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Probation Service

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:45 am on 13th December 2005.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 10:45 am, 13th December 2005

I have written on my notes, "I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend", meaning Mr. Mitchell. I sometimes wonder whether I really want to congratulate that person. I do now, because I am glad that we have been able to discuss such an important issue. However, do I thank that person for giving hon. Members on both sides the opportunity to patronise me, especially about where I went to school? No, not particularly. However, we have had a real insight into the views of the different political parties on the fundamental role of the probation service, which is to protect the public and to reduce reoffending.

My hon. Friends seem concerned that we should build on, maintain and preserve the progress that the probation service has made to date. Martin Horwood muddled me; he seemed keen to praise such initiatives as community payback but then railed against the Government for delocalising services. Nevertheless, every contribution to the debate has rightly emphasised the importance of the reform of probation in 2001, which led to a national probation service and drove up standards.

I join in the congratulations that many hon. Members have expressed on the service's progress in enforcement. Some 43 per cent. of sentences were enforced in 2001; the figure is now than 92 per cent. Such progress is important, although where we started from was in some ways depressing.

Mr. Turner, who represents the official Opposition, gave us an insight into how they plan to deal with their policy vacuum; they will not say what they think but instead will try to stir it to see whether that helps. They are doing so by discussing the role of Ministers rather than their policies. It was entertaining, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I would prefer to deal with the issues raised by my hon. Friends; what are we trying to do, why are we not building on the achievements made to date, and will it break the system?

We set out clearly what we wanted to achieve in the Carter report. The objective of reducing reoffending is not particularly controversial. We want to achieve it by giving an offender manager the clear role of managing the sentence of an offender; and that should be backed up by intervention.

It is striking that we have invested to deliver that. The improvements that hon. Members referred to were achieved because we made resources available. In 1997, the probation budget was £439 million. At that time, the enforcement target was met in less than half the number of cases. The budget for the current year is £874 million, a real-terms increase of 55 per cent, and the number of staff has increased from 14,000 to 20,000. I give those figures because, among other things, I want to make it clear to my hon. Friends that we do not intend to chuck the service out with the bath water, as they imply. Nor do we seek to make massive savings. Our concern is to ensure that the improvements that have been made are built on.

We must also ensure that we make real progress in reducing reoffending. We have made some progress, but not enough. Our target is to reduce reoffending by 10 per cent., but at the current rate of progress, there is a real risk that we will not achieve that. There is a sense among my colleagues that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I would not say that our probation services are "broke", but I would say that the improvement made to date is not the most that we can achieve.

There is a real opportunity for us to make greater improvements if we manage to separate offender management from interventions and identify more clearly the outcomes that we want so that we can make another change rather like the one that we made in 2001. The driver for change should not be the way in which we have always done things around here; it should be the ambition to do things much better.