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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 Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 5:42 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, I am very glad to support this amendment. The noble Baroness speaks with real experience because she has done a lot of front-line work in precisely this sphere in trying to bring the probation service and others together with magistrates and, indeed, judges. She is to be commended for that. She speaks in this House having done that.

I am glad that she took the opportunity to say a few words about the probation service. In my younger life, the probation service was one of the hallmarks of a decent society. It was a service in which people either had real, relevant experience of life and brought that to the service or had a good, sound, broad education to a high level and were able to bring that perspective to the work which they did. Ideally, it was a combination of both those things.

I am afraid that the probation service has been subjected to pressures and has been propelled towards becoming a sort of alternative to a custodial sentence. The old probation service concentrated on rehabilitation; it was not solely about punishing people. The sentence is the punishment. The people concerned have been told that they are being punished by society and are reported as such in the press. The task the probation service used to take on was that of helping the people concerned to become positive, constructive citizens. However, the service is now so harassed and pressed that it is very difficult to see how that work can properly be done at all, or whether indeed there is cultural leadership on what the task really is-let us be frank about that.

I cannot think of a more practical, sensible arrangement than to ensure that magistrates are not only encouraged but propelled, as it were, into meeting probation service staff, having discussions with them, obtaining information and seeing for themselves the reality of what the probation service does as part of their preparation for the work they will be doing in magistrates' courts. Two things about magistrates are relevant in this context. I speak as someone whose mother was a magistrate and loved her work. One is that magistrates live in society-that is a strength-and are therefore bombarded by the popular press and everyone else with all kinds of prejudice and superficial judgments. To withstand that kind of psychological pressure, they need to have real exposure to and a real understanding of what is being done.

Another very important point about magistrates is that they are representative of society and can play a key role in educating society as regards social life and the realities of life. Most of us who are here at this hour of the debate are broadly of the same consensus: we would like to see more emphasis on rehabilitation and on enabling the offender to become a constructive citizen. We also know that that is not the prevailing culture outside. From this standpoint, the amendment is practical and helps to take the cause of enlightenment forward.

One thing that repeatedly irritates me in debates and deliberations of this kind is the assumption that what the noble Baroness proposes, and what comes up in similar kinds of amendments, not least this evening, is of a weak, liberal-I do not use that word in the party political sense-wishy-washy nature. It is not the real muscular stuff of facing up to the challenges before us, but the absolute reverse. It is easy to put someone into detention but God knows what the consequences are when you do that. We have talked about women and the young and in many cases it is a damaging and irresponsible thing to do. The tough thing is to ask: how do we work with this individual to help him to become a constructive, positive member of society? I am glad that this amendment is before us, and I hope that the Minister will look favourably upon it.