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 William Wilson Mr William Wilson , Coventry South 12:00 am, 9th February 1972

I am glad to follow the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) because I have always hoped, as a lawyer that one day I should be able to appear before her in her magisterial capacity.

Those of us who know the work of the probation service know the solid achievement of the probation officers in the service which they give to the general community of this country every day of the year. The police court commissioners from whom the probation service sprang would be proud indeed today to see the good service which the probation officers provide. It is long ago since I was at a divorce case in which the parties were Godley v. Godley and the probation officer intervened, and for the loss of my costs the parties were reconciled. Ever since that day I have had a high regard for them, because the Almighty himself could separate the godly only from the ungodly but the probation officer brought together the Godley and the Godley.

I should like to pay tribute to the Sub-Committee's report. Its recommendations I substantially support, and the good work which has gone into it is apparent to everyone. There are two or three points on which I should like to comment.

First is the question of the probation officers collecting fines. This has been a practice I have never supported because always when a probation officer is asked to collect a fine it is because the court has come to the conclusion that it will be a bit difficult to get the money. That is the first point.

The next point is that it often happens that a defendant, after he has been fined, feels that he has been over-fined or even unjustly fined, and when the probation officer becomes the collecting officer, and talks about the payment of the money, then, in the eyes of that individual that probation officer has become part of the court machine. It is not the job of a probation officer to collect fines, and I hope that we shall find a way to avoid this.

It has been suggested that the matrimonial work done by probation officers should be withdrawn from them. The breadth of human experience and knowledge within the probation service is considerable and outstanding. For that knowledge to be lost by trying to create another matrimonial service would be wrong indeed. The work done by the probation service is so intermingled that it would be difficult to separate the matrimonial reconciliation work. There may be something to be said for differentiating between those who come to the probation matrimonial service as a result of criminal activities and those who do not. Some people are inclined to look upon the matrimonial service of the probation service as the poor person's marriage guidance council and think that a person who goes to the probation officer to be advised about marriage is not quite up to the grade. Experience shows that this is not so, and it would be wrong to move the marriage reconciliation service away from the probation service.

The report refers to a concerted national campaign to improve the image of the service. I hope that does not mean that a great deal of money will be spent upon advertising. To do that would not achieve very much. In Coventry within a stone's throw of where the probation officers practise there is a cathedral, a college of technology, an art gallery and museum and a block of council offices, all resplendently new. The probation service operates from two wartime wooden structures. The poorest building in the centre of Coventry is the building which houses the probation service. Instead of spending money on advertising in The Times and the glossy magazines the glories of the probation service, we should spend it on accommodation.

I conclude as I started with an expression of gratitude to the probation service. Those of us who are in the legal profession, whether on the judiciary bench or in the well of the court, know what good, solid work is done by probation officers. It is perhaps symptomatic that those who do the best work are the most poorly paid, and the probation service is a clear example of that.