Probation and After-Care Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th February 1972.

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Photo of Sir John Hall Sir John Hall , Wycombe 12:00 am, 9th February 1972

This report is the first fruit of the work of the Expenditure Sub-Committee on Environmental and Home Affairs, of which I am privileged to be Chairman.

I do not know the traditions on an occasion such as this, but I think it would be right for me to pay tribute to those hon. Members who have served on the Committee. They have been assiduous in their attendance, searching in their inquiries and ready to accept any personal inconvenience, whether it was the incarceration for a short time in gaol or the rigours of journeying to foreign parts. I want, as Chairman, to put on record my own appreciation of the work of the Committee.

It is only fair, also, to thank all those who gave so much time and trouble to preparing the memoranda submitted to the Committee, and who travelled such long distances to give evidence to it. It may be that some of them wondered whether their journeys were necessary from time to time. But their evidence was of great value. I have been told that it is against tradition to refer on these occasions to the Committee Clerks. The House is indebted to the Clerks who service these Committees. We are very fortunate in our Clerks.

The scope and form of the inquiry is summarised in paragraphs 1 and 2 of the report. Perhaps I might quote from paragraph 1, because it gives the philosophy behind our investigation and the considerations that we have in mind. We say that our inquiry has been … concerned not only with examining existing and projected future expenditure, but with the wider question as to whether or not changes in the Service, even involving greater expenditure than now envisaged, might result both in economies in the total cost of administering the penal system and in social benefits through a reduction of recidivism. This goes further than one would normally expect. We go on to point out that because of the changes that have taken place in Scotland since the passing of the Social Work (Scotland) Act, 1968, we limited our inquiry largely to England and Wales, although we took evidence from Scottish authorities and have taken note in the report of what was said to us.

Our investigation showed no evidence of waste of public funds. We set that out fully in paragraphs 3 and 55. In paragraph 3 we say: … we believe that the Service suffers from the provision of too little rather than too much money. It might put matters into proper perspective if hon. Members turned to paragraph 55, where we set out what the Clerk of the Lancashire County Council told us: If you bear in mind that the probation service in the whole of England and Wales costs the equivalent of the social services' expenditure in my own county, it puts it in perspective. Our main conclusions are summarised briefly in paragraph 58, where we say: The probation and after-care service plays a vital rôle in the treatment of the offender. There is strong evidence that probation could produce in terms of rehabilitation at least as good results as imprisonment for many lesser offenders who are now sent to prison. An alteration of the emphasis of penal treatment in favour of probation could thus leave imprisonment mainly for those offenders from whom society needs to be protected. An interesting table follows that paragraph. From it will be seen that in terms of prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants as at 1st January, 1971, the Netherlands comes at the top of the league table with 22·4, whereas England and Wales is second from the bottom with 72·4. Even making an adjustment for those awaiting trial—in other words, those on remand—and deducting them from the figure that I have, England and Wales still has 62 per 100,000 inhabitants. West Germany comes down to 65·4. Hon. Members can draw what conclusions they wish from the figures, but an inescapable conclusion is that we have far more prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants than most other European countries. That is a matter which must give cause for concern.

If the House accepts the Committee's main conclusion, which is summarised in paragraph 58, it follows that the probation service must be strengthend. A recommendation of this sort may seem odd coming from an Expenditure Committee. It will mean more expenditure on the service. However, the Committee believes that additional expenditure on the service will yield greater social benefit at less overall cost.

The Committee has made 19 recommendations. We would have made more, but some were anticipated by the Criminal Justice Bill, otherwise we might have got up to two dozen, with any luck. The recommendations in the Criminal Justice Bill relating to non-custodial or semi-custodial penalties are a considerable step in the right direction. The Committee welcomes them and has taken them into consideration in making its own recommendations.

I do not intend to take the House through all the recommendations. I prefer to concentrate upon Nos. (xvi) to (xix). Dealing first with No. (xvi), which refers to the provision of after-care hostels, we recommend that the provision should be accelerated. If, as we believe, aftercare hostels play a valuable part in the rehabilitation of offenders, they should be provided in greater numbers. At present, after-care hostels are run by voluntary organisations with Home Office grants. There is no evidence at the moment of any intention appreciably to increase grants or the number of beds which would be necessary if we were to make the aftercare hostels play a proper part in dealing with offenders.

Recommendation (xvii) arises out of paragraphs 46 to 54 of the report and deals with alternatives to imprisonment. Clauses 14 to 19 of the Criminal Justice Bill are concerned with the same subject. If we are really to develop effective alternatives to prison sentences, again it is essential that the probation service is properly staffed. It is unlikely that the target that the Home Office has set for itself to have 4,700 officers by 1975 will do any more than relieve the pressure that the service is now suffering. If we want to give effect to the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill and, I hope, to the recommendations embodied in the Committee's report, it is vital that we increase the staff of the service. I should not wish to suggest any figure, but we ought to take into account all the additional burdens placed on the probation service which in themselves justify an increase, and to make certain that the increase is realistic.

In my view and the view of the Committee, this re-examination of manpower requirements, which is our recommendation, is urgent. The Economist, in commenting on the report said: At present there are 3,600 probation officers and the Government hopes that by 1975 there will be 4,700. Few of them feel that this number will do more than keep up with existing requirements, and any high-minded talk of alternatives to imprisonment is worthless if there are not enough trained people to carry them out effectively. I think the House will agree with that comment by the Economist.

Turning to recommendation xviii, which refers to the need for a publicity campaign, the probationary service has suffered for a long time by being the Cinderella of the penal services. We found in evidence that probation officers felt that they tended to he looked down on by the rest of society. Perhaps that is putting it too strongly, but they felt a sense of being regarded as not quite accepted in the usual social strata in which they mix and of there being something "not quite nice" about being a probation officer. This idea has to be removed.

If non-custodial treatment of offenders is to become extended, and if we are to get the public to co-operate—as we must—in the treatment which offenders have to receive, and if we are to get the public to understand what the probation service is doing and the service it is rendering to the community, the public must be told much more about the service. The public must be told how it works, the type of people who go into it and the sort of problems which they encounter, to make them realise that the service is a vital part of the penal services of the country and that it makes a vital contribution to the work to which the services are committed.

Recommendations (v) and (vi) refer to volunteers. At the moment we have about 2,100 volunteers who are almost exclusively engaged in after-care. If the publicity given to the service was of the right order and the image—to use a popular word—was right, that would do very much to encourage the development of a larger volunteer service. One appreciates that we have to be careful in the selection of volunteers. Many who wish to volunteer are not necessarily of the right type, and if they were used in the service they might do more harm than good. On the other hand, a large number of people know nothing about the service, have never thought that they could play a part in it, and what they have heard about it does not attract them very much, but among them there are a large number who would be willing to play a part in it if they knew what the service was about. Without publicity of the right kind I do not think we shall increase the service to the number which we need.

We live at a time when, most unfortunately, crime seems to be on the increase, at a time when the resources of our police, our prison service and all the ancillary organisations are not only stretched to the limit but in many cases are stretched almost beyond the limit. The reasons for this are many and complicated, and it is not my intention nor purpose to go into them this evening, but I am certain that we shall not control crime without public acceptance that on the whole the existing laws are fair and reasonable. That, after all, is the responsibility of this House. We must have a police force which can make true the saying, "Crime doesn't pay." Unfortunately that is no longer true; crime pays today because it so often is not found out. Without a penal system which helps to make and not to break a man, without public understanding of the proposals contained in the Criminal Justice Bill and our recommendations, without the co-operation of the public in upholding the law, we cannot improve this situation.

I do not think we shall ever stamp out crime without the whole-hearted cooperation of the public in maintaining the rule of law. To some extent law is enforced by a form of confidence trick. It can be enforced only if people are prepared to accept its enforcement. If a very large majority refused to accept the law, the largest police force in the world could not impose the law on them. We cannot have the rule of law without the co-operation of the public.

This report deals with only one part of the penal services—probation and aftercare. My Committee believes that this is a very important part, indeed a vital part, of the penal system. We believe that if our recommendations are implemented to the full the improvement in the probation service could reduce very considerably the existing pressure on prisons. We believe that it should make possible the effective operation of those parts of the Criminal Justice Bill which deal with the non-custodial penalties. Indeed, we are of the opinion that without an improvement in the prison service it will not be possible to implement the Bill. We also believe that this would reduce the total cost of the penal system. To take one figure which is quoted in the report, whereas it costs about £20 a week to keep a man in prison it costs about £2 to put him on probation. This was an attractive idea to us, but it was not the main reason for our recommendations.

A number of hon. Members on both sides wish to join in the debate. Therefore, I will leave out much of what I wished to say.

The Committee gave a lot of time and thought to producing a report which it hopes will be helpful. We believe that if the recommendations are accepted they will lead to improvements in the service, which can only be of value to society as a whole. I hope that the House will accept the report.