HC Deb 30 June 1966 vol 730 cc2347-56

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

11.0 p.m.

Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr Tydfil)

I have been compelled to raise the subject matter of the Adjournment because of the wanton and completely irresponsible action of the Home Secretary in destroying the probation service in my constituency. I must tell the House that in the 32 years that I have been a Member of the House, never have I seen a more pathetic demonstration of how certain Ministers, of whom the Home Secretary is one—and this must be said at long last—love to strut in their exaggerated sense of self-importance at that Box when they are in fact the mere robots of those unnamed, un-elected and unrepresentative people who are the decisive bosses of so many important Ministries. This must be said, and one of the reasons why I am protesting against this uncalled-for attack on our local probation service is that it reveals clearly the charges which I have just made.

The trouble first began when the present Opposition were the Government. The then Home Secretary, Mr. Henry Brooke, and I had discussions on this matter and he readily agreed to receive a deputation, which consisted of the Chairman and the Secretary—that is, our magistrates' clerk—to discuss the matter with him. The Chairman was also a member of the National Council of the Probation Service—a man, and nobody knows better than I, of great knowledge and public service.

On his own initiative, Mr. Brooke kept the deputation for nearly an hour and he asked them many questions. It was obvious that he was deeply impressed by the deputation and accepted that our service in Merthyr Tydfil was a very efficient service.

We were therefore left alone until a change of Government took place and Sir Frank Soskice became Home Secretary. Not a word had passed between him and me about our probation service until the beginning of our long Parliamentary Summer Recess last year—and I ask the House to take note of that. A letter—I must put it as crudely as it was done—was pushed under his nose for signature. He was completely ignorant of its contents. It was sent to me as soon as we Members had dispersed for the three long months of our Summer Recess.

Of course, I took the strongest exception not only to the contents of the letter but to the way in which it had been done, and I told Sir Frank Soskice so in no uncertain language. No one was more surprised than he when he realised that his signature was attached to a letter of such importance—the destruction of our probation service in Merthyr Tydfil. After this conversation we were again left alone until the present Home Secretary was appointed. He, or those who had him in charge, repeated the threat of destroying our probation service, immediately the House dispersed for last Christmas Recess. That was a period of five weeks less one day.

A letter was placed under his nose and he, completely ignorant of its importance, signed it. To him I described the timing of this letter as being cowardly and disgraceful on the part of a Home Secretary in a matter of such importance. On no occasion—I want to emphasise this—was this service in my constituency adversely criticised. On the contrary, it was always highly praised. When questioned as to why they wanted to destroy it by burying it in the administrative county of Glamorgan, the Home Office's first excuse was a certain recommendation in the Morison Committee's Report. When it was made abundantly clear that that recommendation was not absolute, was not made without exceptions, and that those exceptions clearly applied to my constituency, that excuse was abandoned.

But I must say—and I am glad that the right hon. Lady the Minister of State is here—that this was an extraordinary situation, that at least three private secretaries were carrying on correspondence either with myself or the magistrates' clerk and it was obvious that not one of them knew what the other two were doing. Not one of these letters bore the signature of the Minister of State or of one of the Under-Secretaries of State, Home Office, although they all came from the Horseferry section of the Home Office.

I have always worked in the closest co-operation with our probation service. I know how devoted to that service are the officers and also their committee. They are all local people, products of a most closely-knit community, who have the respect and confidence of the people, and this, in work of this nature, is of inestimable value to all concerned.

But now strange little fellows from the administrative county of Glamorgan run into our borough, where, in their childish ignorance, they tell our probation officers to write down every bit of work they do on every day of the week, and then see that a summary of the week's work is also prepared. This is absolutely, literally true. This is how the Home Secretary tries to persuade himself that the probation service in my constituency is being improved. But our probation officers, with their splendid record, cannot be expected to suffer such humiliation for long. The Home Secretary should take note of this. He must be fully aware that he has had no experience in local government and that he should exercise some caution, and much hesitation, before calling for destructive schemes, forced on him from the remote backwoods of the Home Office.

My grievance may seem a small matter to the House, but it is not. It is symptomatic of the Home Office today. The only virtue, if it is one, that appeals to that Ministry is size. The bigger the area covered by any service, the better. The growth of bureaucracy, not quality, is the thing that matters. In passing, I mention that this megalomania is dramatically seen in the first threatened step on the part of the Home Office of establishing in our country a police state, but I will say no more about that at this point.

Why does not the Home Secretary realise that he has much to learn when he takes over the great and onerous responsibility as that of the Home Office? I have no hesitation in giving him this advice because I have never raised on the Floor of the House any matter of importance to my constituency without first seeing the Minister or Ministers concerned. I have often found this to be far more helpful than rushing to make noises in this Chamber.

It will be in the Department's interest to withdraw the threat I have discussed tonight. I hope that the Minister of State will at least appreciate that I have reduced the time taken for my remarks to the utter minimum to give her ample time in which to reply. I hope that, after her statement tonight, the Home Office will do the decent thing and leave our probation service alone.

11.13 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Alice Bacon)

I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. S. O. Davies) for the vigour with which he always pursues constituency matters in the House. If, at times, his language is stronger than perhaps the occasion warrants, we all know that he has the Welsh fervour and Welsh blood in his veins.

What are the facts about the probation service in this area? As my hon. Friend said, on 1st April this year the Merthyr Tydfil probation area was combined with Glamorgan. Before the amalgamation took place, Glamorgan had 32 probation officers and Merthyr Tydfil had four, one of whom was a woman. There was no principal probation officer. The amalgamation arose, like other amalgamations, as a result of the recommendations of the Morison Committee on the Probation Service. That Committee reported in 1962, when there were 104 separate probation areas in England and Wales.

After a thorough-going survey of the structure and organisation of the service, the Committee found that the power of the Home Secretary to combine probation areas had been … a major factor in ensuring efficient administration … and decided that further combinations ought to be made. Briefly, its reasons were that an area service should be large enough to support a principal probation officer, to provide technical expertise and up-to-date leadership; to provide opportunity for the exchange of views and pooling of experience among the staff and to cope with fluctuations in the work. It thought that the minimum staff necessary to support a principal probation officer was six other officers, so it was recommended that unless there were exceptional circumstances any probation area which could not sustain a staff of six or more probation officers or a staff of which more than one was a woman should be merged into a larger unit.

Since the Committee reported, amalgamations have been made in 10 cases and the areas in Greater London have been re-drawn. These changes have reduced the number of probation areas in England and Wales to 84 and 59 of these areas are combined areas. Before leaving the general background and looking at the general case of Glamorgan and Merthyr Tydfil, I should like to add one thing. The Morison Committee recognised that there had often been, and would often be, opposition to combination from committees locally affected, but its inquiries confirmed the Home Office view that where amalgamation had been made against opposition the improvement in the local service was eventually generally recognised. I hope very much that this will happen in the present case.

I look now at the particular circumstances of Merthyr Tydfil and Glamorgan. I must stress first that the Order has already been made and was signed by the Home Secretary on 15th March this year and came into operation on 1st April this year. As my hon. Friend has said, successive Home Secretaries have allowed every possible opportunity for the Merthyr Tydfil Probation Committee and for my hon. Friend himself to make clear the grounds on which their opposition to the Order was based. Informal discussion about this began as early as 1958 and the combination was first officially proposed in May 1963. My hon. Friend has seen Ministers on two occasions and on the second he brought with him the chairman and secretary of the probation committee. I understand that when my hon. Friend saw the Home Secretary, then Sir Frank Soskice, in August 1965, Sir Frank wrote saying that he had Anally decided in favour of combination.

Mr. S. O. Davies

No, the deputation met the Home Secretary of the Opposition party, which was then in Government. We were refused by the present Home Secretary.

Miss Bacon

In June, 1964, Mr. Henry Brooke, then Home Secretary, saw my hon. Friend and the chairman and secretary of the probation committee, and I understand, far from saying as my hon. Friend has said tonight that he did not agree that the Order was to be made, he said he had decided to make the combination Order.

Mr. Davies


Miss Bacon

That is my information. However, that is by the way. The Order has been made for the reasons I have stated. The views of the probation committee have been clear to Ministers, and I hope that the main considerations on the Home Secretary's side are clear to the probation committee. I take a little exception to the fact that my hon. Friend thinks that documents and letters are put before Ministers who sign them willy-nilly without understanding them or seeing what is said in them. I assure him that at Ministerial level we give the greatest possible consideration to this and feel that it is in the best interests of the probation service in Merthyr Tydfil that this amalgamation should take place.

All the reasons which I quoted a moment ago as being behind the Morison Committee's recommendation applied to Merthyr Tydfil. The Morison Committee said that there should be six probation officers apart from the principal probation officer before a separate probation area was viable. In Merthyr there are only four officers. The Morison Committee said that there should be at least two women officers. In Merthyr there is only one woman.

Merthyr is in fact much the smallest county borough in England and Wales that remains a self-contained probation area. It has been alleged that amalgamation could not succeed because the narrow valleys running north and south from Merthyr will impede travel. Again, it is said that the probation officers in Merthyr are so far from those in Glamorgan that any exchange of views or effective supervision would not be possible. It is in fact 23 miles from Cardiff to Merthyr, but Glamorgan officers are stationed within a few miles of Merthyr at Pontypridd, where the principal probation officer has his office, Aberdare and Caerphilly, in addition to the office at Merthyr Tydfil.

It has been suggested, for example, that under combination the magistrates in Merthyr who before March this year made up the probation committee would not stand in a sufficiently close relationship to the probation officers in Merthyr, and also that the new Probation Committee for the combined area would not be able to maintain satisfactory contact with the staff. This suggestion is directly contrary to the views of the Morison Committee, which found that probation committees of quite large counties were able to maintain satisfactory contact with staff.

But it is in the case committee, which has the function of reviewing the work of probation officers in individual cases, that the closest contact occurs between magistrates and probation officers; and the Merthyr justices, even after combination, will still have the function of providing their own case committee to review the work of the officers serving them.

It is true that the Merthyr justices after combination no longer have separate responsibility for the employment of staff and for finance and supply matters, but as partners in the combined area, with representation on the combined area committee, they can be consulted by the committee about any proposals specially affecting Merthyr Tydfil. In all other respects they will, through the case committee, be able to take the same interest in the Merthyr staff and the Merthyr probation cases as they have done hitherto.

Again, it has been objected that it will destroy the spirit of the Merthyr probation service if officers come from outside to supervise the Merthyr officers. Supervision can be represented as being tyrannical interference, but I must say that the supervision of a probation officer by a senior probation officer is the last kind of supervision that I would ever expect to be called this.

The point of supervision is that, for modern social casework, with its improved techniques and its deepened understanding of human behaviour, it has been found necessary that the professional caseworker should be given help and relief by the detailed discussion of his cases with a trained supervisor. It is this kind of guidance that the senior officer gives to the probation officer. Before amalgamation there were no senior probation officers in Merthyr to give it.

All that has happened is that since 1st April of this year the probation officers in Merthyr, like those in Glamorgan, have been able to receive this kind of supervision by senior officers, to whom they can now turn for advice and help. If it is supervision and leadership by the principal probation officer that is objected to, I can only repeat that this was one of the main reasons why the Morison Committee felt that areas with fewer than six officers should be combined with larger areas. I feel quite sure that the principal probation officer of Glamorgan will exercise this supervision with the greatest tact.

The Home Secretary did not make the combination order in the exercise of some bureaucratic principle. He was fully alive to the local situation. But he thought it was completely wrong that a place like Merthyr Tydfil should be without the advantages which have been demonstrated over and over again throughout other probation areas in the country.

There is another important consideration. The probation service today is at the centre of the Government's penal policy. The functions of the voluntary after-care of prisoners which were formerly exercised by the discharged prisoners' aid societies throughout the country have now been taken over by the probation service and, since 1st January, the probation service has also taken over the task of providing prison welfare officers inside prisons.

In the recent White Paper on Penal Reform, the Government look forward to probation officers exercising supervision in cases of earlier release on licence. This and other important developments make it absolutely essential for the probation service, already admired throughout the world as a pioneer in modern penal treatment, should be brought up to its greatest possible efficiency as a nationwide service.

It cannot be done unless the principles which have been tried and found fundamentally right wherever they have been applied are universally put into practice. I do not complain of the vigorous opposition my hon. Friend and his colleagues have put up, and I think he may certainly feel that he has made a magnificent effort in the cause of local autonomy as he sees it.

But I believe there is a point beyond which the fight cannot be prolonged without interfering with the service which it is designed to protect. This has been a long dispute, and I appeal to all concerned to come together now and devote all their energies to making probation really work within the new framework. Otherwise, we shall be doing less than justice to a great service which needs all the help we can give in tackling the vital tasks which the community lays upon it. I feel sure that in the new arrangement we have made probation in Merthyr Tydfil will be not only as good as it has been in the past but much more efficient too.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.