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 Mr George Cunningham Mr George Cunningham , Islington South West 12:00 am, 9th February 1972

I shall speak briefly, because these occasions should not be hogged by those of us who had the privilege of serving on the Committee. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) for his chairmanship of the Sub-Committee. His hand was firm but always gentle and was much appreciated not only by me, but by other members of the Sub-Committee.

I look forward to the Minister's reply not just for what he will say, but because he has shown a willingness to introduce small changes in ways which assist the probation service, and the willingness to accept suggestions, especially from the other side of the House, is not so universal a habit among Ministers that it should be passed unnoticed. The probation service should take advantage of the hon. and learned Gentleman's period in the office which he now holds to try to push ahead the service.

I should like to mention one point about the choice of subjects by sub-committees. The Sub-Committees of the Expenditure Committee will achieve most if they choose subjects which can be treated in a non-partisan manner. This is the place for partisan debate. Committees of the House will get snarled up if they try to repeat in Committee the gladiatorial conflicts of the House. A lot of useful nonpartisan work can be done in Committees.

There has been some concern about the passage in the report in which we refer to the possible integration of the service into the social welfare departments of local authorities on the pattern that has already been adopted in Scotland. I can speak only for myself. I am quite clear that in the foreseeable future there will be no justification for making that move. Desirable changes in the intensity of probation coverage will make that change even less possible and right than it is now. The experience in Scotland is certainly far too short for one to be able to draw conclusions from it. But many experienced people in Scotland feel that the different experience required of the probation officer from that of other social workers is sufficient to justify the probation service continuing as a separate service under the Home Department.

In that connection, I suggest that the time has come to look at the financing of the service as between the national Exchequer and local authorities. At the moment the cost is borne roughly 50–50, but amongst the activities in which local authorities are to some extent engaged this is one where they have virtually no policy voice. Therefore, in logic it ought to be one where they do not have to find the money.

I can see no objection to switching the whole cost to the national Exchequer. Those who wade through all the evidence which we took will find that the only reasons adduced in favour of the present arrangement were that it was rather handy to be able to get a few desks and inkwells and that kind of thing out of the local authorities. That does not seem a sufficiently weighty consideration for putting a service which is principally under the control of the Home Secretary half into the purse of local authorities.

In the treatment of the offender, it is time that we paid more attention to watching over him for an indeterminate period after his offence, rather than incarcerating him for a finite period, determined at the time of his offence, which may later turn out to be too short or too long. It would be better for society to take the line that if a man who has proved himself a danger to society is found guilty, society's first job is to watch him, perhaps for a very long period. Watching him in the community may be far more important, and it may be possible in those circumstances to change his attitudes far more easily than in the atmosphere of prison.

At the moment we draw a very clear line between the period of incarceration and the period afterwards. I should like to see that line softened, so that the intensity of probation for most offenders immediately after incarceration, or conviction if they do not go to prison, is very intense supervision. The period that they spend in prison should be more flexible than is now possible under the parole system.

But if we are to do something like that we must have the capacity for a degree of intensity of supervision which does not now exist and is not yet being thought of. We mention in the report the experiments in more intensive supervision which are now being carried on, but these are not very intensive. I should like to hear the case stated or rebutted for even more intensive forms of supervision than are currently about to be experimented with in some parts of the country.

The probation service has a great "thing" about the concept of consent. The idea started with the necessity for the probationer to accept supervision. It is time to question that, and I personally think that it is time to give it up. Of course it is better if the man accepts the supervision but even if he does not it could be desirable in some cases not to imprison him but to impose supervision, with perhaps a semi-custodial sentence at weekends, and not to require of him the sort of declaration of faith in the doctrine of supervision which has always been an item of faith in the probation service.

We should also try to improve our methods of imposing punishment by fines. The pocket should be the principal way of getting at the offender who cannot be dealt with only by means of probation. The great difficulty is getting the money from the man. It is time to have another look at the possibility of getting the money by means of the Inland Revenue. I know that the Inland Revenue holds up its hands in horror and says that it does not want to become involved in this dirty business, but its reasons have not really stood up. There may be good reasons, but they need to be stated again and rigorously examined.

If we could find ways of ensuring that we could get the fines without a great expenditure of time and effort by the courts and without great cost, this would be a major new implement in our penal system. We need income fines, not capital fines. We should impose not a £50 fine once and for all but rather a £5-a-month fine. We must also find some way, of course, of deterring the offender from not paying the £5 every month.

In the tradition of the British way of doing things, once a service becomes a Cinderella, it goes on in that way for ever, and that has happened to the probation service. Our national or civil servants are paid adequately, if not more than adequately. Probation officers are also public servants, though they are proud of not being civil servants. Their work is at least as valuable as that done by the generality of civil servants and they should be paid at least as well.

One need only read some of the advertisements in New Society to get the picture. Untrained or little trained social workers are able to pick up salaries several hundreds of pounds in advance of the experienced probation officer. This cannot be right. It is no good trying to apply some sort of norm to the probation service and saying, "You have always had a raw deal. You will nevertheless get no more than 7 per cent." We must break out of this attitude towards the probation service and acknowledge that its needs in terms of pay rewards must be fulfilled.

Of necessity, it should continue to have a flat pyramid in its hierarchy, but as one cannot hope to promote the average probation officer at say, 40, one must find a way of giving him at that age a huge annual increment, giving him the equivalent of the sort of income he would have got had he gone in for another profession.

Reference has been made to the London allowance for probation officers. I hope that the Minister will comment on this and particularly on the anomalous situation which has been created in the Inner London area.

Because we are short of time for this debate and a number of hon. Members still wish to speak, I will add only that most of the probation officers I know want to remain in the service. They want to go on giving the community their much-needed expertise. However, some, and especially those with families, have been pushed out by the harsh demands of money. I hope that in the near future we shall remove that restraint on the probation service.