Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:42 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Linklater of Butterstone Baroness Linklater of Butterstone Liberal Democrat 5:42 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, in moving Amendment 151A I shall speak also to Amendment 151B, with which it is grouped.

I am bringing back these amendments following the discussions on them in Committee, both because I believe them to be very important and because the amendment expresses a view shared by noble Lords from all around the Chamber without a single voice of dissent. They were views expressed by people of such knowledge and distinction that there was an obligation to try once more to persuade the Government of the importance of this case.

First, I thank those noble Lords who have added their names to the amendments, in particular my hero the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who was also poised to add his name to the list but was not allowed to do so. The Public Bill Office informed me that my list was already full-four names were all that were allowed-so my list has lost a little of its potential lustre. I regard the noble and learned Lord as being on my list in spirit if not in fact, and for that I am extremely grateful to him.

Although technically these are amendments they are in fact proposed new clauses, which do not amend but rather underpin the central objectives of this part of the Bill: to reduce the prison population and develop the use of alternatives to custody, and so reduce reoffending. I am a wholehearted and paid-up supporter of the Bill in these key respects, and I have worked all my life to promote the same objectives. They were also, of course, the core objectives of the Government's policy as set out in the Green Paper. I regard these clauses as enabling ones, which ensure that the Government will achieve their objectives-and without which their success is far from being assured. Indeed, I believe that the Government need these clauses if they are to succeed.

In addition, the magistracy and the probation trusts, the organisations about which I speak, need these clauses as well. They are unequivocally in support of them because they know that if they are to be enabled to achieve their objectives, which are in line with the Government's own, they too need them. I pay tribute to all the work that they do in their different ways. The magistracy is the bedrock of community-based justice-the representatives of our communities across the land, delivering justice locally. They are hard-working and dedicated, sustaining the peace of the realm within the law and all selfless, voluntary and unpaid. I was a magistrate once and I know how much it takes, in terms of not just time but care and effort, to try to get things right for the victims and the offenders, and for justice to be done. Their task becomes ever harder over time, as our society becomes more complex and difficult to navigate for so many.

By the same token, the work of the probation service has become ever harder but ever more necessary and valuable. As patterns of offending change and prison numbers rise, it has to provide the courts with pre-sentence reports, carry the challenging responsibilities of MAPPA and support offenders in the community, while facing more uncertainties about its own future as yet another review of its work and role is under way, causing anxiety all around. I have also been a fellow social worker-a childcare officer in my far-off youth-and my admiration for the work of probation is boundless. I also declare an interest as a patron of the old Probation Association. I know how much we all need those people, as they work at the interface of the courts and the community, protecting us as they work to reduce reoffending and meet the challenges of offenders.

These are the people who actually deliver the programmes that magistrates need, and they too are solid in support of these proposed new clauses. They know that statutory liaison is necessary to bring about the understanding by magistrates of the intricacy of what is provided in the community for the courts. From the distance of politics or non-penal worlds, it can perhaps be difficult to understand the subtleties of the relationship between these two organisations. The world of the courts is and must be at a certain remove from the day-to-day reality of the world of those who transgress and break the law, but that is where probation also operates. Good and valuable relationships can of course be, and often are, developed between individuals in both worlds. Yet you cannot conduct a system of professional interaction based on the arbitrariness of personal relationships. We discussed at Second Reading examples where we know that good liaison between probation and the magistracy frequently occur. However, we cannot deliver the sort of high-quality, highly professional service we need on that basis alone without communication and co-operation becoming uneven and patchy to the extent that we have seen happen since 2000, when the statutory basis for the relationship was abandoned. All high-quality, professional service must have a high-quality, professional structure within which to work. This is what these professionals want and it is what our communities need.

The magistracy has roughly 29,000 members and probation trusts nearly 12,000 probation officers and probation service workers, though these are slightly old figures-about 18 months old. These are dynamic institutions doing difficult, highly skilled, professional work, where change is an essential part of the progress. They must have a basic statutory basis on which to conduct their business and keep up to speed with each other. To leave it to a voluntary local effort is simply not in the nature of these national bodies. It is important that all magistrates-not just some eager ones-know what their local probation service is doing. Such is the pace of change that contact must be regular in order for everyone to be up to speed. Both parties in this area agree with that. For sentencers, this is important to be able to make properly informed disposals. Custody should never be used because a sentencer is not aware of a programme or a service which could have been a better alternative. This is sometimes tragically still the case today. While the pre-sentence report and information leaflets give a flavour, there is absolutely nothing to match or beat seeing and talking to the providers and the offenders. Quite simply, seeing is believing. This is not rocket science.

In Committee, the Minister said,

"unless we have public confidence in non-custodial sentences we will have criticism of them. We have to win that public confidence".-[Hansard, 7/2/12; col. 170.]

How right he is. Where do we start? We start with the sentencers themselves, whose use of them will justify and develop confidence. As their own confidence grows, the more they learn. My noble friend also said that he was not aware of any obstacles to magistrates making regular visits. He is quite right; there are no obstacles. However, we need more than a mere desirable aspiration; we need a requirement, if all concerned are to understand the importance of visits and keeping abreast of current provision. I referred to the senior presiding judge's recently revised protocol in Committee, which sets out voluntary arrangements for probation trusts, courts and magistrates. However, I am told by the Magistrates' Association itself that, even where relations are very good, the involvement of all magistrates is "rarely achieved" and "aspirational".

Lastly, magistrates' expenses have in the past been a thorny issue. Expenses stopped in 2000 when liaison ceased to be statutory. I have already referred to the extraordinary and voluntary commitment of time, effort, skill and responsibility-on every level-of magistrates to their role on behalf of us all. These visits represent training over and above their duties and commitment. It seems petty and short sighted in the extreme to begrudge a bus or train fare, or petrol, to go and learn about a programme, which, if understood and then used, will save the community that proportion of the annual £40,000 cost of each prison sentence and will significantly increase the chances of reducing reoffending at a fraction of the cost while making our communities safer. That is an achievement which I think goes beyond price. My noble friend the Minister told us in Committee that Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service was "looking at" this issue, which suggests at least a recognition of the right way to proceed and where its duty lies. I hope I am right about that.

I believe that this proposed new clause is what the Bill needs really to succeed in its admirable core adjective. I know that my noble friend is expected to make no concessions beyond those already agreed but I also know that it is possible to keep her heart and mind open to argument-otherwise, what are we all doing here? My case is that this simple new clause is not an amendment to anything already in the Bill but would add something which endorses it and ensures that what it stands for is achieved: namely, a safer, more civilised society with less reoffending as a result of less imprisonment and more community disposals. I commend the new clause to the House.