Probation and After-Care Service

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mrs Shirley Williams Mrs Shirley Williams , Hitchin 12:00 am, 9th February 1972

This has been a very good debate, though a rather short one, from which has emerged a strong consensus on both sides of the House about the future and the strengthening of the probation service. I compliment the chairman of the Sub-Committee and those hon. Members who served on it on what is an excellent report, which indicates clearly the importance of the service, the need for an expansion in its activities and, not least, the need for better conditions and improved salaries if we are to get that expansion.

The report comes at a time when we must admit that there is a considerable crisis of confidence in the probation service. It is not a crisis of confidence that I attribute to any Government. It has grown up in the last two years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) said, anyone who knows the work of the probation service admires and respects probation officers. It is by definition a serious business when probation officers are not sure how much they respect themselves.

The crisis of confidence has flown essentially from three factors. The first was the passing of the Local Authority Social Services Act at a time when my right hon. and hon. Friends were in office, and the fact that the future of the probation service was no longer certain. To this day, the service does not know for sure whether it will remain under the Home Office or whether at some time, like the probation service in Scotland, it will come under the aegis of the social service departments.

As Mr. Hugh Klare are put it in his evidence to the Committee, the probation service is a social service for the courts. In a sense, it is a very different service from the others. I shall say later why I believe, in common with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. George Cunningham), that the future of the service is best within the scope of the Home Office.

The second reason for this crisis of confidence was the very long-drawn-out salary negotiations last year. It must be said about probation officers that always they seem to have the extremely bad luck of coinciding with some sort of incomes policy, whether manifest or not, and normally come relatively badly out of their negotiations. That has been true, alas, under both Governments.

It is ludicrous that men and women undertaking work of this importance, which I am glad that the Committee recognised so strongly, should be paid on the sort of scales on which they are paid. The top scale for the basic grade officer, who does the crucial daily work with the offender, is what would be recognised in comparative professions involving comparative responsibilities as not being worthwhile. Yet, we expect these people to go on out of dedication when it is surely for the community to recognise their true worth.

The third reason for the crisis of confidence is the comparative salaries now paid in the directly competitive sections of the social service departments. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the comparison is so unfavourable to the probation service, some of it applying to people not as highly qualified, that it is surely past time that we made the situations of the two professions at least parallel.

The second part of what I want to say—and in deference to the House I will keep my remarks short—is that this situation of a crisis of confidence has grown up side by side with a growing burden of responsibilities placed on the probation service. One of the facts which the Committee brought out has been the astounding multiplication in demands for court reports, inquiries into family circumstances and the like. I thought one of the most arresting statistics in the Committee's report, and one which was pointed to by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason), was that nearly a quarter of a million reports are provided each year for the courts and are undertaken in an astonishingly conscientious way. There will, of course, be more demands for more reports as magistrates recognise their importance in sentencing policy and in deciding the correct punishment for an offender.

Side by side with this we have the growth of the parole system, which I think all hon. Members would like to see further expanded, and moving on to more difficult cases where there will be greater need for careful consideration, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) knows, because he has knowledge of these matters. This is one of the most successful ways of dealing with recidivism. It is too early to judge, but so far the failure rate of about 5 per cent. is very encouraging when compared with the failure rate of other forms of dealing with the offender.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West pointed out, the growing burden of after-care placed on probation officers the need to extend this further. Then we have the Criminal Justice Bill which is passing through the House. Proposals in that Bill, such as a suspended sentence with supervision, community service orders and proposals for intensive supervision made by this Committee, a proposal for more hospital orders and the possibility of deferred sentence with a supervision order will all lay very heavy additional burdens on the overworked probation service. We know that the crisis which faces the prison service is now so serious that we can no longer neglect it. Although I hope it will not happen, I think the Minister recognises that we have reached a situation in respect of overcrowding which cannot be sustained for more than a few months without having serious effects on the rehabilitation side of the service. So it is essential to get alternatives to imprisonment. Yet we know of no way of doing this except by increasing the load on the probation service.

In an interesting report made for a Council of Europe Committee on crime problems, Mr. Sparks said: Institutional treatment is not more effective (in terms of preventing recidivism) than treatment in the community". But of course what this means in the light of case loads, which again the Committee had in mind, would be totally impracticable. I believe that we have reached a stage at which the 4,700 target by 1975, as the Chairman of the Committee pointed out, may be inadequate for expansion. I do not want to risk suggesting a figure, any more than did the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall), but I should think that about 6,000 or 7,000 by 1975 would be more in line with the burdens which Parliament will be putting on the service.

The case load on probation officers is exaggerated in the case of prison welfare officers. The case load there is so great that it is literally impossible in some cases for a prison welfare officer to make even one visit to a man about to be released from prison. Yet the prison welfare officer can probably do as much as any- one to avoid that man's reconviction within a short period if he finds it difficult to readjust to the outside world. I therefore associate this plea for expansion with one for expansion of a linked prison welfare service.

Finally I turn to the future of the service and I strongly support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. William Wilson) about lightening the load on the probation service notably by lifting the responsibility for collecting fines in certain cases. As my right hon. Friend rightly said, this can destroy the relationship between the officer and his client and the usefulness of the work of the probation officer in his attempt to assist the offender.

The Minister will recognise that the Central Council for Training has suggested that a two-year course should be the minimum. Clearly this is an excellent long-term aim. But if the expansion is as important as I believe it to be and as the Committee has indicated it is, we must give some thought to the point at which we abandon the one-year emergency course, which has in many ways proved very successful as a form of training. I should think the general criterion should be: better a man or woman trained for one year than a man or woman not trained at all.

Turning to the future, I note that the National Association of Probation Officers, in its evidence to the Committee, said: Official thinking is not yet on a bold enough scale. I think that is a fair criticism of the Home Office under both Administrations.

It seems clear that the probation service needs to be greatly expanded. If it is expanded sufficiently to give a proper scale of promotion and to link with the prison welfare service—and with other services as well—it seems that it should remain with the Home Office, for reasons which have been adduced in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West suggested that the whole cost might be borne by the national Exchequer. I do not disagree with that suggestion. But it is crucial that close links should be kept with local authorities. One way in which this might be done, which I commend to the Minister, is the suggestion that a probation officer representative might sit as an observer on the social service committee so that this crucial link is kept in the same way as, for example, teacher representatives sit on education committees.

I hope that the career structure, because the size of the service operates against promotion possibilities, will be such that senior hostel staff, with whom one hopes there will be more transfer in future, and the prison welfare officer can both be brought within its scope and that there will be movement among the sectors so that probation officers have institutional and outside experience.

I support the views of the Committee in suggesting that there should be a review of the grant for hostels, both aftercare and, for that matter, prison hostels under an order. The payment of £150 for a place and £250 in special cases is totally inadequate. Just as the Committee has indicated an advantage in extending probation against the cost of prison, it is also fair to point out that the cost of a hostel place is still considerably below that of the prison service.

I should like to emphasise—I need not labour the point, because it has been made by many hon. Members—the crucial need for better salaries and the recognition, above all, that the basic grade officer should be treated as the career grade. It would be a tragedy for the probation service if the only way in which a man could get a good salary was by changing to desk work. This is often destructive of the man who is doing the basic, crucial job with the offender. I hope that the Government, at the next review of salaries, in the light of the Butterworth Report, will consider the position particularly of the basic grade officer.

I hope that it will be possible to make the boundaries of local government and those of probation areas coterminous. My hon. Friend the Member for Widnes pointed out the problems which will arise from the reorganisation of magistrates' courts. It is clearly better if these two administrative areas can be kept closely in line.

I fully share all the views of the Committee about putting a new weight on alternatives to prison as a way of dealing with offenders. What seems to become clear time and again is that the way we treat offenders—I think that the hon. Member for Nottingham, South was rather hinting at this—appears to make remarkably little difference to the rate of recidivism. If so, if we can avoid the dangers of institutionalisation that follow so often from putting the inadequates, the minor offenders, the alcoholics, the drug addicts in prison, I think that we shall be praised by the prison service and may in time come a little closer to discovering a way to deal with crime.