HC Deb 25 February 1991 vol 186 cc736-9

Amendment made: No. 119, in page 47, leave out line 8.—[Mr. John Greenway]

Mr. Michael

The Minister appears to have been consumed by the confusion and was not listening, so I shall start again.

The amendment is intended to straighten out an anomaly in the Bill, in which we find the curious suggestion by the Government that words in the 1973 Act which show a need to have sufficient probation officers in an area should be substituted by a requirement for a probation committee to agree with the local authority the number of officers required in an area. That is nonsense.

I approach the matter with some neutrality, having been chairman of a local authority finance committee and a member of a probation committee—so I can claim to be well informed. My information leads me to suggest that the Bill is nonsense as it stands.

Under the new regime that we have, partly as a result of the Bill and partly as a result of developments initiated by the Minister and his colleagues, the Home Office will decide the finances needed within a formula for a particular probation area. The Home Office will offer advice on the numbers required. The Home Office will determine 80 per cent. of the finances in any event, and the local authority will have to fall into line. In any case, the local authority discusses the budget with the probation committee year by year, and will continue to do so.

The Central Council of Probation Committees understood, following discussions with the Home Office Ministers and officials, that, once cash limits were set, as they will be in future, on probation committee budgets, committees will have the discretion to determine their own priorities and resource needs, including staffing, within the budget and subject to all the other restrictions. For instance, there will be regular Home Office inspections, including a study of staffing levels in probation committees, which are accountable in Home Office statistics and in their own annual reports.

Our amendment seeks to delete the requirement in paragraph (a) because it is at best meaningless and at worst a recipe for pointless disagreement between probation committees and local authorities. It appears to give some control to local authorities, but in fact it does no such thing. If the Minister wants to delete the words "sufficient probation officers" from the 1973 Act, let him admit as much and do. I have had private conversations and I have corresponded with the Minister on these matters, and I am a little disappointed that the provision is still in the Bill at this stage. I had hoped that the Minister would have moved a Government amendment by now to dispose of the problem.

In Committee, the Minister suggested that subsection 76(2) did not change the role of local authorities or of committees, but that is precisely what it does and why it is necessary to remove it from the Bill. It is a drafting mistake, and even at this late stage I urge the Minister to listen to the voice of reason as well to the voice of experience in the form of the Central Council of Probation Committees and other bodies. He has made a mistake; he should accept that he has and tidy up the Bill.

Sir Anthony Durant (Reading, West)

I have had some difficulty finding a point at which to intervene today, and I am slightly off course in the debate on this amendment—except in so far as it relates to probation officers.

Probation officers in my constituency have been to see me, anxious about their role in the probation service. They believe that the Bill may damage their role with their clients. They fear that they will be allocated the judicial role of punishment rather than the remedial role of helping their clients.

I hope that the Minister will reassure me that probation officers' vital role will be carefully considered and that, when dealing with clients, they will not be allocated a role strictly to do with punishment at the expense of the remedial side of their work.

Mr. John Patten

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Durant) that the Government envisage a careful expansion in the probation service until the financial year 1993–94. The autumn statement provides a useful background for the amendment. It proposes the introduction of more than 800 new probation officers over the next three years—the biggest single injection of officers of both sexes that has ever occurred—as well as a 25 per cent. increase in overall expenditure on the probation service in the years up to 1993–94, taking inflation into account: the biggest single cash increase that the service has ever received.

We want the probation service to change its present role. We want it to develop its considerable skills in confronting offending behaviour and making offenders face up to what they have done, so that they do not do it again. That means exercising control as well as care—caring authority, as it were. Vigorous, forward-looking bodies such as the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, and that valuable organisation, the National Association of Senior Probation Officers, are already gearing themselves up to the task.

My hon. Friend's Reading constituency faces a challenge. I value the work of the probation service in Berkshire: under its excellent chief probation officer, it is one of the best probation services in the country. It will have formidable opportunity to do what probation officers do best—stop people offending again.

I have invested a good deal of time in arguing, in Committee and in the corridors, with the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) about clause 76 and the issue that he has raised tonight. I pay tribute to the knowledge that he has acquired, both as the former chairman of a council finance committee and as one who has served in other parts of the criminal justice system. The trouble is that he and I cannot agree on the meaning of words. Sometimes, however much we respect someone else's judgment, we must agree to disagree. The hon. Gentleman and I have engaged in a lengthy correspondence: our word processors have been at it hammer and tongs over the past three or four weeks. I intend to place in the Library the full correspondence, complete with marginalia, so that posterity can judge which of us was right.

The intention of clause 76(2) is not to usurp the role of committees in deciding how many probation officers are needed, but simply to allow local authorities to object to expenditure on them, and to allow either the committee or the local authority, in default of agreement, to seek a determination from the Secretary of State. The subsection is necessary to prevent the cash limit from becoming de facto a precept on the paying authority. Thus expenditure on probation officers will be brought into line with existing arrangements relating to other items of current expenditure.

Local authorities are already able to object to many other items of expenditure in committees' estimates—on a range of non-probation officer staff issues, on accommodation and on equipment. There seems to be no good reason for continuing to single out expenditure on probation officers for special treatment when they now add up to only about half the staff in the probation service.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of the Bill. Clause 76 is extremely well drafted, as are all the rest. My interpretation is absolutely clear, and the amendment—well-meaning though it is—would not improve it in any way.

Mr. Michael

The hon. Member for Reading, West (Sir A. Durant) made a valid point. I am glad that he used the excuse of the amendment to mention the work of probation officers. From my knowledge of their work, I agree with his comments. He led the Minister astray a little into commenting on the probation service in general, but who can blame him for that? The problem is simple—the Minister is wrong.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, the Criminal Justice Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Boswell.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Mr. Michael

For one moment, I thought that you, Mr. Speaker, had intervened on my suggestion that the Minister was wrong. I realise now that you were not questioning that.

The Minister is wrong to say that paragraph (a) is necessary to ensure that the cash limit does not become a precept. A local authority must agree the budget with the probation committee. It is not, as the Minister suggested, a question of agreeing expenditure on probation officers, which is already provided for in the agreement on the budget. The paragraph says that the local authority must agree the number of people that the probation committee will employ.

I am afraid that the Minister, despite the considerable good will that he has shown my efforts to persuade him that he is wrong, has got it wrong yet again. I am delighted that he is to place our correspondence in the Library so that the great British public and hon. Members will be able to read both sides of our exchanges and realise that amendment No. 92 is correct. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment, so that the other place can agree it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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