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 Mark Carlisle Mr Mark Carlisle , Runcorn 12:00 am, 9th February 1972

Like the hon. Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams), I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), as Chairman of the Expenditure Committee, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall), as Chairman of the Sub-Committee, as well as those hon. Members who served on the Sub-Committee and have produced what I honestly believe to be a most useful and helpful report on the probation service. I also echo what the hon. Lady said about the tone of the speeches today. I only regret, as she did, that we have not been able to have more time for this important debate.

It was appropriate that the Committee should have a searching inquiry into the probation service at a time when the service is at a new phrase of its development. It was important that the basic structure of the service and its general state of health should be assessed at this moment.

Although I accept that there are matters of concern with the probation service—no one in my position could be unaware of the problems which concern the service: its pay and manpower structure and its general future—it is putting it somewhat high to describe it as a crisis of confidence. Having talked to a fair number of probation officers in different parts of the country over recent months, and accepting that there are areas of concern, I yet believe that the morale of the service on the whole is happily high and that it welcomes the various new challenges which it is likely to face over the coming years in regard to alternatives to imprisonment.

Almost every hon. Member has mentioned pay. I do not want to minimise the views of the probation service, but the last award gave a senior man in the basic grade an increase of 16 per cent. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary not only agreed the award but also agreed to set up the Committee of Inquiry which is now taking place under Professor Butterworth, the whole purpose of which is to evaluate the correct relationship between the pay of probation officers and that of other social workers. One of the matters which has concerned the service is the effect of the setting up of the local authority social service departments on their pay structure as an independent service.

This report was published as recently as the middle of last December, so hon. Members will understand that my right hon. Friend is not yet ready to make the written reply which it is customary for the Minister concerned to furnish. Therefore, even in the time available I obviously cannot give detailed replies to all the specific recommendations or all the points made in this debate. But what has been said tonight I have heard with interest and I can assure the House that it will be taken into account in the drafting of the reply which will be sent to my right lion. Friend, which is in process of preparation now.

One can draw certain general deductions from the report. The first is the feeling that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the basic structure or format of the service. The Home Office would like to see the probation service continue as an independent service. Obviously, we cannot make any definite statement until the future organisation of the magistrates' courts is decided. This is a matter which must be decided in relation to the Local Government Bill. But we have made it clear, from the Answers given at Question Time, that the Home Office wants to see an independent future for the probation service.

Clearly coming out of this whole report is the fact that the existence of a strong probation service is central to any attempt to provide further non-custodial methods of penalty and that an expansion of the service from its present size is essential if those ends are to be achieved. This is clearly borne out in paragraph 3, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe referred, which speaks of the money that is required to improve and expand the service in a way which it is thought will yield a greater social benefit at a lower overall national cost.

In recent years the concept of the future of the probation service has changed a good deal. It is looked upon today by everyone much more as a developing service which will be responsible in future for the provision of a wide variety of treatments of delinquents in the community. This was started by the Labour Government, with the concept of parole, which has been a success, and since then we have seen the emphasis by criminal law reformers of all political shades on the greater use of non-custodial penalties.

As my hon. Fri end the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Fowler) said, all concerned have been faced with a real problem in terms of prison overcrowding, and we have had the report of the advisory committee recommending alternatives to imprisonment.

It is against this background that the Government have had to act. The philosophy which has guided our decisions in the last 18 months has been the need to tackle prison overcrowding in two ways; first, by building new prisons—I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) that I am not pre-empting the question of Bovington in connection with new prisons—and second, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe pointed out, by appreciating the need to divide the prison population so that prison is there for the violent and vicious for whom public opinion demands strong punishment, but recognising that within the prison population is a substantial number of people who are often petty inadequate offenders for whom it is proper for us to see if we have more constructive ways—more constructive than imprisonment—of dealing with them.

With that approach in mind, I will explain briefly—briefly because time is not available in this debate for a full explanation—some of the actions which the Government have taken. We have taken a series of initiatives under two broad headings. The first is the setting up of new facilities for non-custodial forms of treatment on an experimental basis. The second is the expansion of the resources of the probation service to enable it to meet the new demands that are being put on it.

As for the new alternative forms of punishment or penalty, I stress their experimental nature. Many of them are new. We are bringing them in on an experimental basis for two reasons. The first is to make sure that they are justified, and so we are trying them out on a limited scale. The second is to ensure that they do not overwhelm the probation service manpower resources by bringing in new tasks for the service before it is able to meet them.

Within the terms of the Criminal Justice Bill, which is now in Committee upstairs, we have introduced legislation for a combination of supervision with a suspended sentence. We have brought in a scheme for community service, and I was able to announce in Committee yesterday five probation areas in this scheme for community service by offenders. It is in these five areas that we hope, as soon as the Bill becomes law, to set up this experimental service.

The Criminal Justice Bill provides power for an offender to be required, as a condition of a probation order, to attend for a period a day training centre. and I am hoping to announce next week in Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill four areas in which we are hoping to set up day training probation centres.

Next, we have launched a programme of new probation hostels for adult offenders. This programme is aimed to provide 1,650 additional places in hostels for adults by 1976. This programme will not be easy to achieve and the rate at which it can be implemented is likely to be governed more by difficulties of finding suitable sites and obtaining the necessary clearances than by financial considerations.

We are also taking power to enable probation committees in future, as well as voluntary bodies, to provide aftercare hostels, and the Government are reviewing the question of the weekly grant for places at those hostels.

Finally, we have not overlooked the fact that it is in many ways in the traditional probation order that we still may have our greatest hope of seeing a greater number of people being dealt with in the community. We are considering schemes of different degrees of supervision in different areas of the country and monitoring their effectiveness as a means of probation.

I turn to what I said was the other aspect of this matter and the other approach which the Government have taken; that is, of expanding the resources of the service to meet these new tasks. Very shortly after coming into office we announced an increase in the target figure of the probation service from 3,500 to 4,700 by the end of 1975. I take full note of what is said in the Committee's report and what has been said in the House today on questioning whether that is an adequate target. We made it clear that it is a target for a rolling forward programme and it is reviewable annually, for a target for 1976 and then annually for another target.

We shall take into account what has been said during the debate. One of the serious problems is finding the training places to make sure that we do not expand the service at such a speed that it suffers a reduction in the standard of trained officers. During the last year we have opened an additional 100 training places, so that this year 450 trained officers will be coming into the service, as against 350 last year and under 300 the year before. We are planning for greater expansion, towards 550, we hope—although whether we can reach that figure I cannot say at present—coming into the service next year, from those who will be starting 12 months' training this year.

It is important that we expand the service as fast as possible commensurate with maintaining the standards necessary and providing adequate training places. We have attempted to do that. In the figure of 4,700 we allowed for an additional number of probation officers on the basis that more people would be dealt with in non-custodial ways.

Whereas the hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) says that the figure ought to be, perhaps, 6,000 or 7,000, the great difficulty is finding the training places to provide that figure at this stage. We must make sure that our expansion plans are realistic.

The present situation is that the number of officers rose by 256 last year. It now stands at 3,608. I am absolutely confident, as is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that we are determined to recognise the need for a strong and expanding probation service as being central to what we are trying to do in our penal philosophy and approach to crime in this country.

It is an important service. I agree with the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) that those who know probation officers recognise their worth and have great respect for them. I hope that as a result of this report what my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said about recognition of the place and the importance of the probation service will be widely appreciated and understood throughout the country. Certainly the Government have no doubt as to the need for an expanding service. I welcome the report. I shall do my best to make sure that there are written individual answers to the various individual recommendations.