Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, perhaps I may be permitted to intervene briefly to tell your Lordships that this debate will now finish at 6.56 p.m.

4.56 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, other noble Lords have dealt ably with the detail of the current proposals the Home Secretary is making in relation to the training and recruiting of probation officers. It is my intention to set those proposals within the wider context of the Government's penal policy. It is perhaps the single merit of the proposals that they are consistent with the rest of the current approach to penal policy.

5 Apr 1995 : Column 214

That approach has two main characteristics. First, it is populist, designed to appeal to the most primitive human instincts of anger and a desire for vengeance. Secondly, it is characterised by its refusal to accept contrary research evidence and the experience of practitioners in the field. Other Tory Home Secretaries in the past saw such policies as a short-cut to electoral popularity. But some, like the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, had the wisdom to change their minds and to admit that short, sharp shocks do not reduce recidivism, are extremely expensive and may even create tougher and more resentful criminals.

There is no sign that the current Home Secretary has learnt from his previous mistakes or those of his predecessors. Indeed, the latest Green Paper is called Punishment in the Community. Not only does he continue to use words like "discipline" and "punishment" as though they are talismans that will ward off electoral defeat, but he also continues to bring forward policies based on emotion and irrationality that fly in the teeth of the evidence.

For example, a report of a Home Office survey into the use of soft drugs which was published in today's papers shows that cannabis use among young people is widespread, amounting to some 4 million users. In recognition of that fact, police forces for many years pursued a policy of cautioning or taking no action for the possession of a small amount of cannabis. Yet the Home Secretary, while that piece of research was going on, in a purely political and futile gesture last year, increased by fivefold the fine for cannabis possession. Behaving, as he so often does, like King Canute, is not a sensible way to conduct penal policy.

The current Home Office proposals for probation officer recruitment and training are but another example of that approach, based on prejudice and simplistic stereotypes of social workers, probation officers, magistrates and criminals. An example of the Home Secretary's thought processes is the speech that he made last week in which he said:

    "Retired Army officers ... understand the need for discipline and they won't stand any nonsense. That's exactly what offenders need!".

That is disgraceful from a Home Secretary. As the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said in her powerful speech, he should realise that it requires considerable expertise, knowledge of psychology, sociology and experience in the field to be an effective probation officer.

Another thing that puzzles me is why we constantly turn to the United States for our ideas about penal policy. The United States has a murder rate approximately six times our own. It has 1.5 million people in prison. Indeed, Florida's gaols are now so overcrowded that they have had to introduce a capping policy and they are releasing prisoners on a purely arbitrary basis. At the other end of the country, in California, there are empty private prisons which are touting for custom because they are too expensive to fill.

There are much more effective penal policies closer at hand and I cannot understand why we do not look to Scandinavia, to Holland or to Germany where they have reduced crime and their prison population. I say that I

5 Apr 1995 : Column 215

do not understand, but of course I understand only too well that their policies are not sufficiently draconian and eye-catching.

Instead, in this country we introduce ideas because they will capture the public imagination, even though they have already failed—the tagging of criminals (the trial in this country was a failure, but it is nevertheless to be introduced); secure detention centres for 14 year-olds (a re-run of the failed junior detention centres which the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, introduced when he was Home Secretary and which were subsequently abandoned); and boot camps for 16 year-olds (persisted in despite American evidence that they succeed in reducing recidivism only when combined with substantial inputs of education and therapy, which suggests that it is the latter that are effective and not the tough discipline). Other misguided policies have been the introduction of private prisons—an abdication of government responsibility—and the failure last year to make crime prevention a duty of the new police authorities.

All these policies place the emphasis on punishment, which cannot within a penal system be an end in itself. It does not act as a deterrent. The chance of prosecution is remote and conviction and sentence are often months or years after an offence. Moreover, all the evidence is that punishment works, as in a family or school, only within a context of respect and affection, whereas within a penal system it is inclined to make people worse, not better.

If severity of punishment becomes an electoral gimmick to attract popular support, we are in serious danger of following another new trend in the United States in which politicians vie with each other in promising ever more severe retribution against criminals, including a variety of ways of killing them, to secure their election. This is a slippery slope which leads back to lynch mobs, public executions and, no doubt in due course, additional torments such as being hanged, drawn and quartered. We need penal policies based on knowledge and experience, not on prejudice and ambition.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Bancroft: My Lords, if I may say so, what a speech to be condemned to follow! I shall confine myself to four questions about the chronology of the Dews Report and to three respectful comments. I am sure that the noble Earl will answer them with his usual expertise and courtesy.

I concentrate on the Dews Report because it is the bedrock on which the Home Office recommendations are built. I am not clear what evidentially supported motives inspired the commissioning of the report. The first cohort of probation officers whose training statutorily embodied the diploma in social work emerged in significant numbers only towards the end of 1993. The review was set up early in 1994 with unambiguously skewed terms of reference which referred to Home Office concern,

    "that present arrangements did not meet the needs of the modern probation service and did not offer value for money".

Yet the report itself acknowledges that,

5 Apr 1995 : Column 216

    "the probation service and the academic institutions argued strongly that the present arrangements met the service's needs".

By strong implication, the courts agree. The money savings will be small. My first question therefore is: what moved who in the Home Office to set in train a radical review of the new training when its first products had only just emerged in significant numbers?

The report says that the service needs to recruit mature people with a breadth of experience and,

    "there is evidence of a recent trend to younger entry".

The report was published in September 1994 and records that the majority of the 1993 entrants were over the age of 30 and 42 per cent. had previous careers in a wide variety of occupations. Given the chronology, I ask my second question. What evidence is there over a sustained period to justify the claims about this "recent trend"?

The report acknowledges that,

    "most people within the probation service argued that a social work qualification was appropriate to probation work but there was a strand of opinion"—

a strand of opinion, my Lords, that the jobs of social workers and probation officers were becoming significantly different.

The report was compiled in a little over 90 days—some time between February and September 1994. That was while the central council was conducting its second updating review to ensure that the training accommodated the latest Home Office requirements. The council approved the results of that review in February 1995. My third question is: what solid and sustainable evidence is there to back this "strand of opinion"?

It is repeatedly implied that the diploma in social work course is not all that relevant to the needs of the modern probation service. That is manifestly untrue. The report also claims that, despite the diploma partnerships system,

    "both the profile of students selected and control of the training itself in practice seemed to"—
"seemed to", my Lords—

    "rest with academic institutions rather than the probation service".

That claim is inherently implausible given the part played by the Home Office, via its bursaries, and by the probation service, via its partnership status, and the fact that one third of the diploma training course is on the job and therefore entirely the responsibility of the probation service. So my fourth question is: what specific evidence over what period is there to support this cloudy claim? I have in mind the explicitly contrary conclusion drawn by the Industrial Society, whose findings in this and in many other respects clearly and cleanly contradict the recommendations in the Dews Report.

I now venture three brief comments. First, there is a disturbing disconnection between the evidence and the recommendations in the Dews Report; and it is the latter, not the former, which are aggressively repeated in the doubtfully literate discussion paper.

5 Apr 1995 : Column 217

Secondly, it is sad to see departmental Ministers dragging two relatively junior named members of the Civil Service into a highly visible and unusually contentious experiment in ideological engineering. It is thoroughly unfair on the officials concerned.

Thirdly, your Lordships will recall Mr. Gradgrind, Mr. Choakumchild and Mr. Bounderby in the novel Hard Times. The last named, Mr. Bounderby, was the Bully of humility—a certain resonance there—who disbelieved profoundly in "your model schools, your training schools, your whole kettle of fish schools", but he believed profoundly in "hard-headed, solid-fisted people". I suggest to your Lordships that the shade of Mr. Bounderby presides over this—and I regret having to use these words—affront to rationality and good government.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge: My Lords, first I must declare an interest; not, I regret to say, a commercial one, but nonetheless real for that. I was one of the founders of NACRO some 29 years ago. Noble Lords who listened to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate will realise that there are two people in this House who work for NACRO and who are very keen. It is now the largest and, with the exception of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the oldest of the voluntary bodies set up to help accused people on remand, sentenced, in prison or coming out of it—in other words, the offender from beginning to end. Basically, its work has continued to develop, but always developing in the closest possible association with the probation service.

I have heard nine speeches today. After 25 years in your Lordships' House I do not believe that I have ever got up to speak after nine speeches having agreed with every one of them and, on the whole, fully. The only speech which strayed a little was that of the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, who spoke about something which interests us all very much indeed, but which was not quite so directly on the probation point, but none the worse for that. I feel that I shall not only not have to exercise my own wits very much, but I believe I shall give noble Lords some pleasure if I do not.

It is worth saying that when we first started NACRO we pressed very strongly for a welfare officer to be put into every prison. I need hardly say that the first one was a probation officer.

I have a particular interest in this debate because our work in NACRO is so closely associated with, and so largely dependent on, an efficient probation service. In rough figures, we employ about 1,200 workers who deal with about 200,000 cases a year. Almost every one of these cases is either sent to us by, or is returned by us to, a probation officer so that there is no organisation in this country which knows more about the probation service than we do.

I tell the House all this because I want to make it clear that our opinion of the probation service is based on nearly 30 years working closely with it and our opinion is perfectly clear. Probations officers are doing

5 Apr 1995 : Column 218

a really good job. We make mistakes occasionally, and they do, but, by and large, really good work is achieved by our association together.

We deplore the Home Secretary's wish to change, by changing the training, the type of man or woman now recruited and carefully trained for the service. We particularly deplore the lack of deeper training, which is the university side. Among other things, the Home Secretary is proposing to remove a great deal of the decision-making which is now part of each probation officer's daily, normal procedure. In particular, the proposal to do away with social work training shows no understanding of at least half of a probation officer's duties. I will not go on about that because we have heard again and again how different the probation duties are and what special treatment is necessary.

I do not believe that I have ever met a prison governor who did not believe that quite a large number of his prisoners should not be in prison at all. As regards re-offending, those on community service orders do distinctly better, but not as much as we had hoped, than those who come out of prison. Even though that difference is not very large—it is something under 10 per cent.—our people cost £25 a week whereas those in prison cost £437 a week, which is about 20 times as much. I can never understand why the Treasury have never got on to this specific waste of money. Perhaps they will read this debate and ask some questions.

We often find the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who is to reply, left with rather sticky problems. He is asked to defend the indefensible and to answer the unanswerable. We all know that nobody does it better than he and we like him for it. But I hope that we can persuade him to persuade the Home Secretary to think again and to leave well alone so that the probation service can go on with its excellent work without being fussed about.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I should like to add my thanks to the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for bringing this important subject before us for debate today. Perhaps my placing in the list is suitable because had I spoken earlier the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, would perhaps have been unable to say that he agreed with everything that had been said.

I have been on the Bench since 1968 and for much of the time since then I have been a member of the probation liaison committee. When I first joined we were a small Bench of 26, with two probation officers—an experienced middle-aged man and an exceptionally good woman. Our meetings with them consisted of a review of their current, and sometimes past, offenders in their care. Perhaps I may say at this stage that I cannot remember the word "client" being used in those days. They were always useful and informative meetings and I felt that our frank discussions led to a friendly and professional relationship.

But by the time we got to the 1970s everything seemed to go haywire, with a political agenda and some very different recruits. I suppose it was part of the "doing your own thing" syndrome. The attire of officers

5 Apr 1995 : Column 219

with their informal approach certainly raised eyebrows. Some of us found it difficult to accept their very liberal recommendations offered in reports.

It seemed to me a great pity that they did not give realistic recommendations. They did not seem to emerge in their reports. Often when we believed that only a custodial sentence could be considered, never once was custody recommended. In fact, we were told that it was a disciplinary offence for an officer to take such a decision. If only that had been realised magistrates would have had more confidence if an officer made such a suggestion.

That lack of trust spread to the general public who saw probation as a soft option and offenders just getting away with it. However, over the years things have improved. Under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 probation officers have become very much more important in sentencing. The development of community sentences and community service orders has led to a more professional relationship with magistrates.

I have always felt that the probation service is essential for best practice in sentencing in serious cases. The pre-sentence report can reveal much of the background so that an effective sentence can be imposed by magistrates. I believe that we should always remember that it is the magistrates who take the final decision.

I am sure that some of your Lordships will find it impertinent for me to comment on the training of people who hold such an important and influential position. However, as a lay person perhaps I may be allowed to make a few observations. First, I believe that the work performed by probation officers is demanding and difficult and requires training that gives them the specialised skills and experience required. The competence they acquire should be recognised by the award of a diploma, but I do not know that it need necessarily be a diploma in social work. I also believe that people who are non-academic could gain qualification by training on the job.

Secondly, I find it strange that a probation officer must have a social work diploma but there is no such obligation for a social worker. Thirdly, it seems to me that to go straight from school to university to qualification is narrow. I should like to think that all probation officers will have had experience of life and a job in the wider world. Fourthly, I feel that sandwich courses with distance learning would be far more beneficial for the more mature entrants. Perhaps in that way they could be self-supporting and not face too great a drop in salary. Finally, I find it strange that community service organisers do not have the constraints of qualification. Of course, they cannot progress to become probation officers without undertaking a university course; but with training, why not?

We need people in the service with varied experience and backgrounds. A mother who has successfully brought up a family with all the problems that can occur could, for example, bring a wisdom and understanding that cannot be learned from a book. I am sure that the sharing of views would enhance the quality of the reports.

5 Apr 1995 : Column 220

Probation officers are respected and valued by the courts but, I am sorry to say, not always by the public. Our role must be to ensure that people have confidence in the system. They need to feel that probation is not a soft option and that a community sentence is a punishment that provides really challenging unpaid work for offenders.

We have moved to a society in which people may have two or three careers during their working lives. I feel that the proposed measures should be developed and studied in detail and with care to take forward a service which has changed over the years and which now needs to adapt to the challenge of the proposals that are before us today.

5.21 p.m.

Lord Walpole: My Lords, I am a little confused because I was not the next speaker on the list. However, I thank my noble friend Lord Tenby for initiating this most appropriate and timely debate. We are in the middle of a consultation period and I hope that the Minister will take back to the Home Secretary the comments that have been made here today. We have heard from many respected speakers so far, among whose views I have felt very much at home until, if I may be frank, the last speaker. I became totally lost by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, who has served on a Birmingham Bench.

I rise to speak for two reasons. The first is that I have spent the past 25 years as a magistrate, about 20 of which have been spent in a small rural court—perhaps that is the difference between the noble Baroness and myself—latterly as chairman of that Bench. As my noble friend Lord Tenby said, 95 per cent. of the crime that comes before the courts of this country is dealt with in such courts, mostly by the lay magistracy. My experience is that about 40 per cent. of those who come before the courts and are convicted need help, not punishment. That is when I turn to the probation service.

Indeed, I have turned many times to the local probation service in Norfolk where I have received the most enormous help. I have not found the social services to be something airy-fairy. It is obvious to me that probation officers need a strong social service attitude. It is also obvious to me that what is most important is, as the right reverend Prelate said, the relationship between probation officers and their clients.

I am not soft on crime. I have had the unfortunate job as a magistrate of sending people to prison. I do not like it, but I am not soft. The work of probation officers must be based on mutual respect, fairness and commitment to both helping their clients and getting them into a frame of mind such that they want to help themselves. That is what the training is supposed to be about. That work must be kept quite separate from punishment. Punishment is not the job of the probation service. Under that heading, perhaps I should add that tagging has nothing to do with the probation service either.

My second reason for wanting to speak is that I have a daughter who is a qualified probation officer. I know that there are problems with the present system of training which can be expensive to families in terms of

5 Apr 1995 : Column 221

both cash and relationships. As a chief probation officer said to me recently, the current system is not perfect, but that does not constitute a reason for rushing headlong into a similarly less than perfect alternative.

It is essential that probation officers have a university-validated and recognised qualification. That means that they can transfer to different disciplines in this country and that their qualifications are recognised in other countries, particularly in the EU and the Commonwealth. Here I must mention the University of East Anglia. I know that the Minister comes from that part of the world and that he is involved with the university. For 20 years that university has been producing the highest quality of probation officer for this country. Indeed, the vice-chancellor has told me that, contrary to the Dews Report, students there are not,

    "too young and too female".

Indeed, its intake over the past three years shows an even balance of age and sex. I am horrified that the two-year MA course which my daughter took has now come to an end.

I should like to make a few positive points about change—I hope that the Government listen to this. We need to align training more closely with projected staffing needs. A far less cumbersome route would have been to devolve training money to allow services to second staff, rather than create the bureaucracy of the proposed training consortia. We need a variety of routes into qualification. The current arrangements discriminate against people who have commitments and who are unable to move to one of the few sites where the courses are run, and who then run the risk of not knowing when or if they will have a job afterwards. The move to demonstrate competence rather than to undertake a course is welcomed, but, given the will, that could have been built into a qualification which retained its social work link without the hurried and radical changes that are proposed.

At this stage of the debate, much has been said already and I am sure that much of what I wanted to say has already been said by others, but perhaps if enough people say it enough times the Government might hear. I shall be looking in the Minister's reply for a commitment to training which leads to a properly validated professional qualification for probation officers that is recognised in this country so that holders of the qualification are capable of transfer during their career paths to various other similar social service-based jobs. Furthermore, any such qualification should be recognised throughout the EU and, as is the case at the moment, throughout the Commonwealth. I await the Minister's reply.

5.28 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, as possibly the last noble Lord to put down his name to speak in today's debate, I feared that I could be shortening the time available for speeches to only six minutes, so I had better make sure that my contribution is worth while. My plea in mitigation is that I have done offender work in Scotland for many years, serving, among other tasks, as a probation supervisor, a social inquiry report writer,

5 Apr 1995 : Column 222

a community service by offenders supervisor, a prison social worker, an aftercare licence supervisor and a project worker on an intensive probation project—that is, a 20-day group work project run by SACRO. I should confirm that probation work in Scotland is incorporated in social work departments and is not a separate service. However, we have separate offender specialists within our one-door approach to social care.

To enter a career in social work, in 1968, at the age of nineteen-and-a-half I attended an experimental three-year diploma in social work course in Scotland, following a year as a community service volunteer. That took place before the establishment of the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work. The course was experimental on at least two counts. It took school-leavers, or near school-leavers, and it aimed to give students who were entering their first careers a broad-based knowledge of the whole social policy area, as well as theoretical and practical training in social work techniques. I went to 16 different supervised practical placements during those three years, covering youth clubs, social work departments, residential homes and a Borstal.

First, I should like to comment on the age of my fellow students and myself. I was very keen, but far too young. Indeed, as a boarding school child brought up away from home, I was fascinated to study the family during sociology lectures and seminars. I am glad that the age of entry to social work courses has been raised. Experience of adult life is an essential prerequisite to effective social work, as is knowledge of the many different cultures and lifestyles of our citizens. Secondly, I am glad to have had a broad social policy education which includes economics, sociology, psychology, the organisation of central and local government, housing, education, health, leisure and recreation, among other things.

Thirdly, criminal justice social workers need to be knowledgeable about how our society organises itself. Only with that knowledge base will they be able to help offenders to keep to the terms of their orders; that is, by coming to terms with the effects of what they have done and who they have done it to, by planning a future lifestyle that does not impinge upon others and, most importantly, by implementing a probation plan making the necessary changes in their lives. This task requires considerable patience, encouragement and support as the probationer tries to move on, usually in the face of his delinquent peer group, sceptical neighbours and often from a position of disaffection.

By way of definition, I believe disaffection to be the feeling that success in life is for others, not yourself. I believe that any attempt to promote social change in individuals by state bullying is doomed to failure, because this client group has heard it all before. The idea that people may come in from the Army has been praised. I do not believe that the Army accepts probation officers without training.

In conclusion, I believe that success in social work with offenders depends upon having the right personality, a broad-based knowledge of life, social

5 Apr 1995 : Column 223

policy issues and good practice and a determination to enable clients to understand their lives and to move on to something better.

5.34 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve: My Lords, this afternoon we are discussing the probation service and the training that is thought to be necessary for the future. In this country we have for many years seen an escalation of crime by citizens of all ages. We know that something must be done. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has given us a Green Paper that goes into present and future problems in depth. My 30 years in magistrates' courts and consequent four years on the parole board made me realise how enormously I relied upon and trusted probation staff for the guidance and education of offenders, both young and old.

Probation staff will be responsible on a one-to-one basis for organising the new community sentence, which appears to me to be a good idea. As all noble Lords who sit in magistrates' courts will know, they are also responsible for keeping in touch with offenders and their families if those offenders are serving prison sentences. They are also relied upon to supervise and guide a prisoner on his release. It is quite likely that a prisoner will serve only one-third of his sentence in prison, the remainder being served on parole. Often, this means that a weekly report has to be prepared, primarily to ensure that he is not reoffending.

The life of a probation officer is very full. He must be dedicated, determined, selfless, conscientious and caring, apart from having broad shoulders and a sense of humour. The suggestion has been made that the services should provide probation officer recruits, but there are many other avenues for finding suitable people to give up their time and their path in life to help those who have offended during the course of their lives. We need more probation officers to train the young in lawful rather than lawless ways. Those officers will be required to oversee community service orders imposed by the courts, having first produced reports.

The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, told us that 50 per cent. of the new intake were over 30 years of age. That is good news. They will have had some experience of life.

This afternoon much has been said about qualifications, diplomas, training etc. It is not in a spirit of jealousy that I declare that I have no university education or degrees. The Second World War got in the way of my higher education. But the standards laid down by Parliament and government have to be observed, and I am sure that we can rely on the probation service to implement those standards in future.

5.38 p.m.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, introduced this debate with such a powerful speech that in a sense all of the most important things were said at the beginning of the proceedings. He was followed by two former Home Secretaries, one of whom was a Conservative. If anything needed to be said which had not been said by

5 Apr 1995 : Column 224

the noble Viscount, it was said by them. I missed what I was told was an eloquent speech by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. All of the other speakers added a lot of weight to the argument. No doubt the implications of the speech of the noble Baroness, who speaks with a great deal of relevant experience, will be carefully studied by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary.

One may ask what there is left to say. In that sense, I echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson. One can only say a few words from one's own angle. I mention just one aspect of the issue. It came to mind because a week ago I had a long discussion with four probation officers, all of whom were over 30. One of them was a trainee. That gentleman was 42. He had been in business for many years. He had plenty of business experience, but he was the first to insist that he needed professional training. I have been visiting prisons for 50 years and I suppose I have met a good many probation officers during that time, including many concerned with aftercare, and I have never met one who did not value the professional training he had received. To put it briefly, I agree with everything that has been said already about such matters.

I have had a further thought. In my view the probation service will have to expand a good deal in years to come. I suppose that that will happen when the present Home Secretary is laid peacefully to rest. I hope that the time will come when more enlightened counsels will prevail and alternatives to prison will figure more largely. That will mean more and more responsibility being cast upon the probation service.

When we were discussing the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, I moved a probing amendment. It was something about which I feel strongly. There should be a statutory obligation upon the authorities to provide aftercare for ex-prisoners. That will mean further responsibility falling upon the probation service. Its duties will be increased in future in any national plan. That, in a sense, is what I want to say about the detail.

When I look at the matter more broadly I am very much in sympathy with the approach of my noble friend Lady Hilton, although we might have an argument about the word "punishment". I have written two books on punishment, and I do not use the word in quite the same way as she does. But let us leave out the semantics, and let me say that I agree with her general approach.

I am sure that all Members of the House are familiar with the story of Lazarus and Dives in the New Testament. Noble Lords will remember that Father Abraham said to Dives, then resident in Hades:

    "Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed".

He said that one could not pass from Hades to Heaven or vice versa. I feel more than ever today when we have these valuable discussions that there is this great gulf fixed between those who rely upon knowledge and reason and those who appeal to mob emotions or even feel those mob emotions. On the one hand, we have the judiciary, the more enlightened half dozen Conservative Home Secretaries before the present incumbent, and going back a little further the noble Lord, Lord Carr, and the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, who is to speak

5 Apr 1995 : Column 225

later, and those who speak from what is usually called the progressive point of view. There are all the other experts. We have the probation service, the police, prison governors and prison officers and the other people who have knowledge of these matters.

Who is there on the other side? There is what is called the general public or the mass electorate, whoever they may be —those to whom Mr. Howard, under the tutelage of the Prime Minister since the 1993 Conservative conference, has decided to appeal. Then there is the party altogether, with the tradition of his six immediate predecessors, not to mention the noble Lord, Lord Carr, Lord Butler and his other great Conservative predecessors. So what do we find?

Let us take the mass electorate and where their views are represented. The Sunday Express recently had an article by someone called Judge Argyle. I do not know whether that name is familiar to anyone. He is a former judge. In his article he said we had been ruled for some time by the "pro-crook lobby". That would be strange news to the six Conservative Home Secretaries who preceded Mr. Howard. At any rate, that is what Judge Argyle said in the Sunday Express.

I rang up the political editor and asked to be able to reply. I pointed out that Judge Argyle's views would be ridiculed in this House where people would hardly be able to bear to listen to them. The political editor said that he was very popular with his readers. Well, he may be. I believe that the same gentleman has gone to town lately in the Mail on Sunday. There is a wide tabloid press for expressing such extreme views. That is, if one likes, on one side of the gulf.

The question is how we communicate with those people. How, in the language of Father Abraham, can we come from them to us or can they go from us to them? In due course the leaders of the tabloid press become ennobled. Editors, proprietors and such like come here. They join us. But we find it difficult to break into them. I submitted an article which I was told would receive favourable consideration, but of course it was not published. There we are. We have this gulf fixed. In the end, how will that gulf ever be bridged? It will not be bridged by the present Home Secretary or the Prime Minister.

I realise that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, cannot leap up suddenly and say, "As a matter of fact, I am on your side of the gulf". He is a loyal spokesman. The historian Lecky said of the union of Ireland that it was opposed by the whole unbribed intellect of the country. I must not use the word "bribery" here. All the same, one might say that Mr. Howard's policies are opposed by the whole unpaid intellect of this country. I cannot put it more plainly. I have no doubt used up my time.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Acton: My Lords, I deplore the Dews Report's recommendation—endorsed by the Home Office in its discussion paper—to abolish the diploma in social work for aspiring probation officers. One point where I agree with Dews is paragraph 2.13:

    "Probation officers are first and foremost officers of the courts and the courts' views are thus most important".

5 Apr 1995 : Column 226

Unhappily, Dews states:

    "We were unable to canvas the courts' views systematically".

Later, however, the Home Office research and planning unit undertook a study to measure the satisfaction of courts with the probation service. A survey was done of 498 lay magistrates. The key finding was that 89 per cent. of those magistrates were very, or quite, satisfied with the work of the probation service in their area. Moreover, 94 per cent. of the magistrates said that they had a very, or quite good, working relationship with the probation service. Those outstandingly positive results are a firm indication that magistrates are content with the composition and training of the probation service.

I am indebted to the chief probation officer for Greater Manchester for those findings which he gave in a speech to the National Probation Conference on 16th March. A request to the Home Office, on my behalf, to provide a copy of its report for today's debate was met with the reply that the report was not due out until the first half of May. As the Home Office has called for comments on its discussion paper by 26th May, that is a most worrying state of affairs. The report ought already to have been published. Parliament and all interested groups and individuals ought to have the full benefit of the courts' views long before 26th May. I request the Minister to say that he will use his best endeavours to have that vital report made available forthwith.

The Home Office fails to appreciate the crucial contribution of higher education to probation training. A thorough knowledge and understanding of a large body of statute law —the Criminal Justice Acts, the Children Act 1989, and the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990—are necessary for trainees. Formal instruction in those laws is essential.

Moreover, increasingly the probation service is dealing with serious offenders who are in the community on licence following custody. Such serious offenders require intensive supervision and knowledge of ways to tackle their specific addictions or other failings. Higher educational establishments are best placed to teach the criminology and penology necessary for coping with these offenders.

The training institutions which carry out research into probation-related matters are able to teach their trainees the results of this up-to-date research. They can also teach their students a research approach; how to monitor their own effectiveness. The result is that when the trainees go into the field as probation officers they will have the analytical attitude necessary to evaluate what they are doing well and to pass their conclusions on to their colleagues.

A further point arises from the Green Paper, Strengthening Punishment in the Community, which envisages the courts playing a larger role in deciding on the detailed supervision of criminals. Paradoxically, the result of this policy would be that probation officers' pre-sentence reports, including information and advice on supervision programmes and their likely effects, will become all the more important. Higher educational institutions are best fitted to teach what to put into those

5 Apr 1995 : Column 227

reports and how they should be written. As was recently emphasised by the chief probation officer for Greater Manchester:

    "The work of probation staff is extremely complex and needs the kind of analytical approach that draws on a wider educational stance to learning".

Despite the opposition of practically every group which knows anything about probation, a Conservative Government and a Conservative Home Secretary are hell bent on destroying the diploma in social work. I ask the Minister to remind his colleagues of the venerable and singularly apt words of the second Viscount of Falkland:

    "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change".

5.52 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull: My Lords, as the 18th speaker almost everything that I wanted to say has been said, but with the agreement of your Lordships I shall make four brief points. As a director of social services I have worked alongside probation officers and, since retirement, have been closely in touch with their service. It is rarely realised that social workers and probation officers must often share cases. Social services deal with the mothers and the children who are obviously at risk and in trouble when the man in the family is in prison or subject to a community service order. Therefore, there must be an understanding between probation officers and social workers.

Probation officers and social workers have the same basic training, which helps them to understand one another. Then, of course, the probation officers specialise in the type of work which they have to undertake under Acts different from those relating to social service departments.

Home Office figures indicate that as regards young men of the same age who have committed comparable offences, 54 per cent. of those who go to prison re-offend. However, the 43 per cent. placed on probation with a community service order re-offend. That is sad, but there is a big difference between the number of those who go to prison and those who are under a community service order. Surely my noble friend the Minister agrees that we should increase the number of community service orders, that we should help the probation service to develop that service and that the necessary resources should be available.

As regards recruitment I suggest that, as mentioned by many noble Lords, we should embark upon the training. Will my noble friend the Minister tell the House whether the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has been consulted? I and many other noble Lords have received letters from the universities. Have the universities of East Anglia, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, Nottingham, Kent and Exeter been consulted? The University of Exeter has as its Vice-Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Holland. It runs a course for probation officers and social workers and he speaks highly of the course and of the work subsequently carried out by the probation officers. I see no evidence of the universities having been consulted.

5 Apr 1995 : Column 228

Surely the Home Secretary is wise to seek to reduce crime and we all support him in that. However, I beg him to look before he leaps, and not always go into uncharted waters.

5.55 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. The quality of speeches, and often their passion, must reassure the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, if he needed it, of the wisdom of choosing the subject for debate today. It demonstrates how useful this House can be in scrutinising small but important parts of government policy.

I must be almost the only Member of your Lordships' House speaking tonight who has had no experience of, or responsibility for, the probation service. I have always believed that probation officers carry out a difficult, unglamorous but essential job. I was under the impression that in recent years they had faced up to many changes and had become increasingly professional in the process. Therefore, when I looked at the Home Office discussion paper I found it difficult to understand what the Government had in mind. I was also puzzled when I read the Dews Report.

It will come as no surprise to your Lordships to learn that having heard all that has been said today I still find unanswered the question: why did the Government embark upon this course? Unless, of course, I understand only too well why they have chose to do so. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is not here today. I am sure that she has good reason for being absent from the House but she is the Minister responsible for these matters. I hope that she will read most carefully all that has been said and will find an opportunity of coming to the House and giving answers on aspects where the noble Earl's response does not entirely satisfy your Lordships.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, that it is difficult to know what new comments one can make on the subject. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, said that the proposals might lead people to believe that the probation service is in a bit of a mess when it is not. In a most powerful and tough speech, the noble Lord, Lord Carr, referred to widespread dismay and said that the offer of consultation was a sham. He asked, "Why upset the applecart?", and in doing so he summarised what most noble Lords have said. The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, asked what the document is for. That question is at the heart of the matter facing us. My noble friend Lady Seear spoke about NVQs, drawing on her great experience of them. In making the point that they are inadequate for the purpose now contemplated, she said that there was a need to understand human behaviour. She emphasised the linkage between academic and theoretical studies and practical training.

Having listened to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, I wish that he and others on those Benches would contribute more often to what he described as the theological dimension of social problems. We should benefit greatly from hearing what he has to say to us. He was cautious in

5 Apr 1995 : Column 229

his remarks but referred to proper professional expertise, very special skills and thorough and appropriate training.

Before the Statement, we heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who referred to great risks being incurred if the Government pursue the course on which they appear to be embarking. That is a remarkable, powerful indictment of the papers before us, based on deep anxiety.

The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, was among those noble Lords who referred to the report which lies behind the discussion paper—the Dews Report. I too find it distinctly uncomfortable to be discussing a paper by two comparatively junior Home Office officials which is sandwiched between the decision of Ministers to set up the scrutiny review and their provisional decisions, as we hope them to be, described in the discussion paper.

By definition, the report is politically motivated. It is not a very good paper. But by referring to it, as we must today, we put two junior civil servants in the firing line and inevitably prejudice their careers. I ask the noble Earl to tell us in passing whether there is any precedent for two civil servants being asked to produce a report which inevitably becomes a matter of political debate and to what extent that is an unusual departure. Was the head of the Civil Service consulted?

Whatever the noble Earl's reply, it is extremely undesirable that such a thing should happen and it should stop. That is not open government. It would be open government only if Parliament were given access to all the Home Office internal papers on the setting up of the Dews Report and access to all the internal papers produced since that time. I should greatly welcome it if that were the proposal but it would come as a surprise.

It is a very odd document and shows signs of the authors struggling with themselves about where their duty lay. Inevitably, it shows signs also of discussions in the department with their colleagues. They refer to exemplary briefings and acknowledge the help of their colleagues in the introduction. Indeed, there is a certain amount of back-scratching which, again, is inappropriate.

In those circumstances, one can see the way in which the document was put together. At a stage when they were reporting, for the most part the probation service had a good clean bill of health but the authors had suddenly to change direction and say that despite only a few criticisms from within the service and academic institutions they had doubts about the service and that something must be done.

More seriously—and this is a point of which account should be taken—at paragraph 4.27 the authors state that,

    "we have reached a different conclusion from the Industrial Society who thought the present arrangements quite effective".

One must then turn to Annex F which reports the findings of the Industrial Society. It states:

    "Our research ... suggests that the probation service is very effective in the training and recruitment methods it employs".

5 Apr 1995 : Column 230

I cannot find any reference to the word "quite" in the report of the Industrial Society. I do not know on what authority the authors of the report translate "very" into "quite" in the principal part of the text.

My noble friend Lady Seear and the noble Lord, Lord Acton, referred very properly to the question of NVQs and to the nature of the proposals with regard to the education of probation officers in future. Indeed, that is the nub of the matter. Are we to substitute training on the ground for the academic training which goes together with the present experience of probation officers? I am, and remain, a strong supporter of NVQs at levels 1 to 3 but it would be a grave error to squeeze out highly specialised training of the kind probation officers have simply to make their system conform with the NVQs which are appropriate at a lower level but to which the Government seem to be increasingly committed. Probation officers need education and not only training. An NVQ is no substitute for a diploma.

All noble Lords in the debate have expressed the view that if we go down that track there is a very real danger of lower standards, diminished intellectual growth and, in the long run, a probation service which is less successful than it has been. There is still time for the Government to think again. I very much hope that they will do so.

6.6 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield: My Lords, for the benefit of noble Lords following the speakers' list, it is obvious that I am not my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who apologises for his absence. I am Lord Plant of Highfield and I was to have spoken earlier.

I am sure that we should all like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for enabling us to have this very valuable debate. In particular, it has been enlivened by the very notable maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham.

Before embarking on my speech, I should declare an interest in that during a 28-year academic career I have intermittently taught courses for trainee probation officers at the Universities of Manchester and Southampton. Many of the students were mature students, and particularly in Hampshire many were ex-servicemen and women. However, I was slightly startled when I read the Dews Report to find that what I had been doing for 28 years was impossible, given that one of the courses which I taught to trainee probation officers was about values. Page 26 of the report states quite confidently that courses on values cannot be taught. So there we are. One must envy the intellectual self-confidence of the report in that both the authors of the report disclaim any knowledge or experience of teaching. They do not cite any evidence for the view that courses in values cannot be given. Therefore, I have wasted my time, and I am sorry for that.

The Government are proposing a root and branch reform of the probation service in the teeth of opposition from practitioners, senior managers, CCETSW and the universities. No doubt they will all be dismissed as vested interests. The reform is based on a Home Office review which most people—and, indeed, most noble

5 Apr 1995 : Column 231

Lords—regard as being very thin and which draws inferences which are not supported by the evidence provided in the paper.

The proposals in the paper need to be looked at in three parts: first, recruitment issues; secondly, the place of probation in higher education; and thirdly, the relationship between probation and social work education and training. I do not believe that the analysis and prescriptions in the Home Office review paper are defensible in any of those areas.

Many noble Lords have drawn attention in their speeches to issues of recruitment. It is not necessary for me to reiterate points already made. However, the following points bear some emphasis. First, in the context of the new diploma in social work, 50 per cent. of recruits are over 30 and the number would have been larger if the Home Office had not discontinued the trainee salaries. The authors of the consultation report are keen to see more mature recruits entering the probation service, and that is being achieved under existing arrangements.

Secondly, it is claimed in the report that the existing training pattern is too rigid, but it is very difficult to believe that that is the case. The diploma in social work offers different routes into training, and there are ways of combining work and study on most diploma courses. Thirdly, it is argued that the academic structure of the course deters some sorts of candidates. But it is difficult to see why that should be so when the following points are borne in mind.

In the first place, prior experience or qualification of an appropriate sort—that is to say, relating to the competencies required for probation officers—is taken into account when recruiting on to courses, and exemptions are given in such cases. In addition, distance learning and modular based programmes are available and will become more so. Most universities are moving to modular courses and credit accumulation and transfer schemes. When they can afford the technology to do so, they are investing in distance learning mechanisms. It is also implied that people are put off because of the overly academic nature of the course. However, the course is not overly academic, but rather embodies a 50:50 split between supervised practice and a knowledge and understanding of the research base necessary to become an effective probation practitioner.

I now move on to the place of probation in higher education. Most—I suspect virtually all—practitioners would see themselves as belonging to a profession. They certainly work alongside other recognised professions in the courts. If they are to be regarded as a profession, it is necessary that they should have a close link to the knowledge and research base of their discipline. That may of course work to the detriment of ancillary staff who aspire to become members of the profession. But in how many other professions would it be suggested that recruitment could be broadened by undertaking a large-scale deprofessionalisation of the discipline into which it was hoped to recruit more people by undermining its link with the knowledge and research base, rather than by looking for ways in which the academic and practical side of the work could be made more accessible to groups of people who might want to

5 Apr 1995 : Column 232

become probation officers? Such opening of access in a way not damaging to the profession is already being undertaken, as I tried to show in the first part of my speech.

It is also argued in the Dews Report that:

    "Present arrangements were set up at a time when practical standards or competencies for probation officers had not been settled and predate the changes in work of the probation service introduced by recent criminal justice legislation. There is no direct match between these competencies and any current qualification".

That is simply not true. The diploma in social work originated in 1989 and has been updated twice since that date. It takes full account of the recently published competencies for probation officers published in 1994 and recent changes in criminal justice legislation.

It is also not the case that probation courses can be characterised as being devised either by ivory-towered academics or, worse, trendy social scientists with little experience of practice. That is not so for several reasons. First, the curriculum is designed and delivered with input, through partnership, from the probation service. As the report says on page 29, the probation service has a strong influence on training in the diploma in social work course via the partnership arrangements. Indeed, the evidence of the Industrial Society supports that view.

However, from the rather superior stance which, I have to say, comes through time and again in the document that claim is disparaged. Its authors argue that the universities remain in control. Formally that may be so, in that it is surely right that in autonomous bodies the formal validation of courses for a degree or qualification of that institution has to remain vested in that institution. But that formal position belies the practice, and courses have been devised in partnership with the probation service. I challenge the review authors or the Minister to show where a university has overturned such a curriculum developed in partnership with the profession. The control is purely formal. It is about the attainment of standards; it is not about the detailed content of the course. Certainly the professionals are entirely happy with the new arrangements under the diploma in social work.

It is also claimed in the report that the link between academia and the probation service has led to a lack of attention to probation issues. That is a wholly unsubstantiated criticism and is absolutely not a criticism that has been made by either students emerging from the new courses or by the practitioners involved in the design and delivery of the courses, as well as the supervision of the students.

The aim of the present arrangements is, as the report says, to produce reflective practitioners. The report says on page 25 that that model, linking practice with current research, is clearly valued in the service. But it goes on to say that that does not mean that it is the best model, only that it is the current model and that most professions will tend to favour training which perpetuates the current model. Again, I have to say that I find the idea that professions merely follow in a blinkered way what is in their own interests very arrogant and patronising. There is no conception in the report that people reflect on what they do and want to preserve a model because they think that it is valuable

5 Apr 1995 : Column 233

or right. Again, a profession and its culture, as so often in recent years, have been reduced to just another vested interest, with a culture of professional self-interest governing all that it does. That is wholly unacceptable.

In the final part of my speech I should like to turn to the relationship between probation and social work. Here I believe that the report is inadequate as well as inexplicit. There are various elements in the report critical of the relationship, but the issues are not clearly spelt out. I suspect that the main reason why the report wants to move probation away from social work is that at the Home Secretary's instigation, as we have heard, people are suspicious of what they take to be social work values and the way in which those values might influence a more punishment oriented view which should pervade probation.

Perhaps I may say at the outset of this part of the discussion that I think it is absolutely vital that probation should be seen as part of the criminal justice system; that it is wholly right that there should be punishment of offenders and that such punishment ought to embody elements of reparation to society and deterrence to others; and that offenders should be made to feel responsible for their crimes, and that part of this involves confronting the impact that they have made on the lives of victims.

However, none of those commitments leads me to want to distance probation from social work. There are three main reasons for that. First, offenders should be made to feel responsible for their behaviour. That is central to the justice element in probation. But part of the existing responsibility of the probation service is to help prisoners to live law-abiding lives, and to work with other agencies in dealing with offenders and offences. If we are to make realistic interventions in the lives of many offenders to achieve those constructive goals, we have to be aware of the background circumstances in which criminal behaviour occurs. I hope that noble Lords will please note that I do not say caused; I am not seeking to excuse criminal behaviour. This was a theme of the speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham.

A recent survey of 214 probationers in Dorset undertaken by Professor Colin Prichard of Southampton University and Mr. Cox of the Dorset probation service found that 25 per cent. had suffered from depression which had required clinical help; that 6 per cent. had suffered from mental disorder requiring clinical intervention; that 35 per cent. suffered strong anxiety states; that 14 per cent. had attempted suicide; that 22 per cent. had learning disabilities; and that 46 per cent. had problems with alcohol and about 40 per cent. with other drugs.

If the probation service is not only to help quite properly with punishment and reparation to society but also to help offenders to live law-abiding lives, it is vital that some of those background problems are tackled. As far as I know, there is no better way of approaching this than through social work training. The report disparages all of this by blithely saying that a social work ethos leads to a concern with the needs of the offender rather than the victim or society. However, attending to the

5 Apr 1995 : Column 234

needs of the offender is not a matter of bleeding hearts; it is rather crucial to trying to meet the needs of society and victims in attempting to remove some of the circumstances which correlate with criminal behaviour.

The second reason I have for wanting to keep the link between probation and social work is that it is quite false to imply, as the section of the report on social work values does, that these are in some sense soft values. They are not. The report states that social work emphasises individual choice and that this is inappropriate in dealing with delinquency. I have to say that this is just a parody of social work values. Certainly one of the values of the profession is that of client self-determination, but in the literature and in the teaching of what this means, to reduce that to individual choice is laughable: it is rather all about getting clients to take responsibility and to make choices which will enable them to live constructive lives.

Finally, the report speaks of the need for probation officers to work with other services and agencies. Some of these are social work agencies which will perhaps be dealing with the family of an offender. It is vital, first of all, that to allow proper inter-agency discussion and maintain matters like confidentiality, probation officers should be seen as full professionals. I think that the proposals in this report will decimate the professional status of probation officers. Surely a strong probation pathway through what is overall a social work qualification—given all the changes to the Diploma in Social Work—is the best way to facilitate inter-agency collaboration.

I conclude on the following note. I have two specific questions for the Minister which are entirely procedural. The first is: what does consultation actually mean in this context when the Government have already given notice of withdrawing these places from universities and that has basically settled the issue? Secondly, if the Government are not prepared to withdraw their proposals, what exactly is the mechanism for securing this change, and how will Parliament be involved?

6.22 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for having introduced this debate this afternoon on what is a very important matter. I think that all of your Lordships will agree that it has been an informed debate. On a personal note, I find it a pleasure to be catapulted back momentarily—as the Americans would say—into the cockpit of Home Office matters. That gives me the great pleasure of being able to debate with those with whom I used to share that happy experience on matters relating to the Home Office, even though the problems seem to have lost nothing in either their difficulties or their controversies. I might add that that applies to some of your Lordships in the contributions which you have made.

I am bound to say that when the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, says that, with two former Home Secretaries present, she feels a certain degree of humility in taking part in the debate, all I can say is that that is nothing to

5 Apr 1995 : Column 235

what I feel, particularly when, in addition to that, there is one former permanent secretary of the department I used to be in—

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page