– in the House of Commons at 1:42 pm on 24th January 2023.
Before I call the Minister, I point out that, with regard to the forthcoming statement, I understand that an appeal against sentence has been made in the case of Jordan McSweeney. That means that the case is covered by the House’s sub judice resolution. Given the importance of the issues raised, I am content for the statement to go ahead, but I ask Members not to refer specifically to sentencing issues.
Today the chief inspector of probation has published his independent review into the probation service’s management of Jordan McSweeney, who brutally murdered Zara Aleena as she walked home after an evening out with friends. Today’s report follows another independent review into the management of Damien Bendall, who murdered an entire family, killing pregnant Terri Harris, her two children, John Paul and Lacey, and Lacey’s eleven-year-old friend, Connie Gent. Bendall also pleaded guilty to rape.
The thoughts of us all are with the families and friends of the victims. They have gone through and continue to go through the most unimaginable suffering, and the passage of time will never diminish the magnitude of their loss. Immediately upon learning that first Bendall and then McSweeney had been charged with murder while subject to probation supervision, Ministers asked the chief inspector to undertake independent reviews. Both reviews set out clear and serious failings by the probation service. I am profoundly sorry for those failings, and the Deputy Prime Minister and I are seeking opportunities to make apologies in person. It is incumbent on us now to do everything we can to ensure that those failings do not and cannot happen ever again.
The chief inspector’s report is very clear: the level of risk posed by McSweeney and Bendall was not assessed properly by the probation service. If McSweeney had been assessed as posing a higher level of risk, he would have been more closely monitored by senior staff under more stringent licence conditions. If the report to the court had taken account of Bendall’s known risks to women and young girls, he would not have been recommended for an electronically monitored curfew to the home of Terri Harris and her two young children.
These basic but fundamental flaws meant that the plans drawn up by the probation service to manage each offender’s risk were not robust enough, and people were not properly protected. We are determined to make sure that those failings are not repeated. I will set out for the House the action this Government have already taken and the further action we will take to keep the public safe and to ensure that similar tragedies are prevented in future.
Jordan McSweeney sexually assaulted and killed 35-year-old Zara Aleena on
A long criminal history showed offences escalating in severity and levels of violence. McSweeney had been in and out of prison on multiple occasions, including for breaching licence conditions after attacking a female acquaintance. At the time of Ms Aleena’s murder, McSweeney was unlawfully at large after failing to attend three probation appointments, his licence having been revoked.
Had all of the information held on McSweeney been properly considered by the probation service at the time, his risk would have been set at a higher level. In particular, his risk of violence towards women would have been flagged as a concern. He would have been under more stringent licence conditions and monitored by a more senior member of probation staff. He would not have been given a third opportunity to attend an appointment with his probation officer, but would have been recalled to custody after his second missed appointment.
The chief inspector’s review into Damien Bendall highlights similar serious failings. When Bendall killed Terri Harris and her unborn child, her children, and their friend Connie Gent, he was serving a 24-month suspended sentence order for arson and had previously been in prison for violent offences. As with McSweeney, the chief inspector found that the probation service’s assessment and supervision of Bendall were unacceptable, with critical opportunities to correct errors missed at every stage.
Bendall’s risk level was miscategorised at the point when he was sentenced for the arson offence. Indeed, the report produced for the courts to inform the sentencing decision was flawed. Given the known domestic violence concerns, the report should never have proposed that Bendall be curfewed to the home of Ms Harris and her children. The poor risk assessment meant that his case was handled by a less experienced member of staff who was inadequately supervised by a senior manager.
These were appalling crimes. In response, the chief probation officer has apologised to the victims’ families for the unacceptable failings in these cases, and two members of staff involved in the Bendall case, and one in the McSweeney case, are subject to disciplinary proceedings. Apologies will not bring those loved ones back, but it is right that the probation service acknowledges and learns lessons from its mistakes so that they will not be made again. The probation service has accepted all the chief inspector’s recommendations in each case and put in place robust action plans, which will strengthen probation practice to better protect the public. That includes better information sharing between police, probation and courts, and improving the quality of court reports and support for senior probation officers to manage complex teams and caseloads.
As of April last year, probation service staff must now gather domestic abuse information from police, and child safeguarding information in all cases, before making a recommendation to the court that an offender may be suitable for an electronically monitored curfew. Probation service staff are also required to ask for information from children’s services in every case—regardless of the sentence—in which the offender has children, is in contact with children, is seeking contact with children, or presents a potential risk of harm to children.
We are funding an additional £5.5 million a year to recruit more probation staff who are specifically responsible for accessing domestic abuse information held by the police, and children’s safeguarding information held by councils. We have introduced a new child safeguarding policy framework, setting out clear requirements and best practice to support staff. We have introduced a section on the offender management system that considers solely the wellbeing and safety of children, and senior probation officers must now record why they have allocated a case to a particular probation officer. That must include evidence that the senior probation officer has fully considered the complexity of the case, the risk that the offender poses, and the experience and workload of the probation staff member taking on the case.
More broadly, we have unified the probation service to raise standards. We recognise that the probation service needs more staff, and that is why we have invested heavily by injecting additional funding of more than £155 million a year to deliver tougher supervision of offenders, reduce caseloads and recruit thousands more staff to make the public safer. That has helped us to boost our number of trainee probation officers by 2,500 over the last two years, and we plan to recruit a further 1,500 by the end of the year ending in March.
Beyond our changes to probation, our parole reforms have public safety at their core. Our root-and-branch review of the parole system, which was published last year, set out changes that will increase ministerial oversight of release decisions for the most serious criminals. That will ensure that public protection is at the forefront of all parole decisions, so that the British people can have greater confidence in the system. We are making the release test more prescriptive, so that it is absolutely clear that prisoners should continue to be detained unless it can be demonstrated they no longer present a risk of further serious offending. For the most serious offenders—those sentenced for murder, rape, causing or allowing the death of a child, and terrorist offences —we want Ministers to have the power to refuse a release decision made by the Parole Board if they believe that the criteria for release have not been met. We have introduced greater scrutiny of Parole Board recommendations on open prison moves, and a more stringent test to be met before transferring a prisoner to open conditions. The Parole Board recommendation will be rejected if the criteria are not met.
Finally, I will address the issue of offenders who refuse to attend court for sentencing. I am sure that the whole House would agree that it is entirely unacceptable for criminals such as McSweeney, and Koci Selamaj, who murdered Sabina Nessa, to cower in court cells and refuse to come up for sentencing. That denies victims and their families the opportunity at least to look offenders in the eye as they deliver their victim impact statements and to know that those statements have been heard. To that end, we are looking at measures to make sure that criminals show their faces in court for sentencing.
The first duty of any Government is to keep the public safe. Our reforms of probation and parole have that principle at their heart. Nothing can bring back Zara Aleena, Terri Harris, John Paul Bennett, Lacey Bennett and Connie Gent, but it is absolutely vital that we do everything in our power to make sure that that kind of tragedy can never happen again. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement and for accepting what Labour proposed a year ago on compelling offenders to attend court for sentencing. That is quite right, and he will have our support.
Today, our hearts go out once more to the families and friends of Zara Aleena, and of Terri Harris, her children John Paul and Lacey, and their friend Connie Gent. The long-standing failings in the probation service threaten public safety because dangerous offenders are not being properly supervised on release from prison. As a result, too many go on to commit serious further offences. High-risk offenders on probation commit on average six serious further offences every week.
The probation service is in freefall, and the failures stem from the Government’s severe mismanagement of it. Their botched privatisation was described by researchers as an “unmitigated disaster”, and their rushed renational-isation failed to correct the problems that they caused. The independent review details the severe failings that remain uncorrected in the probation service—failings for which this Government are responsible. The chief inspector notes:
“All the evidence shows that McSweeney should have been assessed, on release from prison, as high risk of serious harm”,
but that he was wrongly assessed as a medium risk because information about his behaviour was not shared across services. Planning for his release and supervision was catastrophically mismanaged as a result.
McSweeney’s repeated failure to attend probation appointments should have triggered swift action. He was recalled to prison two days before he attacked Zara, but he was never arrested and brought in. If he had been, Zara would still be alive. The chief inspector of probation points to excessive workloads and high levels of staff vacancies in the probation services as an underlying cause. One probation officer told researchers:
“I do not consider that we are in a position to protect the public, but we will be the scapegoats when tragedies happen.”
The fact is that the Government knew about all these problems but failed to act on them with urgency, so they must shoulder their share of responsibility. It is right that the chief probation officer has apologised, and although I appreciate what the Minister has said, will he accept responsibility and apologise not just for service’s failure, but for the Government’s failure to tackle the severe staff shortages and excessive caseloads that contributed to what went so tragically wrong? Will he give us a date by which the vacancies will be filled?
Information sharing across services would dramatically improve if data about any individual offender were held in one place, allowing for better-informed risk assessment and supervision. Why have the Government still not introduced that? Probation caseloads remain dangerously high, and are made worse by the high number of staff vacancies, so what assurance can the Minister offer the public that offenders on probation—who are on streets across Britain right now—are being safely supervised and monitored in a way that McSweeney and Bendall so tragically were not?
I thank the shadow Minister for what he says and the questions he has put. Everyone who has heard the horror of these brutal crimes has been deeply affected, and I know that the hon. Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and my hon. Friend Lee Rowley have been closely involved. Their whole communities have been deeply shaken and our country shocked. It is right that the shadow Minister asks the most exacting questions, and he is right to identify staffing challenges.
I absolutely acknowledge the fact that there have been staff vacancies in the service and case load matters. We are recruiting at pace, with extra funding of £155 million a year. We have boosted our staff complement over the past couple of years to a historic high, with 2,500 people having come into post and another 1,500 coming into post over the course of this planning year. To be clear, in any scenario and any staffing situation, these were unacceptable failings that I have outlined. I want the shadow Minister to know that the increase in resource and staffing is happening right now. Specifically to London, we have put some particular measures in place for London area probation around prioritising staff. Given the particularly high rates of vacancy in London, those measures are important.
The chief inspector does not link the failings that we have been talking about today in outlining these two awful cases with the transforming rehabilitation programme that the shadow Minister mentions. We think it is right to unify the service. Over many years, the probation service has gone through a number of different structures and forms. The voluntary and independent sector is still involved in aspects of service delivery, and we think that is right, but that is not really connected with the failings we are talking about in this case.
The shadow Minister mentioned the number of serious further offences, and every serious further offence is a serious matter. Mostly they are not of this order, of course, but they are still serious matters. I am afraid, given the cohorts of people we are talking about, that these serious further offences happen every year, regardless of who is in Government. It is incumbent on us to do everything we can to bear down on that number and to stop these terrible crimes happening. I take a moment to pay tribute to the thousands of dedicated staff working in probation offices up and down the country for whom that is their daily mission. We owe it to them, too, to make sure we make every possible effort to support them, and to make sure that systems and procedures are in place so that these terrible crimes cannot happen again. They are senseless killings that will be forever fixed in our minds, and I know that this House is united in our determination to protect women and girls and to stop these appalling crimes being repeated.
I call the Chair of the Justice Committee.
May I thank the Minister for his statement, for his courtesy in letting me know about it, for the tone he has adopted and for his swift action in relation to these dreadful and appalling cases? Perhaps the House will permit me to say that this is particularly frustrating for me, because in the Justice Committee’s April 2021 report on the future of probation we listed a number of risks, including failures of information sharing, over-reliance on inexperienced and overworked officers, risks around transition with the policy of reuniting the service—that policy is absolutely correct, but those risks were there—and concerns about the quality of reports made available to the courts and of information available to sentencers and for monitoring. All those risks were being set out then, and sadly the service did not act on them.
In light of that, as well as the steps that the Minister has taken, will he consider these things? Will he strengthen the abilities and resources of His Majesty’s inspectorate of probation to enable it to follow up on its recommendations in the same way as the resources of His Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons were increased to have dedicated follow-up teams to ensure that recommendations are swiftly acted on? Secondly, will the Minister make a special point of looking at a comprehensive workforce strategy for probation to ensure not only that we retain experienced officers, but that those who are recruited into this worthwhile and rewarding role are given support and training? Finally, will he also look to move away from the practice of having meetings between probation officers and clients by video? That was understandable during the pandemic, but it cannot be acceptable now, and it is one of the failings highlighted in this case.
I take seriously everything that the Chair of the Select Committee says, and we welcome the scrutiny of the Committee and the expertise that its members bring. I will look carefully at everything he has just said. Let me just make a couple of comments, if I may. First, the follow-up of recommendations obviously is important. Internally, HM Prison and Probation Service auditors will review the delivery of quality improvement plans, particularly in those areas. That goes beyond these two appalling cases to more generally where we know there have been problems that need to be addressed. I accept what he says about recommendations made in the past, but I reassure him that many of the things I have mentioned today are not things we are just committing to today, things that we say we will do in the future; these are things that are already happening and have been happening between these cases and today, or have been happening in the past few months.
This morning I spoke with Zara Aleena’s family. It seems weeks ago that I was sat in the Old Bailey to hear the sentencing of her murderer. It goes without saying that she will always be in the hearts of everyone in Ilford, who are devastated and so angry about this. Today’s inspectorate report paints a sad but unfortunately unsurprising account of an institution that in my view is fundamentally broken.
In McSweeney’s pathway to murder, there were significant delays in assigning the community offender manager. As a result, the probation service had only nine days to conduct an assessment that may have led to him being classified as high risk. It is now clear that the probation service, on the back of this report, failed to prepare for that release. It had not had adequate time to do so, and it only recalled him to custody once he had breached his parole. I wonder whether if at any point the probation service had been capable of doing its job, Zara would be alive today. Never again should the criminal justice system be allowed to fail so badly that women are left vulnerable to extremely dangerous men such as McSweeney. The chief inspector noted today
“a backdrop of excessive workloads and challenges in respect of staffing vacancies in the London region.”
The problem is that this was not just an individual failure; it was endemic in a system that is clearly dysfunctional.
I thank the Minister for the conversation we had ahead of this statement today. I firmly welcome the decision to compel offenders to be in the dock to look into the eyes of the families whose lives they have devastated. What funding and strategy will the Government put forward to expand the probation workforce, tackle excessive workloads and ensure the probation service has the capacity to properly supervise criminals in the community? Having spoken today to the general secretaries of Napo and the Professional Trades Union for Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, will the Government consider having a royal commission to look into the absolutely sorry state of our criminal justice system from prisons to probation?
Again, I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman says and what is in this report from the chief inspector about failings that happened. To be clear, these were unacceptable failings in any scenario, but just to reiterate, we are investing further in staffing in the probation service. We have had large numbers of people coming into the service over the past couple of years. As I mentioned a moment ago to the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill, there has been some prioritisation towards areas with particular staffing challenges, and the London area, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is one of those. We have extended some of the London weighting to the area within the M25, because the truth is that the employment market and the graduate employment market are tough in the extended London area. I take very seriously everything that he says. I again say that day in, day out, colleagues in the probation service, who are dealing sometimes with very difficult people, are overwhelmingly doing a remarkable job, and it is incumbent upon us to make sure we do everything we can to support them in that important work and give them the best chance to succeed.
My constituent William Jones has a long and distinguished record in the probation service. On several occasions he has talked to me about his concerns, most recently in November when he highlighted the high vacancy rates in probation. That is echoed in a letter by the chief inspector of probation Justin Russell to the London probation service, expressing concern about vacancies across every role, with an overall vacancy rate of 43% in certain parts of London. That means that effective services simply cannot be delivered. In response to these appalling cases, can I urge the Minister to make sure that we recruit the probation staff we need and retain them in the service, to keep the public safe?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. This is about not only recruiting talented and dedicated people but retaining them. I am focused on that and I know the service is as focused on that as it can be. On the overall position, as a London area MP my right hon. Friend is acutely conscious of all that needs to be done to make that happen. I want to reassure her of the commitment to do that.
The Minister lays out a world that I simply do not recognise in which, had there been this and that, people would have monitored the situation better. Every single day I handle cases of very serious, dangerous threats of violence. There is no monitoring of the most violent, well-known and prolific offenders of violence against women and girls in our country. These cases are by no means simply cases; they are part of a systemic problem. How many times have the Labour party and people like me called for some monitoring and offender management in these cases? I cannot sit through another statement about how agencies should be talking to each other. I have been hearing it for 20 years.
There is no monitoring. I spoke to Regan Tierney’s father just his morning. Regan was killed by her ex-partner while he had been on probation for breaking her nose. He had stopped turning up and nobody bothered to tell her. That is a case I just happened across this morning without knowing I was coming to this statement. I come across such cases every single day. The Government promised to make violence against women and girls a strategic policing priority. Why have they not done it yet? It has been a year. I cannot listen any more to people saying, “If only this had happened, these people would be monitored.” The truth is that we do not monitor these people in this country. We should stop pretending otherwise.
The hon. Lady speaks with great personal experience as well as passion, and always does on these topics. I wish it were not so. I wish she did not have to have all those experiences and hear from all those people as she does. Rightly because of the way that she channels these points into debate on the Floor of this House, people come to her. She does us a service by doing that.
The hon. Lady is right that levels of violence against women and girls are far too high. No woman and no girl should feel afraid as they walk the streets. That is something on which I believe everybody in this House concurs. She may argue the point and I respect that, but it is my absolute knowledge that tackling violence against women and girls is a top priority for the Government, the police and the justice system. Do we need to go further and faster? Of course we do, but I want her to know my personal commitment, as well as our collective.
These are extremely alarming cases. Like every other Member of this House, I extend my sympathies to the families and friends of the victims who died unnecessarily. I am quite sure that probation officers across the country will be appalled that this case has happened. We have to remember that the vast majority of probation officers work incredibly diligently and would be horrified that that happened on their watch.
I am pleased with what I have heard from the Minister about recruitment and retention. Retention is crucial. There is also an issue with decision making and the speed at which action is taken. Could my right hon. Friend could say a little more about what will be done on the recall process? When a decision has been made that an offender should be recalled, how quickly is that acted upon by the probation service and the police, to make sure that those identified as needing to return to prison are immediately returned?
My hon. Friend is characteristically precise about the issue that he identifies. Tragically, more leeway was given than would have been the case had the individual been categorised as high risk. There is also the question of the timeliness of the action to recall. We are making a specific systematic change to ensure that recalls are actioned swiftly, with a particular prompt to ensure that something cannot be delayed in the process.
It is over 20 years since I left legal practice as a criminal court solicitor, so I hesitate to draw on my own experience, not least because it was in another jurisdiction. However, I strongly suspect that there was nothing in the reviews ordered by the Minister that he would not have heard in a slightly less sanitised version by spending some time in the Bar common room of any court or in any police station, probation office or social work office anywhere in this country.
The measures that the Minister refers to are, as far as they go, sensible and good. He is to be commended for taking them. However, when the next review comes—sadly, we know that there will be a next review—can we get away from the silent thinking that we just look at the probation service as if it stands in isolation? We have to look at the probation service, the criminal Bar, the prosecution service, the police and the education system, so that we stop treating the criminal justice system like the man who follows the elephants with the bucket and shovel every time the circus comes to town. We need to get to people at a stage in their life when we can make sure that they do not enter the criminal justice system in adulthood.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He raised a number of points. In terms of link-ups, it is correct that we need to look outside the criminal justice system. One of the things I have outlined today is how we are now receiving intelligence not just on what people are convicted for or even formally accused of, but on child safeguarding issues, for example. We can do that only by working closely with children’s services and local authorities. More broadly, his point about linking up with education, youth provision and so on is well made.
I do not for one second doubt the Minister’s sincerity, but I do doubt the veracity of the Government’s position that they are doing everything in their power to ensure that this kind of tragedy can never happen again. Can he tell us whether, as we speak, there are any offenders out there who may have been categorised improperly, as happened in this case? Are there any of them walking around now with the capacity and the likelihood to commit that kind of horrendous crime?
We seek to ensure that the categorisation and risk assessment of every individual is as accurate as it can be. In truth, in humanity there is no neat high, medium and low distinction between different individuals. Those who have been relatively low risk can become relatively high risk. We see that with many people over time. I am focused on making sure that within the service, there is the facility, the information, the intelligence sharing and the joint working to make sure that people can make the best possible assessments of risk and that we have the most appropriate regimes in place.
I am sure the Minister will have read the reports on London probation services published last October and November, so he will know that the chief inspector found that three quarters of cases failed in their assessment of serious harm; that domestic abuse checks were not made in two thirds of cases where they should have been; and that more than 50% of practitioner posts are vacant. My probation service in Hammersmith and Fulham scored zero points, meaning that every service is inadequate—something the chief inspector said he never expected to see. In the light of this meltdown, which is the Government’s responsibility, is the Minister’s reaction not also inadequate?
The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the particularly serious findings on London probation services and his particular service in Hammersmith and Fulham. We published at the start of this month a comprehensive plan for addressing those issues. We had already been implementing a number of initiatives and programmes. A lot of it is to do with ensuring that we get the staffing up to where it needs to be. At the time of the London inspections, quite a large number of individuals had not been allocated to named officers and were instead coming through a central facility. All those cases are now allocated, ensuring that the multi-agency public protection arrangements are properly in place. There is an ongoing programme of surveilling progress in London to make sure we are delivering against the really important improvements that we know need to be made. Although we do not have the numbers yet, I expect that in the next set of statistics on recruitment, we will see an improvement in the London area.
I rise as the co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group. The first recommendation of the chief inspector of probation’s review into the case of Damien Bendall states that His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service should
“ensure that domestic abuse enquiries are carried out on everyone sentenced so that accurate risk assessments can be made and safe proposals are made in court reports”.
The Minister has told us that domestic abuse inquiries are now being made in cases where electronically monitored curfews have been recommended, but the Government’s action plan reveals that that first recommendation may never be extended to everyone who is sentenced if the Government decide that it is too expensive or key partner agencies do not want to do it. How does that reveal that domestic abuse and violence against women and girls is a top priority for this Government?
The probation service needs to look at everything about the individual in terms of their risk. The specific thing I was talking about earlier is that, before putting somebody in a domestic situation with an intimate partner with children, or saying that they can be in that situation, a series of mandatory additional checks need to be done around intelligence and their record on domestic abuse, safeguarding issues and the consent of the partner. That does not take away from the overall risk assessment of the individual, which should take into account all factors.
I want to ask something specific about the statement. The Minister said that
“senior probation officers must now record why they have allocated a case to a particular probation officer”.
That must include evidence of, among other things, the “experience and workload” of the probation staff member taking it on. Is that not predicated on the idea that there are plenty of staff to choose from who have the experience and are not swamped by their workload? He also talked about the plan to recruit a further 1,500 trainee probation officers by March this year. It is
On the first point, the hon. Lady is right about the need to manage workloads and ensure they are reasonable. That is very closely linked to her second question. I did not mean to imply that the 1,500 people were going to be recruited between
My hon. Friend Steve Reed identified the issue of poor data management of high-risk former offenders. What are the Government doing about that?
Data management goes to the heart of record management. We have talked a lot about how we share intelligence and information, and how to make it better. Of course, how we manage it internally is also very important and something I take a close interest in. The systems we use should be straightforward to use and not overly onerous. Ideally, a record-keeping system should also make us think as we use it and should raise questions. I am told that the systems do that. I am sure there is more we can do. I mentioned some changes we are making to OASYS, to ensure that it includes information specifically about risks to children.
I thank the Minister for his statement.