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Probation Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:50 am on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 9:50 am, 13th December 2005

My hon. Friend is right. Turnover rates are sometimes 10 times greater in private prisons than in public prisons. At the moment, a probation officer is trained for two years, in service and in various correspondence courses and additional course support. With those turnover rates, we would be left with a de-professionalised probation service. We would be left with a large number of staff who were untrained or undergoing training and never completing it. We would de-professionalise the service. There is no commitment from the private sector to stay the course over a two-year training programme to ensure that staff are adequately trained. I fear that the private sector will cream off the profits, and it will be left to the public service to invest in training to ensure that we have at least a core of trained staff providing the service itself.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby also mentioned how costs have increased dramatically where elements of the probation service have been privatised. Under the Morrisons contract, costs rose by 62 per cent. That is not making profits, but profiteering at the expense of the public sector. When we had this debate more than a year ago, it was not just about the increase in costs of 35 per cent., but about the lunacies and inadequacies of the management of premises. There were classic examples of how many private sector staff it took to change a light bulb in one of those establishments. Bizarrely, staff were sent more than 100 miles for a simple maintenance operation.

The other issue that has been mentioned—lack of independence in the privatised probation service—will undermine confidence in the service. When profit becomes the motive, independence of judgment is often driven out, as we have seen in other private sector operations and in other privatisations. No matter how good the probation officers are at their job, no matter how committed they are, they will come under private sector pressure to maintain and maximise profits rather than to fulfil the role that they would have had in the public sector.

The issue of local accountability is increasingly worrying. Local authorities will be inadequately represented on local trusts or boards. There will be no requirement for judges or even magistrates to be represented. That breaks a link between the provision of justice and local views and attitudes that we have had for nearly 500 years. The link between local magistrates and how offenders are dealt with in their local area will be broken.

The Government have prayed in aid the role of the voluntary sector. We have met with the voluntary sector throughout the process. It has the same fears as probation officers that they will be squeezed out of the system by the nature of the contracts that will be awarded to the private sector, that they will not have the resources to be able to compete and that they will come under pressure to provide services in a way that they do not feel appropriate, given their role to date. As much as probation officers themselves, the voluntary sector fears for the future of the service, and it is equally dedicated to maintaining the service in the public sector.

I urge the Government to think again even at this late stage. Let us consult our colleagues in Scotland and Wales on how the multi-agency approach is bedding down and operating there. Let us have further consultation with the staff through their trade unions to ensure that we establish a service based on what the professionals tell us about what is needed, including the necessary investment and how the service best operates in the public sector, co-operating with the voluntary sector, to achieve the best results.

I fear for the future of the service. I feel that we are throwing out a 100-year tradition that has served this country well. Of course there have been mistakes in the past, but there have been mistakes in all services. I warn the House that if we privatise this service, we will not have seen anything yet. There will be a backlash against the proposals if they are implemented in our communities, given that the private sector fails those communities when it comes to securing justice, peace, security and the end of reoffending. I shall encourage as many hon. Members as possible to vote against proposals if legislation is ever introduced in the House. I also give this commitment: if these iniquitous proposals provoke industrial action among probation officers or prison officers, I will join them on the picket lines to oppose them.