HC Deb 13 March 1958 vol 584 cc765-74

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

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Charles Royle (Salford, West)

I wish to raise the question of the probation officers' service. We have heard from the Leader of the House this afternoon that the subject is to be discussed again next Monday, and therefore it may well be that our debate tonight is something of a curtain raiser. The matter arose in the first instance when the Home Secretary decided, in his wisdom or otherwise, to reduce the suggested increase in the salaries of chief probation officers. I raised the matter at Question Time and did not receive the satisfactory reply for which I had hoped, so I give notice that I would raise it again on the Adjournment.

I am much concerned about that aspect, although I shall not concentrate on it tonight, but to treat the chief probation officers in that way, for a saving of £4,500, I regard as quite mean, though I appreciate fully that it was only the Home Office's contribution to the present economic ideas that are going around, and this was the sacrifice that seemed to be involved for chief probation officers.

I know that the officers themselves and representatives from the Joint Negotiating Committee have already seen the right hon. Gentleman, and therefore the matter is to some extent sub judice. I am only expressing the hope that the Home Secretary might be able to change his mind. While I may make some comments applicable to salaries, that is all I want to say at present about the reduction in the proposed increase.

If I may come to the service in general, which is causing great concern because of the shortage of probation officers and the difficulties of recruitment, what I have to say is not inspired by the probation officers themselves but by my experience with the Magistrates' Association. We have discussed this matter in committee, in council and in annual general meetings, and as a result the Association asked its branches throughout the country to give some kind of report of what was taking place. The replies have shown terrible conditions of shortage, particularly in the industrial areas. I represent part of the City of Salford, and the probation officer problem there cannot be described. Obviously, the need for probation officers in such areas is very great, and there is the greatest possible difficulty in recruitment. Only this morning I heard from the County of Nottingham that the same circumstances prevail there.

Part-time officers exist, but many of them receive no training. My first suggestion is that a good-neighbour system should be brought into operation whereby part-time officers would come into contact with trained and experienced probation officers to get some idea of the work, and assistance in their duties. That would be of great value.

Home Office figures show that five men and five women completed their course of training in 1957, that 31 men and 32 women will complete their courses in 1958, and 16 men and 14 women in 1959, making a total for the three years of 52 men and 51 women. In the previous three years, the wastage was 69 men and 84 women. If the wastage is equal in the next three years, the figures will not catch up. The number being trained is therefore inadequate.

It is not solely a question of salary. I do not believe that anybody enters the service purely for the salary; it is a great vocation which calls for the best persons imaginable. Nevertheless, very different salaries must be paid in future to attract to the service the people we desire to see there. The present salary of the ordinary probation officer is from £480 to £790 and of the senior probation officer from £865 to £1,030. The chief probation officer in an area with a population of 2½ million people is limited on his maximum to £1,565 per annum. It is inadequate.

I want to make certain requests. The first is that the Home Secretary should encourage the Joint Negotiating Committee to start upon an entirely new basis and upon quite different salary terms. The Committee, which knows the problem better than anyone, should have more direct representation on the Joint Negotiating Council. My second request is that a departmental committee of inquiry be set up. There has not been one since 1936 on this subject, although since 1936 there has been more matrimonial conciliation and after-care work.

The Criminal Justice Act, 1948, has been passed and has added to the burdens of probation officers. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Sir G. Benson) has introduced a First Offenders Bill that would throw more burdens on them. We shall have an Adoption Bill shortly from the other place. The Wolfenden Report will probably call for legislation, while the Home Secretary's own policy, as explained to us in his Glasgow speech, proved the need for still more probation officers.

My third request is that, in the national interest, there should be published a national report of the probation service instead of our having to rely on the individual reports of probation committees. Fourthly, I would ask that probation officers should be made into established officers as we understand that term in the Civil Service.

I have tried to get into a short space of time as much as I can. There will be other opportunities, I know, next week to talk of this subject, but I want to impress on the Under-Secretary what a tremendous problem exists. I hope that we can be assured that the Home Secretary and the Home Office have the matter fully in mind and that the sort of action which might be taken can be indicated.

11.16 p.m.

Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to support the plea which has been so eloquently expressed by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle) on behalf of the probation service which, as I see it, has three great merits. It leaves the delinquent in his ordinary environment so that he can be helped towards conformity with a proper life where the ordinary pattern of society has to be applied. It is cheaper than institutional treatment and, thirdly, the service has proved to be amply justified by the results. That is shown by the relatively small number of offenders placed in its care who subsequently get into trouble.

The service has changed tremendously in the past twenty years. For example, in 1936 it consisted of 380 officers only, which number included but a handful of university-trained people. Today, there are more than 1,300, many of whom have had university training, and about 60,000 people come under their supervision each year. About half of that number are adults and some are by no means first offenders. As the hon. Gentleman for Salford, West has said, additional duties are thrown on these officers by way of after-care of ex-prisoners and Borstal cases, and the work in connection with matrimonial reconciliation. The average "case load" of an officer is about sixty for the males, and forty for the females, and they work under considerable pressure, as the Home Secretary recognises.

As we have heard, there is a shortage of staff. Pay is important, and it has improved since the years before the war, but the maximum pay for the basic probation officer is now only £860 a year. We must remember that he, or she, works long and irregular hours, often in the evening and at week-ends, with no overtime or extra allowances. We know that the Home Secretary appreciates the difficulties in the way of recruiting and has expressed the hope that, in a year or two, the service will be better equipped to meet the demands by a progressive policy of criminal law reform.

I cannot see the recruits coming forward in the numbers hoped for under present circumstances and I hope, therefore, that the service can be made a little more financially attractive and that something more than has been done will be done to sell the service to the public in the context that it is a modern social service as important, in its way, as the Health Service.

In this connection, I would beg the Under-Secretary to bear in mind three factors. First, that the present trends in the sentencing policy of the courts make it appear that more and more demands are likely to be made on the service; secondly, existing officers cannot lighten their case loads without reducing the quality of their work, and, thirdly, a good probation officer cannot be produced overnight. Therefore, can the probation service be given the chance to show that it can pay for itself many times over, which it can, by keeping many persons out of prison where they are so expensive to maintain?

11.20 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

I should like, first of all, to associate myself with what has been said by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) about the value of the probation service and the wonderful work which is done by those in it. It is a fact that it has for some years been a service which is expanding in scope, and for reasons which have been mentioned it is likely to expand still further in the future.

Therefore, it is important, and my right hon. Friend is deeply aware of the fact, that we should maintain recruitment. As I shall hope to show, the position is not quite so unpromising as the hon. Member for Salford, West appeared to indicate by the figures he gave. We shall, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, be discussing this matter further on Monday next, and between now and then I want to examine his figures. Meanwhile, I would ask him to bear in mind the figures which I am about to give him.

The present strength of the service is altogether just about 1,300 for the whole of England and Wales. The deficiency is between 70 and 80 vacancies. There are about 110 people under training under the Home Office scheme at the moment, of whom about 70 should be ready for appointment later this year. That number of people now under training should, broadly speaking, solve the worst part of the problem, but I agree that it does exist.

I will now deal with the question of pay. The hon. Member for Salford, West used the somewhat ambiguous phrase that my right hon. Friend had decided to reduce the increase in pay.

Mr. Royle

Proposed increase.

Mr. Renton

If the hon. Gentleman says that he used the phrase "proposed increase," I accept that.

The increase proposed was 10 per cent. and the increase decided upon by my right hon. Friend was 8.2 per cent., and at a time when the Government are endeavouring to stabilise the cost of living and to protect the national finances an increase of 8.2 per cent. cannot, I think, properly be described as mean, which was the word used by the hon. Gentleman. I should like to say that my right hon. Friend's recent decision not to implement fully, for the time being, the recommendation of the Joint Negotiating Committee for the Probation Service that the pay of officers in the supervisory grades should be increased by, approximately, 10 per cent. has already been fully explained by my right hon. Friend. He took the decision reluctantly, in the light of the present financial and economic circumstances and in line with the general Government policy on these matters.

My right hon. Friend expressed his willingness, however, at a more appropriate time to consider adjustments of the kind recommended, which involve changes in the differentials between the supervisory and basic grades of the service. I was present yesterday when my right hon. Friend received a deputation from the Joint Negotiating Committee, the members of which explained to him the considerations which had led them to recommend increases of about 10 per cent. and urged him to reconsider his decision to limit increases to 8.2 per cent. My right hon. Friend assured them that he well understood their disappointment that their carefully considered recommendation had not been fully implemented and renewed his promise to review his decision as soon as the economic climate had responded to the Government's financial policy.

He thought that it was a misfortune that the probation service had happened to bear the early brunt of that policy. He said so candidly. He promised to examine in particular the deputation's suggestion that a recent offer made by the Postmaster-General to Post Office engineers afforded a precedent for authorising now the full increase recommended by the J.N.C. My right hon. Friend has looked into this, and has satisfied himself that there is not a true analogy between the two cases, and he will shortly be writing to the Joint Negotiating Committee about it. He therefore regrets that his decision must stand until a change in the economic situation justifies his reviewing it.

The hon. Member for Salford, West made several constructive suggestions and in such time as is available I should like to deal with them. He mentioned the question of untrained people being appointed, and he mentioned what he called his idea of a "good neighbour policy." I should like to look into that suggestion further. Meanwhile, I would tell him that the Home Office arranges short courses of training for all officers who have not had any training before entering the service, and those courses can be provided at a time convenient to the employing Committee.

The hon. Member suggested that a time had come for another Departmental committee of inquiry into the matter. I must remind him that recruitment for training receives the special attention of the Probation Advisory and Training Board, which is composed of magistrates, justices' clerks, and representatives of the universities and of the probation service, and is as well qualified and equipped to deal with this question as any Departmental committee could be.

The hon. Member suggested also that there should be an annual report prepared on the probation service. I would remind him that although my right hon. Friend is responsible to this House for the probation service, it is immediately administered by no fewer than 116 probation authorities, most of whom issue their own annual reports, and it is at least doubtful whether there is room for an annual report by the Home Office on this particular service. In spite of the doubt about duplicating the matter, there is something to be said for collating and taking a more general view, and my hon. Friend therefore agrees that a periodic report on the work of the service as a whole would be valuable, and he hopes to publish one later on. I feel that in view of the fact that this debate is to be held on Monday it would not be useful for me to go into great detail in answering the various points—

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right in cautioning the House against anticipating the debate which will take place on Monday.

Mr. Renton

It is in view of the debate and not with any intention of shirking responsibility for answering the question that I feel that perhaps I should leave the matter at the position that we have now reached, because candidly, although the hon. Gentleman gave me warning of some of the matters—and these are the matters with which I have dealt—I would prefer to have time to consider the other points which he raised and which may, no doubt, be raised again, to which I shall reply in greater detail if I can in the debate on Monday.

May I therefore conclude by saying that I think this has been a useful trial canter over the course, and I look forward to further discussion on this very important subject on Monday.

Mr. Hyde

Before my hon. and learned Friend sits down, may I ask him to bear in mind that there is a discrepancy between the figures of shortage that he quoted—between 80 and 100—and those quoted by the Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, according to whom the shortage is between 100 and 200?

Mr. Renton

I will certainly bear that in mind, and shall be glad to look into it further.

Mr. Royle

Would the hon. and learned Gentleman say how he gets the figure of the real need? On what does he base it? He mentioned the figure of another 700 filling the gaps—on what is that based?

Mr. Renton

I mentioned a figure of estimated shortage of between 70 and 80. I also mentioned that we have at present under training 110 people, of whom 70 will have completed their training later this year. There is, of course, the wastage factor to be borne in mind, but what I am saying is that when the present number of people have finished their training they will go a long way to filling the existing vacancies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North asked how these figures of deficiencies were calculated. We have to go by the information that the probation committees give us about the vacancies which they have, and which they would like us to help them fill from our training centre. The figures are based on that information.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Twelve o'clock.