more than £1 billion.

Maria Eagle: NOMS HQ includes the shared services for all our prisons and special services such as tornado units, which deal with trouble and problems in our prisons. It does not just contain secretaries and staff for the senior people in NOMS. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind when he quotes the figures.

Mr. Llwyd: Did I say that it was just for senior staff?

Maria Eagle: I was just clarifying.

Mr. Llwyd: The Minister is very tetchy today. I have never been intervened on so many times by a Minister. Perhaps it is a compliment. She is obviously on the back foot, otherwise she would not be jumping up and down. She must be very fit because she has been jumping up and down at an alarming speed.

Perhaps I can put it like this: NOMS contains departments that might not be part of the probation service. The NOMS bureaucracy spend increased by £140 million between 2006 and 2009. It is interesting to compare that with the probation budget, which rose by only £29 million in that time. The Public Accounts Committee is taking an interest in the infamous C-NOMIS project, which is three years late and has reached twice its original budget. Had it been in use, it would probably have prevented the Sonnex murders.

Sadly, the overall picture being painted of the Ministry of Justice includes the wasting of resources and an unrealistic expectation of the work load that a probation officer can complete. I hope that the Minister will show some good faith and at the least ensure that the 450 recently qualified trainees will be offered posts. It is typical of this Government to try to run everything on the cheap and to squeeze more out of an orange than is possible. The criminal justice system is not far from collapse. I know that as a barrister who appears in court and am not just making it up. The price of failure is complete anarchy. I urge the Government to reconsider the settlement and to ensure that the highly-trained and motivated youngsters we are discussing can go into the work for which they are well qualified. Society would benefit as a result.

2.59 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): This is a useful debate, given the concerns that have been expressed about probation over the past few weeks. No doubt the Minister will refer to the big increases in the probation budget in the past 10 years, and rightly so. There was a 70 per cent. increase in the budget from 1997 to 2007. That is not something that happens by chance. Budget increases of that size happen because Governments decide to put the money in. It is important that we give credit for what has been done on the budget. In addition, there is no doubt that the service's performance, in
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relation to meeting targets, has been improving, and that it is now doing extremely well. In 2008-09, only one of its service targets was not met, and that was one of a long list of targets.

However, as I am sure the Minister knows, and as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has just described, there are concerns, particularly within the probation service, about what has been happening with budgets and what is going to happen in the next year or two. The Minister went to the National Association of Probation Officers conference in Torquay-I was there the following day-and she will have heard, as I did, some of the concerns expressed by serving probation officers.

As I say, the service is doing a good job, and it is important to recognise that, because it gets a bad press. It is inevitable that the press will report cases where something has gone wrong, and that there will not be many press reports describing a case that the probation service has handled well-a case where somebody has been supervised and kept out of trouble. We will inevitably get reports of the cases that go wrong or, to take the example of the Sonnex case, very badly wrong.

Of course, we do not want cases to go wrong, but the probation service sometimes deals with some extremely difficult and dangerous people. I would not like to be in the position of some probation officers, who have to make decisions about how dangerous people should be supervised, the risk that they pose and what should be done with them. Some hon. Members might have seen an article in The Guardian last month-I think it was dated 6 October-where a reporter was given access to a number of meetings, involving probation and prison staff, at which they discussed how to handle people who were about to be released from custody. There are some very difficult and dangerous people to be dealt with and, as I say, I am not sure that I would like to have that responsibility, with the tabloid press breathing down my neck and waiting to see whether I make a mistake.

If we consider the core tasks of the probation service and what has happened in the past few years, it is obvious that there has been a big increase in work load. From 2005 to 2007, court reports increased by more than 20,000. Between 1997 and 2007 there was a 36 per cent. increase in the number of cases of supervision in the community. Now, there are well over 200,000 community orders and parole cases being dealt with-there are 240,000-and significant numbers of those people have to be taken back to court or returned to prison because of breaches.

There has been a significant increase in the number of recalls to prison, which, again, indicates the work being done by the probation service to track what is happening to the people they are supervising. There are 2,500 people in hostels, half of whom are sex offenders. Practically all the people in hostels who are supervised by the probation service pose some real risk, and need experienced supervision.


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