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Probation Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 9:30 am, 13th December 2005

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, as I too received a letter from Richard Heller, which sets out his views and the experience of his wife, who was in the probation service and who sadly died a few weeks ago. It was a powerful and moving letter, which sums up this case. The ethos must be co-operation and service to the offender, not the profit motive and value for money. Value to society is the ethos, not value for money; the two are not the same. Yet on the basis of that untested, unproven assertion, the 42 local area boards will be abolished. Quite apart from the fact that they will shortly abolish themselves as areas, because of the reorganisation of the police service, which will be completed, one hopes, in two years—another restless change process—new areas will be required for those that presently work for probation.

The area boards will be abolished and replaced by regional business managers, who will invite bids to provide the service from new bodies and contributors; outside organisations. They could be anything; prison companies, charities or cattle prod manufacturers, which also produce tagging devices. The very slogan, "Correction companies" brings to mind sadomasochism of all kinds. One does not know what the organisations will be. Yet, untried organisations will be brought in to replace what is now an effective, well functioning service. They will all be able to bid for contracts to run the service for profit, in local units.

What is wrong with that can be fairly readily summed up; it is an attempt to create an artificial market in probation services, which should not be a market at all. This is a judicial function, a service for the courts and offenders, not a means of profit. What is wrong with the proposal? Probation is part of the judicial system. It is an agency of justice, not an agency of commerce. To make it an agency of commerce must undermine trust and undermine its integrity. Judge Judge—"Here come da judge, judge"—has pointed out the unsuitability of bringing commerce into this function. It will not only undermine trust but produce obvious conflicts of interest.

One pictures the scene. A probation officer appears in court to make his recommendations. He recommends that the offender be committed to lag's hall, which is run by his group, group 69, to provide correctional services, and he offers the court a DVD presentation of its charms and attractions. It will be exciting stuff; visual displays of the sort of place to which the offender will be sent.

Perhaps the probation officer could recommend tagging; his company McTag-it, which is based in Scotland and can produce red tags that are approved by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, can be worn with any clothing, and will keep the offender under effective supervision.

Perhaps, on the other hand, the probation officer could recommend community service and say that, just by coincidence, his company, Charitable Drains R Us, provides useful work digging drains for churches, public toilets and other places in which offenders can usefully be employed.