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The Probation Service has to recognise that part of a modern public service is to have groups of people at the sub-professional level feeding into the professional qualifications, doing the jobs which do not need higher level skills. That is not to say that we should not back good professional training and qualifications, but some of the debate so far on this amendment has sounded professionally protective.

The Earl of Listowel: These amendments do not necessarily work against what the two previous speakers have said. We have debated in the House how beneficial the role of community support officers can be, particularly in building community relations and providing a pool of people from which the main police service can draw. But as regards the progress of that development, concerns have been expressed that community support officers are not being given the support and mentoring they need when they are first put in place. The same can be said for assistant midwives. They have been very beneficial, but a recent report pointed out that in some areas they are not being given the support and training they need to do their jobs properly. They have been given too much responsibility without adequate supervision. Equally, classroom assistants benefit teachers in many ways, but a respected report on children with learning disabilities, which came out six months ago, stated that many classroom assistants have not been given the training they need yet are often appointed to work with children with disabilities. There is a danger of losing control of the fine nuances in what is in many ways an important and welcome new policy. These amendments would help to avoid that by ensuring that the right levels of qualification and training are in place.

I turn now to my main concern. Utterly fundamental to the success of protecting the public is ensuring strong relationships, sustained over time, between probation officers and offenders, or between probation support officers and offenders. Many offenders experience for the first time a trusting relationship with someone who takes an interest in them but also sets clear limits on their behaviour. To do that, it is essential that front-line staff are empowered to reflect on what they are doing. That is how one sustains these difficult relationships. Let us remember that many offenders will have been in care themselves. Some 60 per cent of offenders were abused or neglected by their parents before being taken into care. Many will have had several foster placements while in care and probably attended several schools. They may well have had a chain of different social workers caring for them. That is but one group of offenders. Another group will have grown up with no father in the family. The Minister herself will be aware from speaking to prison officers how often they say, “Well, we are the first fathers that these young men have had”. Many offenders will have suffered early developmental difficulties as well. They are complex, difficult people to work with and relating to them is challenging, but it is key to changing their behaviour and protecting the public.

What regrettably appears to have happened in the Probation Service, as it certainly has in social work, is that the capacity to reflect on what one is doing has been reduced over time, with the best of intentions. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Howarth would agree that the situation has deteriorated over time. Supervision and staff work discussion groups allowing people to gather together, facilitated by an experienced professional, to talk about individual cases and think of the best approaches to working with them, are important tools which have been eroded in the face of interesting and in many ways welcome developments and modernisation. However, there is always a danger of losing the key elements of success. Again, it is fundamentally important to ensure that proper training is given at the beginning, and that as part of that training an ingrained habit of reflection on practice is established.

We should think not only about initial training but about continuing professional development, which brings me on to the issue of turnover. It was troubling to hear from my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham that the one failure is that of staff sickness rates. One sees the problem in other areas. When staff involved in social work or in children’s homes are not properly supported, turnover is high. Among the many regrettable impacts is that the relationships which are so fundamental to success in these areas are undermined. I look forward to the Minister’s response and I shall be interested to hear any reassurances she can give.

7.15 pm

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment No. 86, which is tucked modestly in with this group. Almost everything has been said, so I shall find a tiny niche into which to slip some words. I sympathise with the principles that underlie the other amendments in this group because we are all trying to achieve excellence in the delivery of services. I do not think there is anything between us and the Government in this respect. One of the few times I have had to diverge from the view held by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, was when she said that the Government were taking the view that anybody can do the job. I have not heard that from the Minister; I have heard her talk repeatedly about excellence, the necessity of the ability to do the job and the importance of training. So I hope that we are going to be able to develop in a partnership way our approach to these amendments. I say that particularly because, when he started this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, was absolutely right to emphasise the importance of the qualifications and calibre of those who do the job. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, if those are right, we get the protection of the public right, and that is what noble Lords all around the Committee wish to achieve. It is a case of asking how we do that. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, was also right to point out that the Bill makes no reference to training; that is very strange.

Amendment No. 86 would ensure that the Secretary of State provided through regulations a benchmark for the minimum required qualifications of those who will carry out the day-to-day work of the Probation Service. When I saw Amendment No. 87, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, to my Amendment No. 86, I felt no pique. I looked at it and came to realise that he is absolutely right. If I had been minded to move my amendment tonight, which I assure the Minister I am not, I certainly would have accepted his amendment first. As it is, I want to make it clear at this point that I support government Amendment No. 69, to be considered in the next group, and that all my amendments both before us and in the ensuing group are probing. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, has now departed. He was very smartly dressed, I suspect for a dinner engagement, which may assure those who have other places to go that they might do so with a clearer conscience. I shall restrict most of my remarks to standards in order to address the specific requirements of my amendments.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: If there was any suggestion to the contrary by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth—there probably was not—I wish to say that I understand very well and appreciate, better than most possibly, the role and value of volunteers and support officers in various respects. I have done this all my life, working with and training people in such positions. What prompted this amendment is something just referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay: the silence of the Bill on the supreme importance of professional qualifications and training. We should never seek to diminish the fundamental influence they have throughout the system, and they should never be allowed to slip.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I am in violent agreement with many who have spoken. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, indicated, I have consistently sought to emphasise excellence, I have accepted the need for training and for the highest quality, and I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, on her suggestion that the Government think that training is unimportant.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: The Bill is silent on it.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I do not think we have been silent. Let me remind the noble Baroness about the history of what we inherited. When the Government came back into power, there had been a gap since 1995, when the previous Home Secretary terminated training arrangements, and a three-year gap during which no qualification training was available. Since 1998, more than 5,000 probation officers have achieved a diploma qualification. The Government currently invest £43 million per annum in the programme, and the contracts are sound. In order to assess whether the Government are committed to training, one has to look at what they have done, and a fair scrutiny of the Government’s record would show a clear commitment to training.

I remind the Committee that the system of training that we are all rightly applauding is now carried out without any statutory basis at all. We are not talking about changing the situation, and our commitment to training has been maintained with that being the case throughout.

It may assist if I explain more how training operates now and what our plans are for the future, which may give a little reassurance. The current diploma in probation studies is the recognised qualification for probation officers and combines the national vocational qualification, NVQ, at level 4 with a BA honours degree. It is achieved within two years and is delivered by a combination of work-based learning and academic study. The Ministry of Justice holds five contracts with approved higher education providers for the degree element and the NVQ is administered via City and Guilds. The costs of development, delivery and quality assurance of the diploma are met from the NOMS budget.

In 2008, the diploma will be replaced by a new qualification pathway that will cover all practitioners currently working at the levels of Probation Service officer and probation officer. This revised qualification route will be modular and more flexible. It will provide for the first time a national qualification route for Probation Service officers and will be available to all practitioners working in offender management and interventions. The qualification will be based on national occupational standards and will be academically externally accredited. Entrants with existing relevant qualifications will be eligible for credits to exempt them from repetition. The qualification will be subject to a national specification and will be developed, procured and, therefore, quality-assured by NOMS. All future providers—I emphasise, all—will be required to adopt this national qualification route for staff and to source delivery from a nationally accredited provider. We are setting the same standard for everyone.

A number of noble Lords have asked—it is implicit in the debate—how this will operate as we move into the new arrangements proposed by the Bill, where services are delivered under contract. We will award contracts to providers in the first place only if they are able to demonstrate that they will have staff who are appropriately trained for the services they are delivering, and the contracts will set out our clear expectations in this regard. We know that we will need a sufficient number of trained staff to deliver services, whichever provider is awarded the contract. So, to enable us to meet the need, the National Offender Management Service plans to continue central commissioning and quality control of probation training, based on workforce planning, for the foreseeable future. NOMS will continue centrally to allocate training funding to develop and maintain the qualification and to quality-assure its delivery.

I turn now to the detail of the amendments, starting with Amendment No. 67. We discussed this issue when we debated Clause 3 earlier in the Committee. My noble friend Lord Bassam made clear that the definition of “any other person” in Clause 3 also includes organisations and institutions. That is also the case in Clause 6. So perhaps I may respectfully suggest that Amendment No. 67 is unnecessary.

The same can be said for Amendment No. 68. Clause 6 is permissive in that it allows payments to be made to any other person or institution,

The cost of training, of course, falls within the probation purposes and it is not necessary to make explicit reference to it.

As drafted the amendment is technically deficient in its reference to “probation officers”, which is not a statutory concept either under current legislation or this Bill. The existing legislation refers to “officers of a local probation board”, which is updated in the Bill to “officers of a provider of probation services”. The point is that the probation workforce does not comprise solely probation officers, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth and Lady Linklater, and others have made clear; there is a spectrum of people who assist.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Warner that right across the public sector we have developed programmes for working with volunteers and subsidiary workers to increase and improve performance. I add to the list that he gave, of course, the teaching assistants upon whom we have come to rely and who give such valuable and powerful service to the teachers, parents and children of our country.

I understand the sentiments which underpin Amendment No. 85, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, but it would not deliver the improvements she seeks. I remind her that there will be no difference in the qualification requirements demanded of providers, regardless of whether they are within the public, private or voluntary sectors. I can also confirm that people supplying reports will continue to be trained and have the same competence as they do now.

The first part of the noble Baroness’s amendment would require the Secretary of State to make provision for national qualifications for all staff employed by a provider of probation services. In our debates on the Bill, noble Lords have frequently emphasised the importance of allowing local areas to make decisions for themselves, yet this proposed subsection envisages the Secretary of State prescribing qualifications for all staff employed by providers. It would catch staff at the most junior administrative grade right up to chief officers. As I have said, we employ cleaners in many probation boards and I suppose it would include them as well, skilled as they often have to be. Employers would no longer be free to make basic choices about such things as whether top probation managers take NVQ-based qualifications or MBAs. I hope noble Lords will accept that that is not sensible.

The second subsection requires the Secretary of State to accredit training providers for a minimum of 10 years. Again, this is excessively prescriptive. It would lock the National Offender Management Service into terms that may prove disadvantageous for a long period and would stifle innovation. However forward-looking we are, we cannot know what will be appropriate in 10 years’ time. It would also lock other potential providers out of the market for too long for their knowledge to remain current. So it is potentially also anti-competitive.

The requirement on providers to employ sufficient staff with degree-level qualifications is, I know, intended to maintain standards, but it could have the reverse effect. It would enable and could encourage providers to employ staff with irrelevant or outdated degrees simply to meet a quota. The risk is that such people become a cheaper alternative to those who qualify via the nationally approved route. I do not believe that that is the intention of the amendment.

7.30 pm

Amendment No. 86 is similar in effect to the first part of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in that it requires the Secretary of State to make provision for the necessary qualifications for an officer or a provider of probation service, a term that, as was the case with my noble friend Lord Judd’s amendments, casts the net beyond the group of staff that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, most wishes to catch. I understand why the noble Baroness has phrased her amendment that way, because it leads into the later amendments about which we are likely to be in agreement. Amendment No. 87 seeks to rectify that by referring to “all practising officers”, but that is also technically deficient. We know what kind of staff it is intended to catch, but it actually fails accurately to define them.

In many ways, that brings us to the nub of the issue. Legislation is too blunt an instrument to deal with the complexity and create the flexibility that we need. It is for the centre to set the broad framework, but it is for the commissioners and providers to decide what qualifications and experience are required for particular tasks and how best they can be delivered. Some aspects of service delivery—with high-risk sex offenders, for example—will require particular types of training and experience. We also need to be able to respond flexibly to changing patterns of crime and offences. What should matter to Parliament is that these arrangements deliver the outcomes that offenders and communities need. Our next set of amendments, in which we consider standards, rightly addresses that issue.

I appreciate the opportunity to debate the amendments and the way we have been able to explore these issues, but I am not sure that these provisions should be included in the Bill.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I thank the Minister for giving way. As I think I explained, I was seeking clarification of what the intentions were, rather than thinking that these particular amendments would achieve all our objectives.

The Secretary of State has a major role now in commissioning the sort of training that probation officers have to undergo and, so far as I understand, will continue to be responsible at that level for national training, which I understand the Minister said will apply to all those going into this form of training. It will be ladder-learning—getting up to the appropriate level—but there will be a level below which you would not be expected to be involved with the very delicate and important role that probation officers undertake at this time. It must be crucial that whoever is commissioned to do that work has sufficient resources, which must be pretty well wholly supplied centrally, to recruit the right people to undertake the training. If 10 years is too long, what period is necessary for a provider to gather the resources to supply the necessary training?

What level of qualification does the Minister think will be necessary for dealing with these offenders who are a high risk to everyone concerned, and who are currently dealt with for the next three years by probation officers under the amendment agreed in the other place? I would be grateful for a little more information on that.

I more than understand that my amendment, and some of my earlier amendments, do not entirely suit what should be in the Bill, if indeed anything needs to go in the Bill. We need proper reassurance that standards will be maintained. As the Minister said, that is her aim above all others, and I hope she will understand that we are trying to help her achieve it.

Lord Hylton: Before the Minister responds, I remind her of my point about the Parole Board.

The Earl of Listowel: Before the Minister responds to my noble friend’s comments, I hope I may be helpful. This is an adjunct to my noble friend’s concerns. In her helpful reply, the Minister talked about NVQ level 4. That is welcome and reassuring, but elsewhere there is a general concern that national vocational qualifications, welcome in themselves, tend to deal only with the “how” of things, not the “why”. They do not have a theoretical basis. Perhaps there is not entirely agreement on that. But when one thinks how important reflection is to being successful in this area, I hope the Minister might think about perhaps being more ambitious and introducing a theoretical qualification as well as a vocational one. In Scotland, for instance, the staff in children’s homes are expected to have, as here, NVQ level 3 in childcare. However, they are also expected to have an HNC, so they have both a theoretical and a practical understanding of what to do. The Minister might think about that.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for the way she now accepts that the thrust of what we are doing is in the right direction. I am heartened by that, and I agree with her. The qualification and expertise currently available to us is at least at a level that I would aspire for us to continue to have. We are not suggesting that there is going to be material change. Throughout all this I have tried to emphasise that it does not matter whether it is the public, private or voluntary sector that is doing the work; it is the standard that has to be assured and delivered. The qualification set that we will ask of anyone who is contracting with us will be the same. If they can provide that quality of service, they will in due course, once Clause 4 and the other issues change, be able to compete for that service.

As to the qualification probation officers hold—whether a CQSW, a diploma in social work or, for the majority of the workforce, a diploma in probation studies—I hear what the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, says. He knows, as I do, that the debate is ongoing about what the qualification should be, how long it should last, how we should develop the subsidiary workers, whether there should be a link between them and how they get on to the professional level, how we can ensure that they do not have to start from scratch and that we give proper credence to their experience. I am sure that debate will continue with ever-increasing vigour, and will not be diminished.

On the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, he will know that there have been two judicial reviews with regard to those standards. There is a question about how we can get the Parole Board reports done. Those matters are continuing. The noble Lord should know that those two judicial reviews are sub judice, and therefore I cannot talk about them directly, but the Secretary of State for Justice is also seeking leave to appeal to the House of Lords in the case of Johnson, which held that where there was a delay in considering parole in determining sentences, a prisoner’s damages would follow. All that is under review, but I assure him that the need to have speedy, accurate, well resourced and appropriate reports available to the Probation Board is well understood, and is being energetically pursued.

I hope I have now replied to all the issues raised. I have wrapped up the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I thank my noble friend Lord Warner, and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. On that basis, I hope your Lordships will be content not to move any of the amendments and to allow the appropriate short adjournment.

Lord Judd: I express profound gratitude to all those noble Lords who have spoken in this very important debate. I genuinely thank my noble friend for her powerful and in many ways convincing reply, and for the passion with which she has again expressed her own personal commitment to the issues about which we have been speaking.

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