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 Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler , Nottingham South 12:00 am, 9th February 1972

Speaking as a non-member of the Committee, I feel that this is an extremely valuable report and anything I say should be taken in the context of the dedication of those in the probation service to their job.

The feature which comes out in this report is how little we know about the effect of the probation service. We know what it costs and its strength, but we know all too little about its success. This seems to me to illustrate one of the wider points about the situation on crime in this country—that our approach to it is decidedly amateurish when we decide which methods we are to use to tackle the problem. We blunder round seeking solutions, and yet even if we found solutions it is doubtful whether we would recognise them.

We deplore the great increase in crime, and it is right that we should do so, because it has been extremely serious. But in deciding which measures we are to use to tackle that increase, our approach is extremely amateurish and is not in any sense businesslike. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) almost apologised for introducing business techniques into this subject, but crime is an area in which such techniques could most usefully be introduced; for if we spend £10 million on prisons, the police or the probation service, we do not know what effect that will have. It is not a matter of stick- ing in a pin, although I suspect that in this field we stick in quite a number of pins. We simply respond to whatever the situation may be.

The probation service and the increase in its strength is a prime example. That increase has come because there has been an astronomical increase in the prison population. It has gone up to 40,000–14,000 of them living two or three to a cell. We recognise that we cannot build enough prisons for them all and we accept, therefore, that we can deal with the situation only by dealing with more people outside prison. That is not the same as saying that we believe that probation or non-custodial sentences are the most effective way of dealing with offenders. That is an area of research in which we have done too little work and to which the Government could very well turn their mind.

At the moment what we say about a new scheme—and my hon. Friend may confirm this—is that when it is introduced it would do no more harm than the scheme that it is replacing or outdating. There is the example of Holland, to which my hon. Friend referred, which has a low proportion of people in prison. But there again the Dutch are only working on a guess. They say, "As long as prison terms do not seem to have great effect, let us try shorter ones". This is the kind of amateur approach which the whole of Europe is taking to this problem. The Government have a great opportunity to lay the foundation for transforming this picture. Basically, we want more information on which to judge our policy decisions. We want to know the effect that more resources will have.

At present, we spend enormous sums on the detection and prevention of crime, and proportionately very little on the treatment of offenders. We want to know whether the proportions are right and what effect any change in them will have. Basically, we want a more professional approach than we have seen in the past half-century.