HC Deb 30 March 1955 vol 539 cc511-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Studholme.]

10.4 p.m.

Mr. W. T. Aitken (Bury St. Edmunds)

I am raising tonight certain aspects of the Home Office proposal to amalgamate the probation service in East and West Suffolk. Although I have the advantage of living in East Suffolk and, therefore, have some local knowledge of the excellent probation service, and one of the principal officers is actually based in my home town of Halesworth, I want to make quite clear at the outset that it is on behalf of the people concerned in West Suffolk that I speak.

Anyone interested in these matters knows that the probation service of the Home Office is one of the most important and useful departments of that Department of State. It is a humane and merciful service in that it seeks to rehabilitate those who offend against the law because it helps them to lead their normal lives under the supervision of a probation officer rather than undergo a prison sentence.

For a good many years now the probation services in this country have been run on a county, county borough and municipal basis, and it is right that they should be run in that way, because the very essence of the job is close co-operation between the probation officers, the magistrates, the probation committees, the police, the local education authority, and all other organisations dealing with local welfare. There are also the "Mrs. Sensibles" of the Women's Voluntary Service, children's officers, doctors, clergymen, youth leaders, and many other good citizens, who play their part in this splendid service.

The success or failure of all this depends, not only on the wisdom and experience of the probation officers themselves, but on the public spirit of many other people in the community. I raise this matter tonight because any administrative action which is likely to impair the essentially local and voluntary character of these services should be considered very carefully indeed.

In the view of many people concerned with the probation services in West Suffolk, the decision of the Home Office to amalgamate the East and West Suffolk probation service is likely to damage the service. Also my right hon. Friend's disregard of local opinion has caused a good deal of real indignation and feeling and will cause more.

East Suffolk has about three times the population of West Suffolk, and there are nine probation officers. In West Suffolk there are three. They are all full-time officers. The West Suffolk probation officers are based on Bury St. Edmunds, which is the natural geographical centre of the county, and we who are concerned with this service in West Suffolk have a particular and special pride in the extremely good record of our small probation service. It has had a higher percentage of successful cases than the average percentage for the whole of Great Britain and Wales. An even better test of its efficiency is the fact that its record of failures in dealing with probation cases is less than half that of the average for the rest of the country.

The fact that these probation officers are based in Bury St. Edmunds, with the local education authority, with all the other local organisations and welfare committees, and with the probation committee. is one of the major factors in the quite remarkable efficiency of this service. The principal reason why every magistrates' bench in Suffolk—

Mr. J. H. Hare (Sudbury and Woodbridge)

West Suffolk.

Mr. Aitken

West Suffolk—is strongly opposed to the probation committee being put under the control of an administrative officer 30 miles away in another county is that it simply means more red tape, more forms, more files, and a good deal of waste of time in travelling between the two places.

It is quite true that under the proposal the three probation officers in West Suffolk would still remain in West Suffolk, but they would be under a principal probation officer in Ipswich. I think it has been made quite clear to my right hon. Friend that the proposal has been mooted by the Home Office several times before, and each time it has been turned down.

The experience that we have had in West Suffolk, and, I think it is fair to say also in East Suffolk, has proved that they do co-operate in many ways and in a most friendly and helpful way in many things. Experience has shown that when we get a joint committee dealing with individuals rather than things, however, it never really works. The experiment was tried some time ago of having a common medical officer. They also tried the experiment of having a common mental health committee, but it just did not work, and the experiment had to be abandoned.

Anybody who knows the geography and road system of West Suffolk will agree that the most convenient place for the probation committee to meet is certainly Bury St. Edmunds. In the view of the justices of the peace and the probation committee, having headquarters centred in Ipswich simply means a waste of time, not only for the probation officers but the committee. The majority of the members of the probation committee will be from East Suffolk, but the difficulties of communication will simply mean that the attendance at meetings of the joint probation committee will not, in the nature of things, be so consistent or nearly so effective.

There are many other objections which I shall not raise because I think that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary already knows them all. Let us examine the reasons which the Home Office gave for what we consider was really a quite arbitrary action. The Home Office say that West Suffolk probation officers will have the guidance of a principal officer and derive a helpful stimulus resulting from a larger team. This service in West Suffolk is extremely efficient, and it does not need an office wallah. A team of 12 is really no better than a team of three, but that is a matter of opinion, and there is a good deal of helpful and friendly association which Roes on, not only between East and West Suffolk, but with Cambridge, Essex, Norfolk, and the surrounding areas.

The Home Office also gave as a reason for this proposal more economic use of the staff in the adjacent parts of the two counties. I think my hon. Friend is satisfied, from the figures which the Minister has. that there is no financial advantage in this, so that the economic aspect is out. According to Home Office standards, each of the probation officers in West Suffolk has a case load which is not excessive, nor is it under what it should be. It therefore would not be reasonable to expect them to take over any more cases from East Suffolk, nor would it be reasonable to expect East Suffolk to put more cases on to them.

The other point which the Home Office made was that it would be easier to provide reliefs for the West Suffolk woman officer and other officers when they go on sick or annual leave, but this question has never caused any trouble in West Suffolk before, because they have always arranged these matters with the adjacent areas of the two counties, and can always get a relief. There is, therefore, no difficulty about that.

To most of us, the reasons for the Home Office attitude are pretty nebulous. We have learned to expect a good deal firmer, clearer and more coherent reasons for action, when my right hon. Friend desires to take any, than we are being given this time. There is quite a flavour of Whitehall about this, and we have a pretty good idea that there is something in this suspicion. I know that my right hon. Friend realises that the position of East Suffolk is really very different from that of West Suffolk, because it is a much larger area. They have a much larger staff and there is, therefore, a good argument for a senior administrative officer to look after them. The probation officers are dispersed more than in West Suffolk, and the argument for an administrative head is a fair one, for in the past they have had a part-time administrative officer, and obviously they have every right to feel that they might well have a full-time administrative officer now. But that does not apply to West Suffolk, and those of us who have looked into this matter very carefully feel that it will not improve the efficiency of the service there.

I suspect that the Home Secretary now realises that the case against the order is a pretty formidable one. Surely the magistrates of West Suffolk, the probation committee, the police, the education department and the many other people concerned in these matters. most of whom are deeply opposed to the order, know much more about what is right or wrong in West Suffolk than the gentlemen or ladies in Whitehall. I wonder whether my right hon. and gallant Friend is really prepared quite arbitrarily to over-rule the responsible and expert opinion of those who have had to work the service in West Suffolk. Is this a deliberate policy of centralisation? Is there to be more bureaucracy, not less, in the probation service under his rule at the Home Office? Why has he never had a local public inquiry into the matter? This is a purely direct, arbitrary, administrative action on the part of the Home Office.

As far as I have been able to find out, there are seven other counties or parts of counties and 10 county boroughs in England and Wales which have their own independent probation services, and they have smaller populations than West Suffolk. So far as I know, no proposal has yet been made to make a combination order for any of them. What is my right hon. and gallant Friend going to do about this? Is he going to insist, irrespective of size, efficiency, convenience and their own wishes, that these people should have the " guidance " of an administrative officer? If so, he will run into a lot of trouble, because these things carry further than people suspect and have far wider implication than the people in Whitehall or whoever they are who make the plans and orders seem to realise.

It is a very bad order. It is bad for the Home Office. This dictatorial stuff is not good for any Government office. It is bad for West Suffolk, and I think it is bad for good citizenship. These things go very deep in these sort of communities. This is human stuff. People are very proud and very keen on something which they have made work efficiently and well. I hope my hon. Friend will make representations to the Home Secretary to drop the whole business.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

I should very much like to congratulate the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken) upon his gallant rearguard action tonight. However, I cannot say that I have been very much impressed by the validity of his arguments, eloquent though they were.

I should have thought that the matter resolved itself into this. There is a growing desire for prestige on the part of many local authorities. My experience is that when a local authority loses a single function it feels that its prestige is lowered and that it cannot keep up its status. It is like keeping up with the Jones's.

Mr. Aitken

Suppose they are well ahead of the Jones's?

Mr. Evans

We cannot admit that. We know that the figures which the hon. Gentleman has adduced are very encouraging, and we all admire them, but the problems which have to be faced in West Suffolk arc rather different from those in the more closely populated areas of East Suffolk. We have to remember that the office at Bury St. Edmunds will be maintained.

Mr. Aitken

And interfered with.

Mr. Evans

There is no intention whatever to alter the numerical standing of the office. All that is asked is that these two authorities, which are contiguous and have very similar interests, particularly in the border area, should come together. I should have thought that, after the long and persistent campaign that we have had about doing away with as many administrative centres as possible and saving expense, and all the other elements which result from centralisation, hon. Members opposite would have welcomed this move in connection with one service in which we can obtain complete co-ordination and co-operation between the two halves of this lovely county.

There is a good deal in the belief that the people in East Suffolk feel that the service would be strengthened by amalgamation. I admit that there are the local prestige points and that one feels hurt if one is neglected. I do not want to press this on the Minister too much. It is obviously something for him to decide, and I think that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken) has made very heavy weather of what might not be a very serious matter.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. J. H. Hare (Sudbury and Woodbridge)

I want to intervene for a moment. I am in a unique position, because my constituency is partly in East Suffolk and partly in West Suffolk. I want to assure the House that what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken) said is absolutely correct. There is very strong feeling in West Suffolk about the order, but I must in fairness to my constituents in East Suffolk make it clear that what the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) said is also true—that the magistrates and probation officers in East Suffolk feel that the order will be for the general benefit of the entire county. I hope that what my hon. Friend said about " a little view " is not taken into consideration by the Parliamentary Secretary. The people in West Suffolk very genuinely and honestly feel that they are giving a good service, and I think it would be quite wrong to suppose that they are trying to retain their present position merely because they want to retain a bit of authority. They wish to retain it only because they genuinely believe that they are giving a better service. That is all I want to say.

10.21 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

Members of the probation service will certainly be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken) for the kind things he has said about the service, and I certainly do not complain of his raising this matter this evening. He is no doubt prompted by the natural and, if I may say so, proper pride on the part of his constituents in an important local service. I think that we should be slow to make changes such as the one proposed. I certainly think that when we do so it ought not to be on an abstract principle, but on the merits of the case, and I should like to say something about those later.

I appreciate that there are very strong feelings in Suffolk on this subject, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Hare) has indicated, not all Suffolk feeling is against the making of the order and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Colonel J. H. Harrison), who is sitting beside me, has asked me to say that he takes an opposite view from that of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds. In this case there are two main reasons for the proposed combination. The first is that West Suffolk is really too small an area. At present, three probation officers are employed in the area and they are just about fully employed. But if there were any variation, by either an increase or decrease in the number of probationers with which they have to deal, there would be difficulties.

Obviously, the smaller the number of officers in an area the sharper will be the impact of any change in the number of probationers. There has recently been a fairly substantial decrease in the number, and I think that there is reason to hope that that decrease will continue. If that should be so, it will create difficulties when one is dealing with so small a unit as this. Again, if there is any sickness or absence, when there are so few probation officers, those who are left will have a much greater burden thrown on them. Certainly, we do not desire an excessively large area, but three probation officers is really too small a unit.

Mr. Aitken


Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

What I have said is generally true. I will give some reasons for it. My hon. Friend said that there were other small units. The answer is that we cannot deal with all these matters at once. This is a convenient time to deal with this case, but, wherever we find only three probation officers prima faciethat number is too few.

There is another objection to having so small an area. We can have only one woman officer if we have only three officers altogether, or, conversely, if we have two women officers we can have only one man. Here we have only one woman. In this type of work the sex of the officer is obviously of the highest importance. If the one woman were away sick for any time, or away on leave, her work would have to be done by a man, and that would not be a satisfactory state of affairs.

Again, it is most important that the probation officers should work closely together and discuss their cases. If there is a very small number there is obviously a risk of purely personal difficulties in that connection. I do not say that it exists in this instance, but there is a risk which is likely to lead to difficulties sooner or later. Also, there is a very great benefit to be derived from an interchange of experience and views among a larger number than merely three.

The second main positive reason for wishing to make the change is that it is desirable to have a principal probation officer available to supervise the probation work in Suffolk. The advantage of having such an officer has really been recognised by West Suffolk, because it proposed in November, 1953, that one of the three probation officers should be upgraded. In fact that proposal had to be refused because we could not upgrade one officer to be senior over only two others; but West Suffolk recognised by its suggestion that there is an advantage in having one senior officer.

My hon. Friend suggested that a principal probation officer stationed at Ipswich would be too far away, but I really do not think that that is so. He would be immediately available on the telephone from any part of the county. I believe that the most remote part of the county from Ipswich is a matter of only 45 miles away, and the greater part of the area is considerably nearer. I do not think that that is a substantial objection. The real reason for wanting to have a principal probation officer is the value of having a leader in this work. I think that all those engaged in it will recognise this and know that it is something worth having.

My hon. Friend has given reasons against the proposed combination. He argued that the work of the West Suffolk officers has, on the whole, been more successful than the average. He drew attention to the annual return of probation committees to the Home Office, and of course it shows that 10 per cent. more probationers successfully completed their period of probation in that area than in the country as a whole.

My hon. Friend pointed out, quite rightly, that that means that there were fewer failures—fewer had to be brought back to court—but he himself said quite explicitly that this is a comparison as between West Suffolk and the country as a whole. That is not a fair comparison, because there is a considerable discrepancy between the urban and the rural areas. if we compare West Suffolk with other rural areas then it has no advantage. I do not say that it is any worse, but it has no advantage. Therefore, the comparison which he made is really not a proper one. Moreover, the figures in any particular area are affected by the fact that local benches may tend to vary in their use of the different powers available to them.

It has been suggested that the West Suffolk probation officers' personal contacts both with magistrates and with those with whom they have to deal may be impaired. That is based on a misconception. The officers serving West Suffolk will continue to be stationed at Bury St. Edmund's, or indeed locally elsewhere in West Suffolk, and there will be no change whatsoever brought about, as a result of this combination, in the relationship between the probation officers and the magistrates. There is nothing which can effect that change. The probation committee's headquarters, it is true, will probably be at Ipswich, but the probation committee's function is purely administrative, and it will not interfere with the actual work being done by the officers.

In the third place, it is said that the West Suffolk magistrates will be in a minority on the probation committee. I have been assured that the East Suffolk magistrates are most anxious to meet the wishes and the convenience of the West Suffolk magistrates, and I am certain that that fact will be recognised by the magistrates in West Suffolk. The intention, indeed, is that the probation committee itself shall hold some meetings at Bury St. Edmund's. I think the ordinary practice is to have three or four meetings a year, and some of those are to be held at Bury St. Edmund's.

Of course, the real answer to this point is that there are in fact no conflicting in- terests in this connection, as between West Suffolk and East Suffolk, and there is no reason whatever why the two sets of magistrates should not work perfectly well together, as I am sure they will. As has been pointed out, no financial considerations, no additional expenditure, are involved. There is certainly no question of local interests or wishes being overridden.

Mr. Aitken

How can my hon. Friend possibly say that the local wishes are not being over-ridden when they are being over-ridden very definitely? The local wishes are the wishes of everybody in West Suffolk concerned with this proposal.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

My hon. Friend is only looking at the wishes of those who agree with him, but there are local wishes in both senses.

Mr. Aitken

Not in West Suffolk.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

I can assure my hon. Friend that in no way are they being over-ridden.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour,Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.