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Probation Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:06 am on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 10:06 am, 13th December 2005

That is a common pattern. Public sector services are being privatised and when things go wrong, it is almost always in the end the public sector that ends up picking up the tab and dealing with the problem. I shall say a word or two about the latest consultation paper—the paper that was issued recently, entitled "Restructuring Probation to Reduce Reoffending." The use of that title makes the assertion and assumption that restructuring probation is necessary to reduce reoffending. A number of issues arise from that consultation paper. I am sure that other hon. Members will have seen the response to the consultation made by the Probation Boards Association, the national body that represents the local probation boards, which are currently the employers of probation staff. Incidentally, that raises another issue: if we go down the road of contestability, who will be the employers of the current probation staff?

The probation boards welcomed quite a bit of what the Government said earlier: they welcomed the idea of putting the prevention of reoffending at the centre of what they do and the idea of packages of support and intervention for every offender. No one has issues with such aims and objectives. However, they point out that although the consultation paper has been issued, the Cabinet Office code of practice is not being followed. That is acknowledged in the introduction to the consultation paper—the argument made for not following the code is that the 12-week consultation period is not needed because

"we have conducted previous consultation exercises on the National Offender Management Service and are now hoping to introduce the legislation needed to give effect to these proposals as soon as possible."

However, as the Probation Boards Association points out, a significant change is being proposed, and the document returns to some issues that we thought had gone away.

It was only in July last year that the then Minister for Prisons and Probation concluded that we should keep the existing probation boards, at least for the foreseeable future. We all thought at the time that that meant that the probation boards would stay for some time but, a year and a bit later, we are back again discussing the suggestion that the 42 probation boards will be abolished. As we have all been saying in this debate, the overriding test that should be applied is: how will these changes have a positive impact on the degree of reoffending and why, and what is the evidence that they will do so?

If we dismantle the probation boards as suggested, that will remove the local links that exist—it will disengage local communities, the local judiciary and police forces from those links. In the present structure there is coterminosity of services and, particularly since the restructuring of some police services is under discussion, one would have thought that this matter might be better left alone until some of those decisions have been made.

It seems to me that the proposals threaten an end to publicly provided probation services in the form in which we have known them. I think that if the Government introduce legislation to abolish the probation boards and to restructure the probation services, they will find that many more hon. Members will be interested and concerned about that issue than are present this morning. That is what happened the last time that this issue was raised at a national level.

I hope that before we go too far down this road we will stop and think again and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said, listen to what the professionals—the people who work in the service, who deliver the service on the ground and who run the service through the probation boards—are actually saying, because none of those people supports the proposals. I urge Ministers to think again about the route that they are taking.