My Lords, as of March 2022, 96% of probation officers and National Probation Service officers held fewer than 50 cases, with an average case load of 34. The average case load for the 4% who hold more than 50 cases is 59. The number of open active children’s cases within Cafcass in May 2022 was 34,834. This has reduced from 38,178 in April 2021 but still represents an increase of 15.1% on pre-pandemic levels.
I will be very interested to discuss those figures with the Minister as I do not entirely recognise them. However, recent MoJ figures show that some regions, including London, are understaffed by hundreds of permanent posts, costing the taxpayer £23 million in agency cover fees. Record high numbers are leaving the probation service due to poor pay and excessive workloads, often of 110% of their requirement. Does the Minister accept that poor pay for probation staff is a false economy?
My Lords, the position in relation to the National Probation Service is that a new model of working is being introduced which necessarily is causing some strain in the service. However, the Government consider that this new approach is necessary and will repay the short-term hurt which its introduction is causing. The Government and the National Probation Service are committed to maintaining levels of staff in this exceptionally important field.
Cafcass is concerned with representing the interests of children in court. In the report assessing the risk of harm to children and parents in private law children’s cases, published by the Ministry of Justice in June 2020, the expert panel recommended that the MoJ should commission
“an independent, systematic, retrospective research study on the implementation” of the current law and practice
“in cases where allegations of domestic abuse, child sexual abuse or other serious offences are raised.”
Has that study been commissioned and, if so, what point has it reached?
My Lords, I undertake to write to the noble Lord in relation to that study. I do not have information to hand on its progress but if I may pray the noble Lord’s patience, I will communicate with him in due course.
Does the Minister acknowledge that any magistrate would tell him that the family court is central to the work of the Bench? Does he know that family courts in particular care about, help and consider the predicament of children from homes that are underprivileged, time and again? How many family courts are there? What does his department do to encourage and train those who make up the family court, and can he say how many magistrates’ courts his Government have closed in the last few years?
My Lords, once again I do not have the specific numerical answers to the noble Lord’s question, but I agree with everything that he said in his prefatory remarks about the importance of this field. I assure him that the Government are aware of that. Cafcass is an independent arm’s-length body which none the less works within the Civil Service funding structure. The Government have authorised uplifts over budget during the past two years to fund this work, the importance of which the noble Lord and I agree upon, and to lay some stress on the work that Cafcass carries out. With his indulgence, again, I will write to him in relation to the specific number questions that he poses.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chair of Cafcass. Does the Minister agree that the difficulties of staffing for these services are a reflection of the whole social work profession, with low morale and very great difficulties of recruitment and retention because of poor pay and poor support over a great many years?
My Lords, one of the difficulties in relation to retention of staff in this body is a pay structure which means that the pay of Cafcass staff, tied as it is to Civil Service staffing models, can be less than what is available to professional people working for other agencies, such as in local government. In those circumstances, the Government are in regular contact with Cafcass officials and senior management and are satisfied that they are conscious of the great problems to which the noble Baroness alludes in her question. As to the retention and recruitment of staff, the Government are working with Cafcass to seek to maintain and, indeed, improve levels of staffing in this important area.
My Lords, in view of the continuing scandal of prisoners held on indefinite sentences for public protection, is my noble and learned friend satisfied that the training provided to probation officers for dealing with IPP prisoners has met the aspirations set in the 2019 IPP action plan?
My Lords, disclosure of and taking into account the views of persons who are connected with or are directly victims of crimes is not a matter which bears directly upon the responsibilities of the probation service, but I assure the noble and learned Lord that the views of the Lord Chancellor in relation to the importance of this are being taken into account.
My Lords, I want to ask about unpaid work as part of a community sentence. There is a huge backlog. For example, in January the east Midlands probation service had in excess of 100,000 hours of unpaid work which had not been delivered, and a low number of offenders actually complete their unpaid work. This undermines the sentence itself as well as victims’ faith in the justice system. What can the Minister say about the staffing levels necessary to administer unpaid work? Does he believe that this backlog can be reduced by any sensible proportion in the next year or so?
My Lords, training for probation staff to equip them with the necessary knowledge and information to be able to superintend unpaid work in the community, as with every aspect of their work, is invaluable. The Government have met their target to recruit 1,000 officers holding professional qualifications in probation for the financial year 2020-21 and 1,500 officers for the financial year 2021-22.
As for the noble Lord’s point about recognition of the importance of such work and how to ensure it is addressed, the Government recognise the importance of unpaid work in the community as an aspect of the sentence, note the backlog and the complex background against which that backlog has arisen—specifically the problems in relation to offender management caused by the pandemic—and are resolving them as quickly as possible.