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Probation Officers: Qualifications

5.22 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale rose to move to resolve, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government, following the implementation of the Probation (Amendment) Rules 1995, to ensure that the proposed higher education element of the required training of probation officers will lead to a professional qualification which is of a high standard and is subject to external validation.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the probation service of England and Wales is quite small--there are roughly some 8,000 qualified staff in all--but it forms a crucial element in our criminal justice system. Its functions are wide-ranging, sensitive and sometimes dangerous. The Home Office fully recognises the need for training new recruits but the question is whether the arrangements which are being proposed to that end fall short of what is needed.

There are two preliminary points that I ought to make. The first is to emphasise that the terms of the Motion are so drawn as not to involve any challenge to the amending Probation Rules recently made by the Home Secretary. The second is that I am well aware that there is pending before the courts a judicial review of whether the Home Secretary was acting within his statutory powers when making those rules. I shall be careful not to comment on that aspect.

Although today I want to look to the future, I must say a few words to explain how we have reached our present predicament. In 1994 a Civil Service review of recruitment and qualifying training recognised the merits of the service and its success in recruiting mature people with a wide breadth of experience. Nonetheless, it recommended ending the requirement in the Probation Rules that an essential qualification was the two-year diploma in social work or its equivalent. The Home Secretary liked the look of that recommendation as a means of widening the field of recruitment and issued a

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consultative document proposing that that diploma requirement should be scrapped and training put in the hands of the service itself. A slightly unusual feature was that the universities concerned were told at the beginning rather than the end of the consultation period that the sponsoring of new students was to cease.

It turned out that the vast majority of those consulted were against the proposal to rescind the requirement for a professional qualification. Nevertheless, the Government decided to go ahead. I simply record the fact, without comment, in view of what I said at the beginning, that the amending Probation Rules which came into force only yesterday delete the paragraph dealing with the diploma qualification.

Although the rules themselves, therefore, are now silent on the need for any qualification, it is only fair to say that the Home Office decision document underlines the need for training. It contemplates that it should be the responsibility of each authority and carried out mainly within the service; that an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) should be worked up at the appropriate level--I understand that it is level 4; and, which is important, that training should be supplemented as necessary by:

    "probation-specific learning modules provided by higher education institutions".
I am particularly proud of the way in which my old department is keeping up with modern events. We never wrote English like that in my time. I hope that it is not too uncharitable to describe all this as a kind of local pick-and-mix approach at A-level standard. There is a widely held view that all that is not enough.

At this stage it is perhaps fitting to recall some of the aspects of human behaviour with which probation officers have to cope. They provide pre-sentence reports to help the courts in the sentencing process and they would soon lose the confidence of the courts if those reports were not consistently of high quality. They supervise people on parole or supervision orders--180,000 of them this year. They help people released on bail. They staff probation centres and bail hostels. This year they have prepared some 35,000 family court welfare reports. The people they deal with can be children, drug takers, alcoholics, mentally ill, homeless and sometimes the victims themselves of crimes.

The idea that those responsibilities can best be discharged, after a comparatively short period of local training, by someone such as an ex-Army officer who is used to discipline and will not stand any nonsense--that has been implied in some of the press comments--takes a bit of swallowing. So far as I can gather, it is not a view which is shared by the probation officers who were themselves formerly in the services, the police or the prison service and found out how much they had to learn.

Probation officers not only have to know about legislation in the fields of criminal justice, children, mental health and so on; they have to cope with damaged individuals in a wide variety of circumstances. To that end they need to be schooled in the thinking and research into problems of human behaviour which take place at university level. As it happens, such thinking

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and research is at a very high level in this country. It requires skill and knowledge, for example, to assess why an individual has got into trouble and what can best be planned for that person's future, or to advise on the right course for an offender suffering from mental illness.

As I said, the Home Office recognises that there might be a higher education element in training, possibly in most cases, but it is not obligatory. Although the decision paper is not altogether consistent in its various references to higher education, the Home Office seems to envisage it as, at best, playing only a comparatively minor part. Nor is it simply a matter of the content of a course of training. The considerations I outlined add up to a powerful case for a nationally accepted professional qualification, based on higher education, common to all members of the service and externally validated. An NVQ is simply not the answer. Without such a professional qualification I see a number of hazards.

First, this small service, this profession, would be fragmented with no common standards. One authority could well refuse to admit the qualifications accepted by its neighbour. Secondly, far from opening the door for the first time to able and suitable recruits, as the decision paper seems to imply, the likelihood is that the good entrant would be discouraged and would look for employment elsewhere in a post with a higher professional status.

Thirdly, the lowering of standards could hardly fail to increase the risk of something going wrong and thus put the public more at risk. At a time when other professions are seeking to enhance the status and qualifications of their members, the probation service would be seen to be going in exactly the opposite direction. That cannot be right.

There is much else that one could say about the probation service. And though the question contained in the Motion is simple and straightforward, it is nevertheless important. It asks the Government to say whether or not they agree in principle that there should be introduced a professional qualification for probation officers based on higher education and externally validated. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government, following the implementation of the Probation (Amendment) Rules 1995, to ensure that the proposed higher education element of the required training of probation officers will lead to a professional qualification which is of a high standard and is subject to external validation.--(Lord Allen of Abbeydale.)

5.32 p.m.

Lord Carr of Hadley: My Lords, I strongly support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, and all the arguments he raised. For the sake of brevity, I shall not repeat his arguments but I strongly agree with the points that he made.

I wish to stress to the Minister that the Motion is narrow. The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, also made that point. It does not attempt to open up the Home Secretary's recent basic changes in the probation

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service. It does not challenge the new principle that recruitment to the probation service in the future will not require any prior academic qualifications. It therefore does not challenge the concept that from now on probation officer training will take place after rather than before recruitment. We are therefore talking of a narrow, but immensely important point.

The Motion concentrates on one specific aspect of in-service training which is to be established. The Home Secretary's document, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, mentioned, envisages the availability of some courses at higher education level. He expresses doubt, which I share, about the clarity of what already exists. But the Motion envisages higher education playing a part in training.

The Motion concerns two aspects. First, it says that the higher education element already proposed should be so structured and organised and of sufficient scale that it can lead to a high-standard professional qualification. We believe that that is right and necessary for the future standards and effectiveness of the probation service throughout the country. That is surely desirable also for the good morale of the probation service and for it to continue to be seen as an attractive career of high satisfaction to potential entrants of all ages.

We must not underestimate the influence of modern trends for more training--we should welcome them in this country--for people entering a profession, especially if they feel that they are entering a profession which is deprofessionalising qualifications at a time when most other areas of activity are upgrading them. This is of immense importance to the future recruitment to the service of people of all ages. I do not dissent from the Home Secretary's wish for the service to attract people of all ages so that people on second careers can join the service. That is presently happening, but the more it happens, the better.

Secondly, the Motion asks that the high standard of qualification of which I spoke should be subject to external validation and not simply be approved by the probation service employers. External validation provides the touchstone of professional status wherever we look in the area of employment. The emphasis on professional status is not just to boost the ego of the service, desirable though that may be; above all, it is to ensure that the service provides the competence, the depth of knowledge and the maturity of outlook needed if it is to fulfill its important role within our criminal justice system. The service must be equally strong throughout the country and not, as the noble Lord said, run into the danger of fragmentation and unevenness of quality from one part to another.

My final point concerns the fact that that view is held not just by the probation service and those who know a lot about it; it is held equally strongly by the employers. A note I received recently--as I suspect did other noble Lords--from the central probation council, stresses the need for a national professional qualification.

That is what the Motion seeks and it is an important request. I urge the Minister not to turn down that request this evening. I hope that the Government will accept it.

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However, if my noble friend has not had the chance to consider the matter with sufficient care today, I hope that she will leave the door wide open so that it can be considered with a view to trying to knock it into shape in order to maintain the high professional reputation and status of the probation service for the future. That is important not just for the well being of the probation service, but also for the well being of our whole criminal justice system so that the probation service can play the vital part that it needs to play--not all members of the public realise this--in protecting the public from the crimes from which we suffer at the moment.

5.39 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees: My Lords, I learnt the value of the probation service principally, not as Home Secretary when I was responsible for it, but as a Member of Parliament for an inner city area in Leeds in Yorkshire. I know it also because for many years my wife was a magistrate in the London area and the chairman of the Bench for a long period. I learnt from her, when she talked at home about the cases that she had encountered that day, the value of the probation service.

I compliment the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, on allowing us to discuss this matter this evening. Time is of the essence and I shall therefore go directly to two points in the Motion. The first concerns the high standard of professional qualifications. The noble Lord, Lord Carr, raised the point of professional qualifications. The development of the professions over the years is vital. I know the argument that perhaps the professions do not know enough about grass-roots problems, but the two go together. Training and professional qualifications go together.

The Motion refers to a professional qualification which is of a high standard and which is subject to external validation. We may have spoken in vain against the Government on their original proposals, but measurements and tables are part of the life blood of government policy in other fields, so perhaps we may not be asking in vain when we ask for high standards in a professional qualification and external validation.

I thought that the best way I could approach the debate was to take the list which was provided by the Home Office of the main features of the new scheme. How do the main features of the new scheme measure up to the two criteria which are raised in the Motion? The list states:

    "Prospective probation officers will be recruited as salaried trainees".
How will that be done? How will a judgment be made that a young man or a young woman is suitable to be a probation officer? I understand that it is to be done regionally. How will it be done? I am thinking of the headquarters of the West Yorkshire Probation Service. Will it work with Lancashire? Will there be new regions? On what basis will the recruitment take place?

The list also states:

    "Individually assessed training will take place mainly in the service".

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How will it be correlated? Will people have an afternoon off a week? Sometimes when I go to a bank I see that the staff are having two hours off in the morning for training. Is that what will happen in the probation service? Will the probation office be shut in the morning while training takes place? Where will it take place? We are told that it will be technical learning with understanding of relevant procedures. That is straightforward. It is the kind of thing we used to do in the services--a trade test on how to dismantle a gun. If you did not get 95 out of 100 you were doing very badly. I often found that the cleverer ones who had university degrees were not as good at dismantling the gun as those who had left school at 14. But that is another matter.

We are told that there will be,

    "training which will be supplemented, as necessary, by dedicated probation courses at higher education institutions".
Have the higher education institutions been asked about this? What do they say? Will they run courses on a yearly basis or on a term basis simply for probation officers, or will other social science candidates at the higher education institution come in to be taught as well? We are told that,

    "all such courses must meet an approved specification".
Who will draw up the specification? Will it be the colleges of higher education or the higher education institutions? Will it have a syllabus in the university book.

We are told:

    "Once appointed, probation officers should have access to a range of vocational or academic qualifications which are relevant to their work".
I find that fairly vague. Where do the standards come in? Where is the validation between one institute and another, or will we find that taking a course at one institution is easier than taking a course at another institution? There is no professional qualification. Will there be qualified, validating examiners? We are further told:

    "All assessments will be quality controlled by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation",
which will have to have a department in its office to quality control the courses in different parts of the country.

The list then refers to,

    "competence as a probation officer".
This is the young man or young woman who goes around the backs of houses, knocks and wants to talk to Bill, Pete or Sarah. One cannot measure that qualification. What is important is how they get on with the people concerned. It is an art, not a science. It is not a very pleasant job. You have to do it in the evenings, often on a winter's night. Competence as a probation officer should be recognised not only by the reward of qualified probation officer status. One can imagine asking, "What are your qualifications?", and being told, "I am a QPOS".

I went to the Library and photostatted a document which describes what goes on in the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, which was set up nine

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years ago by the Government following a White Paper on education and training. I know of the NCVQ because of the work it does in management, which is very good. The work it does for supervisory management is first class. I have come across it before. But it is an administrative body. The document states that it is,

    "sponsored jointly by employment and education for Northern Ireland and for Wales and reports to the Secretary of State for Employment for administrative purposes".
It does not do so for professional purposes. How will it fit in with the Government's scheme? I am concerned not that we lost the last battle but that we can now influence the Government to think about standards, high qualifications and external validation. It is the most we are able to do. We have lost a major battle but perhaps we can win an important battle if we influence the Government today.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Henniker: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Allen, for initiating this debate because it gives me a chance to pay tribute to the probation service. I have had a rather odd and motley career but at the end of it I have seen a lot of the probation service. I spent a whole decade of my life looking after and training members of the diplomatic service. I see, strangely enough, great resemblances between what the diplomatic service is asked to do and what the probation service is asked to do. They are asked to do a variety of things. In the diplomatic service one can one day be repatriating a drunken seaman and the next day negotiating a treaty. A probation officer looks after someone who is dangerous and has some malady which can hardly be diagnosed. He has to rely on his own wits. I wish to say how grateful I am to the probation service and how much I believe in what the noble Lord, Lord Allen, is asking us to do.

Over the past few years I have seen a lot of the probation service. I have worked with the Parole Board and I have worked in prisons. I was chairman of the Intermediate Treatment Fund by which we tried to devise demanding schemes in order to lead young people away from crime. I have become a local Suffolk man and I have also started various things with the probation service, which has its fingers in every pie. One of the things which most impresses me about the probation service is the young probation officer. I have seen a lot of them. They are deeply dedicated to what they do. In that they resemble young diplomats. They are deeply dedicated and deeply believing in the value of what they do.

When I first came out of the diplomatic service and went to work in charities in London I remember meeting a young probation officer in a sticky patch of London. I asked him why he was there. He had been an officer in what I consider is the best regiment in the British Army. He said that he had looked around very carefully to see what he could do as another job. He was just the kind of young man for whom I would imagine the Home Secretary is now looking. He said that he had looked around and that the probation service seemed to him to be top of the list. He was not disappointed.

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Probation officers have an enormous amount of responsibility. There is an element of danger in whatever they do. They take absolute responsibility for what they are given to do. Once they are trained they are given total responsibility for looking after their clients. That can lead anywhere. The probation officer has to be careful because if he makes a mistake it is not only obvious but sometimes disastrous.

Therefore, I suggest that we look very carefully at the pleas of the noble Lord, Lord Allen, and the noble Lord, Lord Carr, who is also now president of an organisation which I once served, the Rainer Foundation, the original founder of which is alleged to have been a founder of the probation service. That has also given me a stronger feeling of involvement in the matter.

I commend what the noble Lord, Lord Allen, has said and thank him for doing so. I spoke about the young man whom I met in Peckham and who said how much he enjoyed the probation service. He said that he would not have come into the service unless it had had a high standard of professionalism. He certainly made that clear. I am sure that he will find, as I found when I was trying to train people at the Foreign Office, that people will not come unless they are given the chance to develop themselves in many ways which they may not have had the opportunity to do at school, perhaps even starting over again and getting further and higher training of an academic standard. I very much commend to your Lordships the pleas made by the noble Lords, Lord Allen and Lord Carr.

5.51 p.m.

Viscount Runciman of Doxford: My Lords, I should like also to express my strong support of this Motion. I do so on the basis of only a little direct, but also some indirect, experience of the issues which are involved. As speakers have already brought out quite sufficiently, the importance of the work done by probation officers is not in dispute. Although the probation service did not come directly within the remit of the Royal Commission on criminal justice in England and Wales, my colleagues and I did see and hear enough of the work which probation officers do both inside and outside prisons, to be left in no doubt of its importance and value. It also seems to me no less obvious, as eloquently argued by the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, that their qualification should be externally validated.

But the supporters of the Motion, need at least to acknowledge that there are two arguments which might be put on the other side, even if only to discard them. The first of these is the risk of what is sometimes called "credentialism" or, less euphemistically, the "creeping diploma disease". It does exist and it is not a purely imaginary ailment in educational and institutional life. It is possible that the self-perpetuating quest for increasingly high levels of formal qualification can lead to an effective debasement of the intellectual and professional currency. It can waste resources and can merely recreate in a new guise the basic problem of attracting, selecting and training for a profession those who will turn out to practise it best.

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The other argument, which should not be dismissed out of hand, is that for some occupations the best training is on the job. Nobody disputes that doctors, solicitors and architects need formal as well as practical training, but it is not perhaps equally self-evident that, for example, future heads of business corporations need diplomas in management studies or that future Ministers of the Crown or senior civil servants need degrees in political and social science. In that context, and very much in parenthesis, your Lordships might be mildly amused to learn that the Home Secretary, as an undergraduate and reading Part II of the economics tripos at the University of Cambridge, was sent to me by his supervisor to write two essays on sociological topics. I do not remember what topics I set, neither do I remember what I thought of his performance. In any case, I should like to disclaim any responsibility, whether for good or ill, for his subsequent career.

That is very much by the way, but having stated the only two arguments, which I believe can be put against the thinking which underlies this Motion, which I thoroughly support, I believe that they can both be dismissed because, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, brought out, a qualified probation officer needs to be well versed in a broad range of subjects and topics from the law and the criminal justice system itself through to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness; the effects of both physical and emotional deprivation on patterns of offending behaviour; the psychology of recidivism and the impact of prison on family relationships.

If someone says in argument against that that these are matters not of exact science or scholarship and that one cannot teach budding probation officers about these things in the way that one can teach architects mathematics or engineering or material science, my answer is that that is true, but that is all the more reason why recruits to the probation service should have been taught--and they can only be taught formally--what is and also what is not precisely known in, for example, the field of current criminology; what can and what cannot be relied on about the statistics for drug and alcohol abuse and whether or not they license an inference to an established trend; what indeed is the present state of research on child development and adolescent behaviour; and what can and cannot be learnt in advance about interviewing techniques. As regards learning on the job, let us all remember that all too often that can be at the expense of the client who is on the receiving end.

I do not want to go so far as to lay down what ought to be in the ideal curriculum because I would not be competent to do so, and neither do I know whether it should be by way of a diploma or something else. But that there needs to be a diploma, degree or some equivalent qualification as much as for the grizzled second careerist from the armed services as for the starry-eyed young from school, seems to me to be wholly incontestable.

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5.56 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull: My Lords, I rise to support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale.

My noble friend Lady Blatch, for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration, generously gave me an hour of her time to explain the proposed new arrangements for probation training and recruitment. Alas, despite her very persuasive powers, on professional grounds I feel unable to accept them. I cannot agree with Her Majesty's Government as regards the recommended new format for training.

The questions to be asked, as many of your Lordships have done, are these: will the probation officers of the future have a professional qualification? Will not the probation service be out of line with other services with which it must work, notably the legal services and the social work services? Will not the new arrangements for the probation service be going in the opposite direction from that of the social work services with which it has to work so closely? Is it appreciated by the Home Office that in England and Northern Ireland there are 10 training courses for a degree in social work? Probation work includes the diploma in social work. Ten per cent. of the students training as social workers and probation officers are taking degree courses. There are already 1,000 students at any one time on a three or four-year course, and of these 300 are training as probation officers. Last year the Higher Education Council inspected 76 programmes in England and Northern Ireland, 16 of which had an excellent rating. Of those, there were 13 courses which had probation officer students.

The point in giving these figures is to indicate that social work training is moving in one direction--that is, towards the three-year degree course--while the probation service seems to be moving away from that.

The probation service is held in high regard in this country. It seems to many of us that it is now being downgraded. It is said that it would be possible to take a modular course at some university or other, and probably a university where officers would have trained on a full-time basis. When working at Oxford we arranged for a two-year course for people coming out of the services and for women whose children had grown up. They did a two-year course. They were 35 years of age and over. They were invaluable. They said that they were grateful to have had a two-year course at a university prior to taking up the work, which they were going to do, both in the probation service and in social work. I hope that we are not going to divide those who work in the same field but who are perhaps different ages.

The co-operation that exists between social workers and probation officers is invaluable to society. It is a great necessity. It would be a sad and sorry state of affairs if social workers are now to undertake a three-year degree course whereas probation officers will have only a modular course or perhaps even less than that.

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6 p.m.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the probation officers I have known in the past 40 years. As a very young, naive police officer, it was the probation officers at Clerkenwell Court who taught me to see human beings as rather more complex than I thought that they were previously. Over the years since, I have been closely associated with probation officers both professionally and at conferences. I must have met many hundreds of probation officers on many occasions, all of whom I found knowledgeable about human behaviour, sophisticated, tough minded and with a balanced view of their work.

Therefore, I cannot understand why the Home Secretary intends to remove the necessary underpinning of knowledge which goes with their everyday experience of human behaviour. As the noble Lord, Lord Henniker, said, there seems to be an attempt to deprofessionalise probation officers. The excuse that not enough older recruits apply under the present system is clearly disproved by the fact that 30 per cent. of the current intake are over 30, with something like 23 per cent. being over 40.

Many enter the service from other careers and with wide experience of human behaviour. Clearly, they have opportunities to learn from day-to-day experience, but they also need knowledge which can be gained only at the highest levels in higher institutions. It is essential that they have a background in psychology and in the development of human behaviour. They need to know about the law, procedures and criminology. I speak as someone who has two degrees in psychology and two diplomas and I have found that, although those qualifications do not necessarily provide me with answers about why human beings behave as they do, they destroy false assumptions and provide breadth, balance and an understanding of statistics and trends. They destroy one's simple assumptions about human behaviour.

It seems to me that the Home Secretary must be operating from a very simple model of human behaviour. I sometimes wonder whether too much exposure to the law, which provides manmade rules, makes people assume certain things about human behaviour. They then seem to think that people can be dealt with on a black/white, yes/no model, with the view being taken that you simply press a button and they will behave in a certain way. That seems to be what is happening with the probation service. There seems to be the assumption that probation officers have a simple job to do which can be learnt from everyday experience.

What the Home Secretary is proposing is a system of training which used to be called "sitting by Nellie", which has been widely disproved as inappropriate because you learn from other people's bad behaviour just as much as from their good behaviour. You cannot guarantee that the Nellie you are sitting beside operates according to best practice. Therefore, it is essential to have a framework of professional knowledge, academic discipline and the subjects which I have already outlined.

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The proposals represent a downgrading in the position of probation officers vis-o-vis other professions. A large proportion of police officers nowadays have degrees. Social workers have degrees or at least higher education diplomas. To downgrade probation officers in the way that is proposed would be extremely sad. It would be a disaster not only for the profession, but for the future prospects of the offenders with whom probation officers have to deal.

We live in an increasingly sophisticated world in which we all need more knowledge and better qualifications to underpin the jobs that we do. Probation officers in particular have extremely demanding jobs and, without the breadth and framework of academic knowledge to provide a balance about the world and human behaviour, I do not think that they can carry out their duties effectively.

6.4 p.m.

Lord Bancroft: My Lords, it is always a daunting privilege to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, which seems to be my fate. I support the Motion and the powerful speeches which have been made in its favour, especially by my noble friend Lord Allen of Abbeydale. Like him, I am temperamentally inclined towards understatement, so it gives me no pleasure at all to say that for connoisseurs of effrontery this perverse operation to deskill and deprofessionalise the probation service wins a medal. It was a done deal from the start when the two junior Home Office officials were handed skewed terms of reference. It was a done deal to the end when the consultation process turned out to be a sham.

However, we must look on the bright side. As other noble Lords have said, there are elements in the Home Office paper which can be looked on constructively and with good faith and goodwill all round. We must not miss this opportunity to create a new and even more relevant diploma or equivalent, obtainable by a variety of different routes, based in higher education and externally validated. A scheme on those broad lines which we all know--and the Minister knows--is acceptable to all probation service employers could be drawn up in short order. There have been ample analyses of probation officer training and qualifications. Virtually all of the necessary building blocks are already in place. I look forward with confidence to the Minister's response, giving us, with her usual courtesy, an unequivocal undertaking to accept the Motion.

Like the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman, I am no follower of what I believe he called the "accreditisation drift", but I end by reminding the Minister that even under the old dispensation, out of 10 states surveyed, England and Wales ranked only eighth in terms of the educational level of probation officers. The two countries below us were the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. That information comes from a newly published book with which the Minister will be familiar. It is an authoritative publication about probation around the world. One of the two co-signatories to the preface is the director of

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research and statistics in her own department. Under the new dispensation, this country is in due course bound for a position below the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. It is for us here tonight to resolve that this country needs and deserves a probation service which is more, rather than less, professional.

6.8 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I do not want to detain your Lordships, but I should like strongly to support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. I am particularly interested that his views have the support of the employers, the councils, and a large body of our probation officers.

As many noble Lords have said, the directives run counter to the trend in similar professions which demand a higher degree of qualification from their personnel to cope with the increasing complexity of the problems and challenges facing this and similar services. For a start, the reduced budget for the probation service may well result in a reduction in numbers, thus placing greater demands, both intellectual and practical, on a smaller number of officers. There is also the matter of public confidence in the service which cannot but be affected by the proposals.

The argument has been advanced by the Government that, because social workers do not need an outside degree, why should the probation service? I emphasise that the central council is flexible about it. The courses could avoid the nomenclature "social service" and the majority of the universities have, at the request of the service, provided greater in-service experience as part of their course. Perhaps that addresses a point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman.

The Minister is rightly concerned that the probation service should be open to as wide a spectrum of suitable candidates as possible. I appreciate that and it is of course wholly to be welcomed, but it is significant that one county probation service with which I am familiar has approximately 230 officers. Of those, 25 were recruited over the age of 30. Several of them have categorically told the chairman that they could not conceive how they could possibly manage to do their job effectively without the specialised two-year course.

The challenge facing the service is of ever greater complexity of problems and, in not a few cases, personal danger also. The NVQ is just not enough by itself. I am persuaded that the service is flexible in attempting to meet the Government's wish for a broader entry, but from these Benches I once again urge my noble friend the Minister to recognise, at this late stage, that the external, independently validated qualification must remain the core of the training and education for probation officers. It is its standing with the public and other court bodies, particularly the family courts, which is at risk for what is and must remain a key service.

6.12 p.m.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I, too, support the Motion moved by my noble friend Lord Allen of

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Abbeydale, and commend it to the House. We are indebted to him for these constructive proposals which he outlined admirably in his opening speech. I hope very much that the Minister will look upon them sympathetically as a practical means of maintaining standards in the probation service and, allied to that, reinforcing morale in it.

When we discussed these matters in April during a debate which I was privileged to lead, I hope that I may suggest, without a charge of undue arrogance being levelled against me, that we had the better of the argument. Indeed, save for the government speaker, only one of the 18 noble Lords who took part supported the government proposals.

But all that is water under the bridge, and I was grateful when the Minister, with her customary courtesy, sent me, and no doubt others, news of the Government's intentions in early October. In its decision paper the Home Office stated:

    "During the consultation period which ended on 26th May almost 500 responses had been received from a wide variety of sources including Probation Services and Committees, Universities, members of the Magistracy and Judiciary".
It continued:

    "All of these comments were carefully considered and taken into account".

In view of the fact that the government stance did not change at all as a result of that trawl, it is perhaps hardly surprising that they omitted to mention that nearly 98 per cent. of the 500 respondees were against the proposals in one way or another, making those of a cynical disposition wonder--no doubt unworthily--why the exercise had been mounted in the first place. Nevertheless, I hope that it may be possible to put in place constructive proposals which will meet the reasonable anxieties of all who work in and with the probation service.

I have to say that I do not believe that that can be done without some form of higher education being put in place, leading to a qualification which is seen to be at least as desirable as the present Diploma in Social Work, and one furthermore which is--this is crucial, as noble Lords have already said--externally validated. In that context, I cannot for the life of me see why among the various options open the Minister cannot, as it were, take a dip or, to put it more seriously, advocate the adoption of a diploma in probation studies, the courses to be constructed and administered by appropriate universities or colleges of higher education.

The current ties between universities and the service are cherished and are of particular value in, for example, Welsh- speaking areas such as those served by the University of Wales in Bangor which supplies many Welsh-speaking probation officers to the service. It would indeed be a step backwards to stop mining that valuable and important seam.

I should like at this point to stress that I am not opposed to the concept of a fast-track entry for mature applicants, even though the statistics show that the majority of applicants coming to the service at present are mature, and that under the existing system it is, alas, impossible to accommodate all successful candidates.

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I believe that at present only half of those who have recently succeeded in the course can be accommodated in posts. It may of course be that the Government intend to increase funding for the service, not just to create those extra posts but to take account of the likely increased cost of fragmented local training. I hope that that may indeed be the case, but we had no clue to that in the recent Budget.

Let me pose this question: why should those young people honourably seeking a career in what is a very demanding but at the same time rewarding vocation be fobbed off with piecemeal training which will inevitably differ from one area to another in terms of competence and skill and which will end with a qualification which will almost certainly be perceived as being worse than anything on offer today? What I fear will happen is what always happens in such circumstances. Recruits will vote with their feet and march into other disciplines at a time when, because of the inexorable rise in crime, the need in the probation service for men and women of quality will never have been so marked.

I do not intend to rake over the embers again today, but let me just say that, unlike the editors of certain tabloid newspapers or many of those party activists who attend party conferences, I have been a magistrate for over 20 years and therefore am someone who has been in close contact with the probation service over that time. I know what a vital role the service plays in the administration of the criminal justice system; I know how important it is that its members receive exhaustive and skilled training from a wide variety of disciplines, not just for the correct administration of justice but for their own and our safety; I know from personal experience how professional they are and how seriously they take their responsibilities. Finally, I know that not to take those factors into consideration when finalising the training proposals may have serious future implications on the effective work of the courts and on the morale of the service.

Accordingly, I beg the Minister to have an open mind on the issue and at the least to incorporate in any future arrangements made for the training of probation officers the two principles contained in the Motion.

6.17 p.m.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, the proposal to amend the probation rules to rescind the requirement for a probation officer to hold a Diploma in Social Work needs to be put into a wider perspective. Probation officers do a wide range of jobs associated with reducing crime. Their day-to-day work brings them into contact with the widest range of social problems. They deal with child abuse, mental illness problems, personality disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and marital and family problems. All those situations need not only careful handling but sophisticated analytic and diagnostic techniques.

Probation officers are not merely expected to recognise signs of unusual behaviour but have to make judgments as to how they may be handled. Dealing with

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those difficult situations requires links with other agencies such as health and social services. It follows that probation officers need to have the skills and abilities to link with medical staff in defining risk assessment at a variety of levels. They may need to decide about a florid schizophrenic needing hospital care, or, at the other end of the spectrum, to supervise in the community someone who is released from a secure unit.

Probation officers are also working as family court welfare officers. They have a crucial role to play in advising family courts, assessing family relationships, working with and managing risk to children, and mediating and helping separating and divorcing parents to formulate agreements in the best interests of the children. Those are just some of the skills probation officers need in their day-to-day duties. The idea that they can just be skills acquired on the job, as it were, would be to deny the sophistication needed in these complex situations.

If there is concern about the suitability of the existing qualification in social work, then let the opportunity be taken for probation officers to acquire skills suitable to their role in the criminal justice system, while recognising the sophistication that is required of them to do the job effectively.

The country is proud of its academic achievements and the products of our education system are demonstrated in every avenue of public, commercial and industrial life. In every sector there would be cries that the highest quality staff are needed in order to do the job successfully. The world of the probation officer still needs to be formed of this excellence. It is therefore essential that the training of probation officers is maintained at a high standard. There is a necessity in higher education for a way that leads to a professional externally validated qualification. By holding on to this aspiration we are safeguarding the standards in an important part of our criminal justice system. I was sorry to hear the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft. Another view is that, as with other parts of the system, our probation service has become a yardstick for performance throughout the world and it is important that this reputation is not lost.

6.20 p.m.

Lord Walpole: My Lords, I shall be extremely brief. I speak as a magistrate who has sat for many years on a small local Bench and I have a high regard for the probation service. I have a daughter who is a fully qualified probation officer in south-west London.

I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who introduced the Motion so completely. There seems to be little more to say except that it is important that when any forms of qualifications are validated they must be of the same even high quality wherever they are obtained. Furthermore, they must be of sufficient quality to be recognised not only anywhere in this country but also in those parts of Europe where there is a probation service and in the Commonwealth countries which have the same type of judicial system as ours; notably, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

It is ironic that, while other professional bodies in this country are seeking to obtain such transferable qualifications, the Government, by not funding the

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relevant courses in this country, are denying to the professional probation service the advantages that other professionals have.

6.22 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, when in April we debated the probation service on a Motion tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, the House was almost unanimous in its view about the Government's then proposals. With one exception out of 18, the House took the view that the Government's proposals were wrong. All 12 speakers today have been critical of the Government's proposals, and most importantly, supportive of the Motion before the House today.

In April the debate was wound up by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, deputising for the Minister. He said:

    "In recent years the probation service has ... changed from being a social work agency to being a criminal justice organisation".
He also said that changes to probation service training were part of:

    "a series of proposals which aim to bring the service more into line with the proper expectations of the courts and of the public".--[Official Report, 5/4/95; col. 236.]

He gave no evidence that the courts and the public were asking for change or had expressed strong views that the service fell below expectations. On that occasion we had the sense that the energy for change had come entirely from within the Home Office.

The noble Earl referred to the Dews report, which has been mentioned today, as the starting point for the process which led to the order made yesterday. He said that among the important weaknesses that the Dews report had discovered in the present system was that:

    "the statutory requirement for the Diploma in Social Work inhibits the recruitment of many potentially valuable recruits".--[Official Report, 5/4/95; col. 239.]
It is interesting that in today's debate the argument has been very much the other way. Whereas the noble Earl argued--and I believe that it was the Government's view--that the existing regime was an impediment to recruitment, it has been put fairly before your Lordships today that the removal of the qualifications hitherto required may discourage talented people from thinking of the probation service as a career.

If that is so, the opportunity is now open to the Minister. The statutory instrument was made yesterday and there is no going back. We are not trying to rewrite history. But if the effect of the order has been to open the possibility of a more varied recruitment than was hitherto the case and to bring forward more candidates for service in the probation service I believe that the Minister will have no difficulty in accepting the Motion. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, clearly explained, it deals with training and qualifications after recruitment and not with training and qualifications before recruitment. There would be nothing inconsistent and nothing embarrassing in the Government accepting the Motion as it stands and acting upon it and therefore to have the opportunity of the wider recruitment that the Government originally had in mind while at the same

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time not losing the possibility of potential recruits of a high quality. The noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, said that the Motion before the House was entirely compatible with yesterday's statutory instrument.

As was reflected in every speech made today, we all believe that the probation service performs a difficult and unglamorous task with a high degree of competence and a serious commitment to the objectives set for it by the Home Office. I believe that given the new regime created by the statutory instrument the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, if carried, will ensure that so far as possible such an outstanding record is continued.

6.27 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield: My Lords, I shall not detain the House with a detailed speech because most of the important points have been rehearsed by other noble Lords, including two former Home Secretaries. When the matter was discussed in your Lordships' House in April, I made a long speech which was critical of the Government's approach.

The probation service does an excellent job and I believe that the evidence shows that probation works. I am in favour of recruiting as wide a spectrum of people as possible into the probation service but not at the cost of undermining training, which underpins this effective and professional service. The changes that are currently in train, if not modified by the acceptance of the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, may well lead to a lack of effectiveness when dealing with offenders.

If we want to change in an effective way the behaviour of offenders, we must look at the total context of their criminal behaviour. In the case of many offenders, that means addressing drugs and alcohol abuse, psychological disorders and failures in family and personal relations. Of course, probation officers must have a prime responsibility to the courts and to the criminal justice system but a range of skills are essential to addressing the overall environment of offenders. They ought to be incorporated in the new training schemes which should be externally validated to ensure common standards across the service and a high degree of professionalism; that the needs of offenders are met; and that probation officers can move between employers. That may not be the case if there are not common standards.

In my academic career I have often taught probation trainees. Many of those trainees where drawn from the Armed Forces in Hampshire. I have not met a single mature student who believed that the skills learnt in those spheres, valuable though they would be in practice, could be transferred to probation work without extensive academic study linked to practical work during their two-year course.

If the Government believe that training in, for example, social work skills weakens a trainee probation officer's commitment to the criminal justice aspect of probation work, which must be seen as central, and fosters a perhaps less judgmental approach towards offenders, that could be corrected by specific courses

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within training programmes, as was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough. However, in my view, it is essential for the reasons that I have given that social work skills are not lost to the probation service.

I commend the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, both to the Minister and to the House. We do no service to the criminal justice system or to changing the behaviour of offenders by reducing the professional competence of probation officers. I fear that that will be the consequence of the Government's proposals and the Motion of the noble Lord would go some way towards mitigating what I strongly believe will be the very negative effects of the Government's changes.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Government have the responsibility to set the policy aims and priorities for the probation service and to ensure that a skilled and effective workforce is ready to meet the considerable demands ahead of it.

The Probation (Amendment) Rules 1995, which came into effect yesterday, remove the absolute requirement, irrespective of any education and/or experience that a person may have, for probation officers to have a social work qualification--a requirement which does not apply, in law, to chief or deputy chief probation officers nor even to social workers employed by local authorities.

It is quite wrong to say that the Government are removing a qualification and putting nothing in its place. Education and training for probation officers will be rigorous and effective. Assessment procedures will be put in place to select people for aptitude and potential to work in the probation service. Prior experience will be given a value, and training will be tailored quite specifically to cover the skills and underpinning knowledge necessary to practise effectively as a probation officer. Entry to the service will be on the basis of achieving the necessary standard. Nor are the changes an attack on the professional status of probation officers. They are a recognition of the service's special character and role. Probation work is not a branch of social work, but a discipline in its own right.

There is no doubt that probation officers require some of the same knowledge and skills as general social workers, not least because of a point made by my noble friend Lady Faithfull who said that the two services often have to work together closely. But other disciplines are equally relevant; for example, understanding the criminal justice system and psychology. Probation officers have correctional and enforcement responsibilities as well as a role in helping offenders, through rehabilitation programmes, to change their lifestyles. Their selection and training should reflect those responsibilities.

It is for this reason that we concluded that it no longer made sense to insist that probation officers should have a social work qualification as a single route to practise in the probation service. It is important to be clear: the rule change does not mean that qualified social workers are in any way disqualified from becoming probation

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officers. What it does mean is that the probation service is no longer tied to the social work education system and can look to recruit able people from a wide range of backgrounds and with a broad range of knowledge and skills, who, with appropriate training and only when meeting the required standards, can enter the probation service.

The changes will, therefore, remove barriers to the recruitment as probation officers of people who have relevant skills and experience to offer, but who lack the social work qualification which is currently required by law. And the training, which prospective probation officers will undertake to equip them with the competence to practise, will be made more flexible to take account of candidates' previous experience.

I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees. We do not want technocrats knocking at doors and operating like automatons. Probation officers must understand psychology, relationships and the challenge of turning somebody away from a life of crime and dealing with their problems in order to ensure that they again behave in a lawful way in the mainstream community.

The Government accept that it is important that probation officers and those with whom they work have confidence in the standards of training and assessment provided. As the noble Lord, Lord Henniker, said, mistakes by probation officers can have very serious consequences. The competences specified for probation officers require them to have relevant knowledge and theory as well as practical skills and to integrate those effectively in the course of their work.

I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, has not spoken in this debate, but in a meeting with me she made the very important point about not treating practical training and theoretical underpinning knowledge and understanding of the service separately. They should be integrated both in the training and application. That is a point which I have taken very much to heart and will hope to see in any new training arrangements.

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