Review of legislation: National Probation Service

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 7th July 2020.

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“(1) Within 18 months of enactment, the Secretary of State must commission a review and publish a report on the impact of the provisions in the Act on the National Probation Service.

(2) A review under subsection (1) must consider—

(a) the probation support provided to offenders convicted for terrorist offences;

(b) how probation support provided to offenders convicted for terrorist offences has varied since implementation of this Act;

(c) the—

(i) type; and

(ii) number

of specialist staff employed by the National Probation Service to work with terrorist offenders;

(d) the—

(i) training;

(ii) assessed skill level; and

(iii) assessed experience

of specialist staff employed by the National Probation Service to work with terrorist offenders;

(e) the turnover of probation staff;

(f) the average length of service of probation staff;

(g) the non-staff resources provided to manage offenders convicted for terrorist offences; and

(h) the adequacy of the operating budget of the National Probation Service.

(3) A report under subsection (1) may make recommendations to improve the probation support to terrorist offenders.

(4) Where a report has made recommendations under subsection (4), the Secretary of State shall respond within 2 months.

(5) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the report under subsection (1) before Parliament.

(6) A Minister of the Crown must, not later than 3 months after the report has been laid before Parliament, make a motion in the House of Commons in relation to the report.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I would be doing a disservice to the many probation officers and others working in the service if I did not raise the issue of what has happened to our probation service in recent times. I am personally delighted that probation is no longer out there with a load of private organisations, but has been brought back in house. I hope that the necessary improvements will take place so we can deliver an effective probation service in future.

New clause 10 would require the Secretary of State to commission and publish a report on the impact of the Bill’s provisions on the National Probation Service, its support for terrorist offenders and various specialist staffing and resource matters, and to respond within two months to any recommendations made in the report.

The work of the probation service is to assess and monitor risk, but it is also to provide support while trying to change an individual’s mindset so that they have a second chance, are less likely to reoffend, and can take up a positive role in society. It is true that terror offences can pose problems in this area: many individuals convicted of such offences are motivated by strong political views and actively do not want to change. This is one of the reasons why it is appropriate to have specialism within the probation service. At the same time, it is important to not lose sight of the rehabilitative purposes of probation, even if those sometimes have to be secondary to the risk management purpose.

Let us remember that there are particular issues that affect the rehabilitation of terror licensees, even if they are strongly engaged with desistance. Those include rejection by family and community, a sense of hopelessness and that they will never be trusted again, and fear on the part of educational and volunteer organisations and employers. Community-led organisations that do not focus exclusively on terror licensees sometimes have the best chance of getting honest and sustained engagement from that challenging group. If no one is ever speaking to those people in such a way that their barriers come down, how are we actually going to know what is going on? How are we going to know what interventions are needed to stop reoffending?

Very long licence periods such as those proposed in the Bill are, in practice, very similar to life or other indeterminate sentences, and have the same consequences for probation staff and for the rehabilitation prospects of licensees. They increase workloads for highly specialist and rare probation staff and can make rehabilitation and risk assessment more difficult by reducing the incentives to engage and co-operate. Specialist probation officers are thinly spread and consequently hold very high case loads of terror-related cases—more than 120% the normal rate. That level is appallingly high and the Government recognise that it needs to come down.

Research shows that more time spent with offenders is essential for proper assessment and rehabilitation, but that is not possible with such high case loads. More time requires more money. I have already addressed the need for financial reports on the impact of the Bill in new clause 3. The very long licence cases, such as lifers and those with indeterminate sentences, are a special challenge for probation staff because they never really come off their case loads, even as more new cases are constantly added.

On Second Reading, the Secretary of State referenced doubling the size of the probation terrorism unit. However, as I said earlier today, it is not clear exactly what difference that will make to the service’s capacity, given that the provisions in the Bill will change demand in ways that are hard to predict. It is not even clear what he meant by doubling the unit. I hope the Minister will tell us a little more. I invite him yet again to tell us what that means, what the Government are going to do and when that is going to happen.

Longer licences will significantly increase demand on the probation service, while ending some early releases could help to spread the resource. The general issue with increasing the number of probation specialists is that they can only be recruited from experienced staff. In recent years, the service has been hollowed out and huge amounts of experience lost. Lots of generalist roles will need to be backfilled with newly qualified staff before the more experienced staff can move into specialist roles.

I have a host of questions for the Minister this afternoon. What modelling has the Department done of the expected net effect of the changes the Bill makes on the total probation case load in the years and decades to come? How many new staff will be required to join the terrorism unit to manage the increasing case loads? That will have to be factored into the current recruitment drive. Have the Government assessed the extent of overtime and emergency working that may be needed in the terrorism-related probation unit until sufficient numbers of trained staff are available? Have Ministers considered the consequences for standards of monitoring and for staff welfare and retention? Will the Government commit to reducing the case load of specialist probation officers, not just in line with other probation staff, but by significantly more in recognition of currently higher case loads and the difficulty of those cases? Will they set up a strategy and targets to achieve that?

As there is with other counter-terror work, there can be a lot of secrecy around the work of counter-terror probation staff. Our professional officers do their best in the most difficult of circumstances and often go beyond what can reasonably be expected of them, yet mainstream probation staff often have little knowledge or confidence in their ability, for example, to recognise the early signs of extremism. It may turn out that some recent incidents have occurred despite contact with non-specialist probation staff. Not every probation staffer can be a specialist, so there may be a need for some amount of counter-terror training for all, so that signs can be spotted even where no terrorist link or offence has been identified in the past. Will there be counter-terror training for all probation officers? The growth in far-right extremism may mean that we need more people to be able to spot that early on. Have the Government considered establishing counter-terror as a more formal and funded specialism in probation, like integrated offender management?

We have already talked about the impact of the Bill’s removal of early release and the fact that that might lead to lower engagement with rehabilitation and deradicalisation programmes. That would make the task of probation staff even harder. The National Probation Service needs some serious attention from the Government, but I hope that, having brought the service back totally in-house now, we will see those improvements in future.

Without an effective and fully funded service, the intentions behind the Bill fall to pieces. That is why we have tabled the new clause requiring the Government to review the impact of the Bill on the National Probation Service. We cannot simply increase the responsibility and case load and consider the matter closed, because if there are more than the estimated 50 new prisoners, we will have other things to consider. There will be the longer sentences and longer licences as well, all creating more work, but without the resource to back it up. Let us be clear: effective probation working is essential to monitor the risks that offenders on licence pose; it is no less essential than counter-terror policing or intelligence work, yet the probation service is again under-resourced at a much lower level, and is paid far less attention than some other services.

I have asked the Minister a wide range of questions and I look forward to his detailed responses. Ultimately we need him to tell us exactly what action his Government will take to sort out the issues raised and ensure that the National Probation Service can get on with its day-to-day role, before we turn to the particular issues raised by the Bill.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Clearly, the probation service is important and I pay tribute to the thousands of men and women who work in that service helping to rehabilitate offenders, and by so doing keep the public safe. Several questions have arisen, some of which would probably be better directed at the Prisons and Probation Minister, but I will attempt to answer some of them to give the shadow Minister a flavour of what is going on.

First, in terms of overall resourcing levels, the spending review last September laid out a significantly increased funding package for the Prison and Probation Service, which is, as we speak, flowing to the frontline. Another spending review is coming this autumn, and the hon. Gentleman will no doubt study that carefully to see what is in it for the Prison and Probation Service, and indeed the Courts and Tribunals Service, but the spending review last September was good news for the probation service in terms of financial support.

The shadow Minister also referred to community rehabilitation companies coming in house. The restoration of a comprehensive National Probation Service run directly by the Ministry of Justice is something that I suspect everybody involved in the criminal justice system will welcome, and it will provide an opportunity to do a lot more with the offender cohorts that the hon. Gentleman referred to in his speech.

Earlier this year—I think it was in January—a host of announcements were made in relation to counter-terrorism, one component of which was the extra £90 million for counter-terrorism police. It was also announced that we would double the number of specialist probation officers who focus on terrorist prisoners. We will also be creating the new counter-terrorism assessment and intervention centre that I talked about a little earlier. I am not sure whether all prison and probation staff will have counter-terrorism training. I will have to let the hon. Gentleman know, but given that only 200 or so prisoners out of a population of approximately 80,000 are in for terrorist offences, he can draw his own conclusions about the numbers. However, I will check with my colleague, the Prisons and Probation Minister, and come back to him on that specific point.

In relation to the new clause itself and the desire for a review of the probation service, once again there are already good mechanisms in place to review the probation service. I point in particular to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation, whose duty it is to conduct on an ongoing basis—not just after 18 months, but the whole time—precisely the kind of review that the new clause calls for. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is content to rely on the excellent work that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation does in conducting the analysis that he calls for in his new clause.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I very much welcome the increased resources that the Minister says are flowing into the frontline, but everything that we have heard from him today suggests that that is a work in progress. We do not yet know how many new probation officers are being trained; we do not know when the new centre to which he alluded will open; and we do not know how we will end up with more than one facility to accommodate terrorist offenders in future.

I hope that the Minister will consider writing to members of the Committee to tell us exactly where we have got to with all the new investment and where the money is being spent; how many probation officers we had before the funding was made available and how many we have now; and what the timeline is to complete the doubling of the resource in the service. Similarly, I would like to understand when the new facilities will actually be available, because if we are going to accommodate people in prison for a longer time, we must ensure that there are appropriate centres.

I see no sense in pressing the new clause to a vote. As the Minister said, people out there are working extremely hard and we pay tribute to them, but we must always be mindful that, due to the lack of resource, the probation service is not operating in the way that professional officers would like. I hope that the Minister’s confidence in the new resource package will bear the fruit that we all want to see. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.