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 Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Widnes 12:00 am, 9th February 1972

The right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. duCann) emphasised at the beginning of the debate the importance of the probation service, the only social service in the country under the control of the courts, dealing not only with the aftercare of offenders and the prevention of crime by those who have been before the courts but also with 30,000 matrimonial cases a year.

It is a pity that we have so little time to debate such an important subject. As many hon. Members on both sides wish to speak, I shall be very brief. I know that the hon. Member for Northants, South (Mr. Arthur Jones) will forgive me if I do not follow him in some of the interesting points he made.

The Expenditure Sub-Committee which examined the probation service has told the House that it could find no evidence of waste. The key paragraph in its report is paragraph 55, which recalls that the Clerk to the Lancashire County Council, my own county, pointed out that the entire expenditure for the country on the service is equivalent only to the expenditure of his county council on its social service programmes.

The paragraph continues: The projections of expenditure to 1974–75 do not seem to allow for a massive injection of manpower, or an extensive capital programme. That is a very significant thing for an Expenditure Committee to say. I hope we can hear from the Under-Secretary what the Government propose to do about the future capital expenditure of the service, which is already over-burdened and which will have far more duties put upon it by the Criminal Justice Act. The proposals to keep more people out of prison will expand the probation service enormously.

We have about 3,300 probation officers. The House has been told that their status is not very high. I think it is extremely high among those who know them. The sneers and jibes come from people who do not understand the service, who think that probation is a soft option. They never look beyond their nose to see the difficulties the probation officer faces. Probation officers work extremely long, irregular hours, night and day, and at weekends. They have to deal with a section of the community with which most of us dislike dealing. They must have extreme patience, sometimes in the most outrageous conditions.

For that, we pay them a basic salary scale of £975 rising to £1,851. Even the top grade, the principal probation officer, reaches a maximum salary of only £4,200. When we see in the advertisements, not only in New Society but in every national newspaper, as local authorities expand their social services programme, the salaries being offered not to the heads of departments, not to the deputies but to people way down the list who have nothing like the responsibility of a principal probation officer, we can understand why there is some low morale in the service, referred to by one of the witnesses before the Committee.

We need a much greater expenditure on salary structure. We need to end the present system under which a probation officer is lucky if he has a room to himself where he can interview properly, on his own, one of the people whom it is his duty to help. So often the probation officer is reduced to using someone else's room, back cupboards and the ends of corridors to carry out his work. There needs to be much more capital expenditure on facilities.

The Committee's recommendation (iii) causes me some alarm. It proposes that the matrimonial duties of the probation service should go to another agency. What the Committee does not say is what that agency should be. I can well understand its reluctance to describe an agency, because there is none. There is no other effective agency for dealing with matrimonial problems and reconciliation at that level.

The probation service deals with about 30,000 matrimonial cases a year, and very often the marriages are saved. These are not just cases referred to the probation officers by the courts. Often the parties themselves go to the probation office before there are court proceedings. Any lawyer who deals with matrimonial cases knows that once a marriage gets into court and evidence is given the prospect of a reconciliation is very much more difficult than if the kindly advice of a probation officer to both sides is received before all the hurtful things are said and flung across the court in public. That is the service which the probation officers provide in matrimonial proceedings. I do not know any other service which could take it over.

It may well be that in future we shall have family courts, but at present the probation service does this valuable work and I should like to see the work retained under its care. If there is pressure on the probation service, I do not think that its matrimonial work should be thrown out, because many probation officers feel, rightly, that their duty should not consist solely of dealing with criminal offenders. They feel that they have a wider rôle in the community, and they should be given it.

When the Committee says that the matrimonial proceedings functions of probation officers should be limited to those cases where an offence has taken place, does that mean always a criminal offence? Very often in matrimonial cases the most grievous criminal offence has been committed by a man on his wife. The most severe brutality has been used; extensive injuries have been caused necessitating hospital treatment. Were it not his wife but some other member of the community, it is likely that such a man would be put on probation or suffer a severe fine or go to prison. But because it is his wife who is the injured party his action is not regarded or treated as a criminal offence because of the great difficulty which the prosecution always has in calling a man's wife to give evidence against him if she is reluctant to do so.

We must consider that often offences in a criminal sense are taking place in cases which a probation officer, by his advice and help, can assist in sorting out before the matter gets into court. We have the problem of the rising divorce rate, of large numbers of people having difficulties in their matrimonial relations. The probation service does a great deal to help, and I would like it to retain the service it is providing now.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will say something about the future organisation of the probation service, bearing in mind Clause 10 of the Local Government Bill, which we are considering seemingly interminably in Standing Committee. There is a great deal of doubt in the probation service, in the magistrates' courts and in the local authorities as to just what the Government intend to do with the magistrates' courts system itself—whether they intend to integrate it into a national courts structure, as the magistrates' clerks want, or whether, at least temporarily, they intend to reorganise it in the new local government structure. The probation service needs to know, and I hope the hon. and learned Gentleman will give guidance for the sake of its future.

I concluded by paying my tribute as a practising solicitor to the tremendous work that every probation officer does, not only for those whom it is his duty to treat but for those who need help at large.