Probation Services

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 16th June 2009.

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Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South 2:30 pm, 16th June 2009

If he will take steps to increase staffing levels in Her Majesty's probation service.

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice)

Decisions on the size and scope of staffing rest with the 42 areas and trusts that are responsible for managing probation business at a local level. Between 1997 and 2007, the total number of staff was increased from 14,000 to 21,000—an increase of almost 50 per cent.

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Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I thank the Minister for that answer. Following on from what my hon. Friend Rob Marris said, Ministers are telling us one thing about the probation service but we get told another when we talk to people employed there. How do the Government intend to improve the probation service, and, more importantly, what has its staff turnover been?

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice)

Between 2001-02 and 2008-09, there has been a 57 per cent. increase in resources received by my hon. Friend's local probation area in the west midlands. I know that in his area there is an issue—a number of other Members have raised it in previous questions—about whether trainees who are due to finish their training will be taken on full time. My understanding is that only a small number in the west midlands know that they will be taken on at this time. The regional training consortiums are there to help, as they have done in previous years, in matching up those who finish their training with jobs available in other parts of the country, and some of the trainees who have not yet been offered jobs may find employment in that way. However, I am more than happy to meet any Member of this House—I may regret saying this—about issues that they have regarding their own probation areas.

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Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It surely must be a factor in probation service staffing levels that a large number of criminals are not reaching the probation service because they are not going to court but are being dealt with as out-of-court disposals. In Berkshire last year, 791 cases of actual bodily harm, 686 cases of common assault, 56 cases of sexual offences and eight cases of grievous bodily harm never even reached the courts. Will the Minister confirm that this is not some cost-cutting exercise that transfers justice to the police instead of taking it through established judicial processes of the courts and the probation service?

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice)

It is for the prosecutors and the police who investigate individual instances of crime to decide how best to proceed in any individual case. It is certainly true that some cases are dealt with by disposals instead of being brought to court, but many are brought to court.

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Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

I think that my hon. Friend would agree that staffing levels are very important, as this is about keeping the right number of staff in the probation service. However, it is also about ensuring that they have time to deliver properly, because we have seen that a lot of the work has been done through computers rather than face to face. What can we do to ensure that we keep the right numbers of staff, especially in the north-west, and that casework is done better than it is at the moment because of the time scales that are being put on the people who work there?

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice)

My hon. Friend has hit on an important point. We want our skilled probation staff to spend as much time as possible supervising those whom they have to deal with to prevent reoffending. We think that too much time is spent in front of computers ticking boxes. We would hope to see improvements over the next couple of years of tougher financial settlements partly through increased efficiencies—for example, streamlining and simplifying processes, reducing overheads, and freeing our skilled probation staff to do what they do best, which is dealing face to face with those they are supervising.

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Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Lady on her promotion within the Department. Despite what she and the Secretary of State have said this afternoon, although the number of probation officers fell between 2001 and 2008, the number of managerial staff increased over the same period by 70 per cent. There was also a 77 per cent. rise in the number of less qualified probation service officers. Work loads have risen by more than a third in the past four years, yet 60 per cent. of all newly qualified and expensively trained people are not becoming probation officers.

If I may say so, the Sonnex case tells us all that we need to know about this Government's leadership of the probation service. Instead of fiddling the figures, why do they not spend the money on the front line rather than on fattening up NOMS HQ and on constant, morale-sapping administrative changes?

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice)

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his welcome before I try swiftly to refute one or two of his points. I do not accept that NOMS HQ is being fattened up. It costs £74 million, which is 1.8 per cent. of the total spend on NOMS. Much of what is listed as spending on NOMS HQ is actually on front-line services, such as private prisons, prisoner escort contracts, electronic monitoring and administering the inspectorates and the Parole Board. That is not, by any definition, fattening up the HQ, so he is wrong about that.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that case loads have increased by about a third since 2001. A number of Members have referred to that. However, staffing has increased by 35 per cent.—a higher percentage increase than for case loads. Of course, it is for each local area to make the best use of its resourcing to balance the qualifications and types of staff that it has locally. There is therefore bound to be some geographical variation. We need the worst-performing to come up to the standards of the best, and encouraging that is part of what we can do from the centre. I would be more than happy to speak to any Member about how we intend to do that and how it will affect their local probation board.

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