|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The nub of the matter is that Sonnex was assessed as high risk in custody but the probation officers assessment, as recorded, was that he was medium risk. The result of that discrepancy was that Sonnex was allocated to an offender management unit, rather than the higher level public protection unit. What was the reason for that? First, his probation officer had only been qualified for nine months and had a caseload of 127, which she inherited on appointment from an officer who was on sick leave. Immediately, on appointment, she was given 127 cases to handle. Her immediate superior was acting up and subsequently failed the assessment for permanent promotion. Levels of sickness and vacancy in the boroughs of Lewisham and Greenwich are much higher than elsewhere and staff at all levels reported that they were overwhelmed with work. The most experienced probation officer had been qualified for just two years. These staff were put in charge of a person who had been assessed as presenting a high risk of dangerous behaviour.
Secondly, probation officers were discouraged from classifying offenders as high risk unless it was absolutely necessary, due to overstretch in the public protection unit. Such was the degree of overstretch that staff in the local public protection unit had issued a joint grievance statement in September 2008. The probation service was under conflicting pressures to recall cases speedily to ensure public protection on the one hand, but to avoid recalling them unless it was absolutely necessary on the other. They had to be sure that it was absolutely necessary because of prison overcrowding. It is wrong, then, to say that resources had nothing to do with this. One must look at the wider system. The
8 Jun 2009 : Column 462
The problems are not rooted in individuals. Indeed, only one individual was criticised in the report and was disciplined simply by being given a written warning. It is not an individual failure; it is a failure of a chaotic prison policy and, in this case, a failure to implement effective IT systems. Chronic staff shortages have contributed to the failures that have been identified and the errors were not of judgment. The key error was inexperienced and inadequate supervision of Sonnexs probation officer. That, of course, arises from a lack of resources. As the noble Lord, Lord Henley, pointed out, London Probations budget had not been completely used up. It is clearly a question of putting more resources into the probation service and reducing the pressure on the resources required for prison. There has to be a complete rebalancing of the way in which we deal with offenders. Certainly, offenders who are dangerous should be retained in custody, but many more could be released from prison without danger to the public; that would release resources for preventive work in the wider sense.
I have only one question for the Minister in relation to the report of the IPCC investigation. That does not appear to have been released. The Minister said in the Statement that one police officer has been disciplined, but we were told nothing more. The report has not, as I understand it, been put into the public domain.
Lord Bach: My Lords, on that last point, as I understand it, headlines on the main points of that IPCC report have been published in the usual way, but not the full report. That is the usual way that these things are done. Before I continue, I thank both noble Lords from the Front Benches very much for what they had to say about this terrible case.
I do not wish to be long in responding, but a number of points clearly need answering. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked about the assault allegation made against Sonnex days after he had been released. The complainants in that case withdrew their allegations and, consequentially, the police felt that there was no case against Sonnex. But of course, in the circumstances, that should have led the relevant probation service people to realise that something urgently needed to be done in terms of this man. That was one of the failings in this case.
As far as the prison estate is concerned, it is not right and proper to say that this tragic double murder took place because too many people were in prison. The fact is that at least one person should have been, but was not, in prison on the day when Sonnex committed this murder. Nor is it right to say, in our view, that resources were at the heart of this matter. The truth is, as the director-general of NOMS said the other day, that,
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked why an underspend was recorded in 2008-09. London Probation frankly should have aimed to make full and effective use of the budget that was allocated for that year. We do not recognise the figure that has been suggested of £30 million in cuts. Indeed, it is important to point out the amount of money that has been poured into the probation service over the past number of yearsnot just nationally, but into the probation service in London. I should point out to noble Lords that in 2001-02 the figure was £94 million; in 2008-09 it was £153 million. The number of probation officers nationally has increased by a large amount in the past 12 years or so. In particular, the number of probation service officers has increased by a huge amount in that time. There has been a lot of investment in the probation service. I am afraid that these tragic events happened because this particular part of the probation service in London just was not managed well in any sense at all.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said that staff were discouraged from assessing offenders as high risk, due to resources. We do not accept that for a moment. This has never been the case. We have been looking hard to make sure that appropriate risk assessments are made in every case.
I think I have dealt with the questions that have been raised. This remains an absolutely tragic case and it is very important that everyone who has responsibility for it should take responsibility for it. That is what the Secretary of State has done and that is why he came before the other place to make this Oral Statement about this case.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us a little more about the nature of the offences for which Sonnex was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in 2003? The offence for which he was arrested on 23 April 2008, and subsequently recalled, was not one of violence, but of handling stolen goods. Can the Minister say more about the circumstances of that offence, and whether there was any suggestion of violence at that time? The Statement is very hard on the failings of the probation service. No doubt, there were serious failings on its part, but does the noble Lord agree that the critical failure was the failure of the Metropolitan Police to execute the recall warrant between 13 and 29 June 2008? Can he say more about the reasons for that apparently unexplained delay?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I shall do my best to assist the House on the questions that the noble and learned Lord properly asked. The original crime committed on 13 May 2002, when Sonnex was 16 years old, was
8 Jun 2009 : Column 464
I know that the Statement is hard on the probation servicethe noble and learned Lord is right. My right honourable friend was careful to sayI repeat it nowthat the point is not to unduly tarnish the work of those many dedicated professionals who deal each day with very dangerous and unpredictable individuals in the probation service. The noble and learned Lord points out that one of the worst aspects of this case was the delay between the police being told that this man should be picked up and his being picked up. We agree with that, although other important errors had been made before that time, not the least of which was the granting of bail on 16 May, and also the wrong description of him as being medium rather than high risk when he left prison.
Why was there such a long delay before his arrest? The recall notice about Sonnex was classified as standard, which means that action is dealt with when resources allow. The target time for this response is 96 hours. The matter should have been brought to the attention of the daily management meeting, however, for a decision. This did not happen due to confusion about responsibilities and misinterpretation. There is no excuse for what happened.
Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister could help the House on two matters. First, is it generally the policy of the police, and particularly the Metropolitan Police, that if serious allegations are made and then withdrawn, so far as they are concerned generally speaking that is the end of the matter? There may be a number of reasons why such allegations are withdrawn and threats are certainly a possible explanation. Secondly, in relation to the grant of bail, that was presumably a decision of the court. I am not sure who, under present arrangements, is responsible to account to Parliament for that. Has that been investigated and exactly what happened in that particular grant been identified?
Lord Bach: My Lords, as far as the police were concerned, I do not know whether they passed on the fact that this particular allegation had been made and then withdrawn. I can tell the noble and learned Lord that, as part of his seemingly good conduct towards his licence, Sonnex was clever enough to tell his probation officer that there had been this allegation made against him and no doubt went on to say that it was completely false and that it was proved to be false because the
8 Jun 2009 : Column 465
As far as why bail was granted, as the Statement says, it is not absolutely clear, but it sounds as though there was a confusion between the prosecution service, which was under the assumption not to oppose bail for the comparatively minor offence of handling stolen goods, because it presumed he was going to be rearrested as soon as he left the dock, and the fact that that did not happen. When he was formally granted bail by the court, he left the court a free man. It was an inexcusable mistake.
Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, my noble friend has said that Sonnex was never adequately assessed for risk or considered for multi-agency public protection arrangements, both of which, he has said, would have resulted in more intensive community supervision. Is not the sad fact of this case that, even if there had been more intensive community supervision, the tragedy could still have happened because, however intensive, it would still not have been comprehensive, 24-hour supervision? It is so easy to criticise members of the probation service who work in very difficult circumstances and with very difficult individuals. There seems to have been a hint in what my noble friend said that perhaps the probation service was rather more concerned with the welfare of the offender than with public protection. We see the fact that he was assessed as medium risk, as standard rather than emergency, and so on.
However junior the front-line individual, or however shortly after their training this happened, was the failing in part a failure to refer up to someone who was more experienced? Were there failures of management in that sense, which could have produced a more mature judgment in respect of this individual?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend when he talks about the marvellous work that the probation service does in general. I accept that in any case, however intense supervision is, you may get people committing terrible crimes when they are on licence. That is true. In this case, this particular defendant, at the time the murder was committed, should have been in custody. That did not happen, however. The reason why he was considered high risk in prison was because he was seen by a doctor some years before, not long after he had started his long sentence, who, as I quoted in the Statement, had said that Sonnex thought he was capable of killing. Obviously, therefore he would have been considered high risk. When he came out of prison, because he was then an adult over 21, he was for some reason described as just a medium risk. Events followed on from that.
The very junior or very inexperienced probation officer who had the misfortune to have control of this case, along with many others, sought advice from those above her. I am afraid that the advice she got was not good advice.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will have read the very responsible and dignified statement made by David Scott, the chief probation
8 Jun 2009 : Column 466
In that statement, he drew attention to some of the problems that he was facing. Before I ask my direct question, I must make two challenges to the Minister on what he said. Talking about budgets, I have already quoted in this House the statement made by the auditor of the London probation service that trying to manage that budget was akin to trying to land a jumbo jet on a postage stamp because of the frequent changes of rules, the late arrival of money and so on. Therefore to just say it was an underspend is unfair to the probation system, which was always working under considerable problems, put on it by NOMS, to enable it either to know how much money it had got or how it could spend it.
As far as officers are concerned, the National Association of Probation Officers stated at the same time that, despite all the money that has been put in and all the extra probation service officers and bureaucrats, there has been a 9 per cent reduction in the number of probation officers. It is probation officers who should be dealing with people of the capability of Sonnex.
My question reverts particularly to David Scott, a very senior, highly regarded, widely respected person. The decision was taken that he should either be called upon to resign, or something else should happen. I think the Minister said in the Statement that this was some time between October when he submitted his report and February. Was the encouragement to resign given to him personally by the Secretary of State or by the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, or was it left to some subordinate?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I recognise the expertise of the noble Lord in this field. Unfortunately, I do not know the answer to the direct question he asked me about how it came about that Mr Scott resigned. I accept that the remarks of Mr Scott are dignified, as he describes them, and it is no part of my function here today to make that position any worse.
I know that there are genuine arguments about probation between the noble Lord and others and the Government, but some facts are indisputable: many resources have gone into probation over a number of years and the number of probation officers is higher. That there were considerable problems in London, and in particular in Greenwich and Lewisham, has to be acknowledged. However, sometimes the fault is not a lack of resources but is just managerial failure, and I think that that is what it was on this occasion.
Lord Richard: My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend can help me on one main point. It seems to me that the two failures that caused this dreadful affair were, first, the one raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, and, secondly, the granting of bail. I do not understand how bail was granted in
8 Jun 2009 : Column 467
Lord Bach: My Lords, I shall do my best but I cannot help my noble friend too much because, as the Statement said, in the end the granting of bail is inexplicable. It took place in the magistrates court. I do not believe that the probation officer was present in court, but on that day there was communication between the probation officer and the Crown Prosecution Service, and so, as I understand it, the Crown Prosecution Service was aware that this man was wanted on licence. No doubt the defence solicitor made the application on the basis that this was a clearing-up exercise and that there was no point in remanding this man in custody for handling stolen goods when there were much bigger issues involving him, and therefore bail was given. I am in danger of employing guesswork, which I must be careful not to do, but I think that my noble friend and I can agree that the giving of bail was a dreadful mistake.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, there seems to be an inference that a lot of the problems were associated with the probation service, but I think that it is getting a slightly hard hearing because, looking at this in the round, it would appear that the failings went right across the board. Indeed, I would argue that some of them were strategic failings.
The Minister has told us repeatedly that the underspend of the budget almost proves that the resources were not being managed, and that therefore the issue was not resources but the mistakes made in the system. I recall that in a debate on 14 May the noble Lord told us about the cuts that the Ministry of Justice had to make in this area. I reminded him that Napo says that some 50 per cent of the 400 probation officers being trained will not be given assignments at the end of their training later this year. Can the Minister tell us whether, looking forward, he is now reassessing the impact of those budget cuts on the case load of the probation service, particularly when such junior people are given so much responsibility?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. There were failings across the board, and I hope that neither I nor the Statement has suggested that they were purely down to the probation service. They were not; the failings, which led almost inevitably to this tragedy, were much more widespread than that.
It is right that until now training has not always matched the number of jobs that are out there. However, I can tell the noble Baroness that the Government had
8 Jun 2009 : Column 468
Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that there are two ways of approaching this terrible tragedy? One is to examine in detail each and every mistake and omission and to say, There is the amalgam of coincidences that has brought about this outrageous situation. However, another way of approaching it is to look at the heart, core and kernel of the underlying situation, which, I suggest with great respect to the Minister, is one of resources. I understand that in the London probation area the average case load for a probation officer is 90 cases, which is much too high. Secondly, as we heard, the officer in this case had been in post for nine months and was dealing with 127 cases. In the circumstances, is it not utterly unrealistic to say that this is not a resource matter? Although I appreciate that Her Majestys Government have generously added to the budget of the probation service over the years, they have also generously added to the services responsibilities on a massive scale. In the circumstances, will the Minister undertake to look at this central feature and to approach the issue directly and swiftly?
Lord Bach: My Lords, we maintain that resources were not the central issue here. Other high-performing areas had similar budget pressures, both inside and outside London, and they continued to deliver a much better service than that delivered by this area of Greenwich and Lewisham. Of course we take into account what the noble Lord says about the general issues concerning the probation service, but I think that we sometimes have to accept that disasters and tragedies of this kind happen because of managerial inefficiency and not just because there are insufficient resources. Here, we maintain that the amount of money that the London probation service and, in particular, the Greenwich and Lewisham probation service received was sufficient for them to do the work that was necessary. Unfortunately, that work was not well managed.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|