HC Deb 13 July 1995 vol 263 cc1192-8

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

10.1 pm

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

In initiating this debate on the probation service, I refer first to what the Home Secretary said in March this year when he introduced the current consultative paper, "Strengthening Punishment in the Community". He said: The probation service can be rightly proud of its work and I appreciate the dedication and commitment shown by probation staff and members of committees in their work. I was quoted in the 1993–94 Hereford and Worcester probation service annual report when I spoke approvingly of much of the work that it does and, in particular, of the community projects and their effect on reducing reconviction.

There is no doubt that the work of the probation service has increased dramatically. Last year, there were 233,000 pre-sentence reports, 2,000 of which were in Hereford and Worcester, which is itself a 12 per cent. increase on the previous year; 151,000 people were under probation service supervision, and there were 32,800 community sentences.

The probation service was involved in a huge area of work, some of it to do with the criminal justice system— liaison with the courts, prisoners and hostels and pre-sentence reports—and some outside the criminal justice system such as child welfare, family work and crime prevention in a more general context.

That increase in work occurred despite the fact that it in the current year its total budget has fallen from £395 million to about £392 million, which has been translated into a 6 per cent. reduction in Hereford and Worcester.

In 1993, the Minister of State, Home Office said: If the probation service did not exist we would have to invent it". The service does valuable work, and what I am about to say is in no way a criticism of the dedication that many probation officers bring to their task. "Strengthening Punishment in the Community" reminded us: The present arrangements suffer from the drawback that probation and supervision orders do not appear to the public to offer sufficient punishment. Commenting on the consultation document, The Times said that the Home Secretary had taken measures to rid the public of the idea that community sentences are a soft option. Unfortunately, many members of the public feel that probation and community service orders, and other community sentences, are not as rigorous as they should be, and that the probation service looks too much to its rehabilitative role and too little to its role in preventing further crime and protecting the public from crime by ensuring that sentences are not only rehabilitative but a deterrent to further offending.

There may be some justification for that view. Only 26 per cent. of indictable offences that come before the courts result in community sentences, and only 11 per cent. result in imprisonment. That means that some two thirds of offenders are either fined or given a non-custodial sentence of some other kind. The public do not consider that a sufficient deterrent. There has also been a huge increase in cautioning. Some of that may involve first offences, but much does not. One can understand the feelings of many members of the public, including my constituents, who want elements of punishment to be returned to non-custodial sentences and community service orders.

Recently, there have been several cases of young people aged 14 or 15—sometimes they are as young as 11 or 12—acting in a grossly irresponsible and, indeed, criminal way in the leisure centre in my constituency. That has caused outrage in the community, but local magistrates seem powerless to effect a remedy.

Part of the problem appears to be the ethos of the probation service. It is very social-work oriented, as most of its members have a social-work qualification. The Hereford and Worcester 1994–97 plan for the probation service identified crime as a community problem, saying that one of the service's roles was to ensure that the community could respond to and reduce its offending. Although a third of the male population aged 30 may have some form of criminal record, the fact is that the vast majority of the community does not, and does not need to reduce its offending. My local police force tells me that, if just 20 offenders could be dealt with locally, crime could be reduced by some 50 per cent.

Too often, the probation service sees the offender, rather than the victim, as the actual victim. Although there is a correlation between dropping out of school, unemployment and family instability and crime, I do not think that the problem is as "reactive" as the probation service wishes to make out. According to the service, Personal and social problems might put them"— young people— at risk of further offending", as though offending were something that happened to people rather than their taking a specific decision.

In Hereford and Worcester's "Link" magazine, the assistant chief probation officer recently quoted approvingly some Liverpool university studies showing a correlation between unemployment and crime. We are all aware of that, of course. He said that this was bad news for the let's get tough and punish lobby". In other words, the probation service believes that the idea of punishment is something for the far right of the political spectrum rather than, as is the case, a reflection of the views of the vast majority of the population.

That is especially so as the Association of Chief Officers of Probation has quoted recent Home Office studies that show that, despite what the probation service might like to argue, the two-year reconviction rate of the probation community service is not much different from that of prison. I think that the relevant reconviction statistics are 53 per cent. for prisons, 49 per cent. for community service and 45 per cent. for probation, so the idea that probation is a major panacea against further convictions is erroneous.

In certain cases, the probation service seems totally unwilling to recommend custodial sentences as appropriate, despite the wishes of the population. The Hereford and Worcester annual report of 1993–94 showed that pre-sentence reports recommended a custodial sentence in only 11 cases in the whole year, despite the fact that 484 sentences were passed.

If we are to improve public confidence in the probation service, we need to change the culture. That is why I am especially pleased at the first of the Government's three major reforms, which will do away with the probation service's exclusive entry qualification: the certificate in social work. It is vital that we increase the number of people who come into the probation service by bringing in people from other sectors than social work.

As the Home Secretary has reminded us, the work of social workers and of probation officers is significantly different. People who have never been involved in social work have an important contribution to make to social work. If we can ease their passage into the probation service through additional qualifications, which must be nationally validated—they cannot be left entirely to local validation—we will be effecting a major and important reform.

Equally, I agree that there should be a more flexible continuum between community service orders and probation orders. Community service orders are oriented more towards punishment; probation orders are oriented more towards the prevention of further offending. Any effective order should contain significant proportions of both. Community service orders and probation orders should be available to the courts for all offences and not for ones that are merely imprisonable.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

I appreciate that my hon. Friend has only just begun to expand his argument, but it seems that he is arguing very well for the total abolition of the probation service. Is he not saying that the service is no more effective—in fact, probably less so—than prison and other sanctions in stopping people committing other crimes, and that it is not a deterrent?

Mr. Coombs

There are other reasons for doing non-custodial work apart from those involving deterrence. The probation service has an important role to play, but the element of punishment and deterrence in its work has been undervalued and, as a result, the Government's reforms, in particular those in relation to the greater control by magistrates of the details of community sentences, are extremely important.

I shall give an example of what can go wrong. I recently took up the case of some constituents who were worried about a hostel and the activities of its residents. It is not directly supervised by the probation service, but there is a liaison officer. I was told by the probation service's chief officer that she understood that, in the past two years, hostel residents had committed no offences. I checked with the police and found that its residents had committed 343 offences in 1993 and 390 offences in 1994–26 per cent. and 27 per cent. of the crime in the town in which the hostel is situated. Is that an example of protecting the community via community service in hostels?

I should like to emphasise one or two other areas in which the work of the probation service could be significantly improved. I have already mentioned the very young criminal. I should like to see the minimum age for community service orders reduced from 16. At present, for a 15-year-old offender in my area, magistrates can impose a fine, which may not be paid because parental fines are difficult to enforce under the present legislation, or he could be locked up in a youth offenders' institution but, understandably, magistrates are reluctant to do that. We no longer have an attendance centre in Hereford and Worcester, so that is not an option and supervision is too often not effective to the extent that the Home Office has recently had to lay down standards saying that the impression should not be given of providing reward for offending. It is my view that community service orders, which can be made rigorous, should be extended to 14 and 15-year-olds under any new legislation.

I believe that, short of youth custody, attendance centres and boot camps should be established on the lines of those set up by the airborne initiative in Scotland and down on the south coast—and, hopefully, soon in the midlands. About two thirds of those who successfully get through those camps do not reoffend. I believe that probation supervision grants, which are currently not available to fund the capital costs of such schemes, should be made available so that more of them can be set up. I believe that better co-ordination is necessary between the probation service and local employers and training and enterprise councils. Someone who is offered a job after having been on a community service order is less likely to reoffend. That is beyond peradventure. Very good work is going on in the Hereford and Worcester area through the Doors project.

The criminal justice system for juveniles is too slow. It can take anything from six to nine months between an offence being detected and arrest being made and a punishment being imposed by the courts. A pre-trial meeting is necessary with social services, which means a delay of two or three months, then the trial itself, pre-trial sentence reports cause further delays and then sentencing. Because there is no immediacy, it is difficult to identify the offence with the punishment in the minds of the young offenders. That is a view held by the clerks to the magistrates in my local area, and I am sure that the Government will wish to investigate it.

Currently in Hereford and Worcester, nine of the 15 members of the probation committee are magistrates. Magistrates do have an important role to play, but it is not an exclusive role. I believe that the scope of probation committees should be extended to include laymen who are looking for a more deterrent and retribution-oriented community service provision.

It is crucial that we change the way in which sentences, whether custodial or non-custodial, are organised for young offenders in particular. Too often, the sentence increases in severity with the criminal record of the individual involved. I understand that it is important that individuals are not unduly involved in the criminal justice system at too early an age. However, in certain circumstances, it is important to frighten young people away from a life of crime, especially if it looks as if they are just about to begin one.

I am not convinced—and certainly many people involved in the magistracy in the Hereford and Worcester area are not convinced—that there are sufficiently severe and deterrent penalties available for young people at the beginning of their criminal careers to deter them and their friends from further criminal activity. A magistrate's clerk recently explained to me that, sadly, under the present structure there is no question of frightening the life out of a 17-year-old, thereby preventing further criminal behaviour, if he has gone a long way down the tracks towards a criminal career.

What is beyond peradventure is that, if the criminal justice system is to work effectively, either through custodial sentences or through non-custodial community sentences, it must concentrate not only on rehabilitation, the needs of the offender, his place in society and appropriate programmes to prevent reoffending but on the certainty and rigour of punishment—deterrence as well as rehabilitation—because only then will the confidence of the community as a whole in the criminal justice system— and, by implication, in the work of the probation service—be maintained.

The Home Secretary has spoken about the current consultation document and strengthening punishment in the community. If he wants, as he has said, to rise to the needs of the 21st century in significantly reducing crime and the causes of crime, the sort of change in culture and in operational procedures that I have mentioned will be crucial to improving and maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system.

10.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Nicholas Baker)

The title of this debate is the probation service, but the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) go much wider than that. There is rightly a great deal of concern about the high levels of crime committed by a small number of young people. We are determined to tackle the problem of persistent offending by juveniles, and I am grateful for this opportunity to explain some of the action that the Government are taking to combat it.

I know that my hon. Friend will be meeting my colleague the Minister of State shortly to take these discussions further. In the time remaining to me tonight, I shall try to cover the points raised by my hon. Friend, but if I do not cover them all I am sure that his discussions with the Minister of State will provide an opportunity to continue the debate. I think that my hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that what he says and what the Government are doing have a great deal in common.

The supervision of juvenile offenders in the community, as my hon. Friend is undoubtedly aware, is for the most part the responsibility of social services departments. He also raised a number of issues relating to the probation service and I am grateful to him for that. There are too few opportunities to debate the work of the probation services and the contribution they make to the prevention of further crime and to the protection of the public. I therefore welcome this valuable opportunity to explain the action that we are taking to toughen up community penalties, to which my hon. Friend referred, and to strengthen the performance of the probation service.

I understand that my hon. Friend visited Hereford and Worcester probation service's community services schemes last summer and was impressed. I am delighted to hear that, but I am not surprised. Probation services have moved a very long way from their original welfare-oriented approach, especially in recent years. The Criminal Justice Act 1991 turned the probation order into a sentence of the court, and it now takes its place as part of one of a range of community penalties available to the courts.

The Government have taken a number of measures to ensure that probation services deliver a high standard of service to the courts and that they deliver tough and demanding punishments and protect the public from the risk of further crime. The prevention of reoffending is an important part of that work, but I think that my hon. Friend underestimates the extent to which the ethos of the probation service has moved away from rehabilitation. The 1995 national standards, to which I shall refer in a moment, ensure that that objective is properly placed against the need for supervision and enforcement of community sentences.

I shall say a word about the problem of persistent offending juveniles, to which my hon. Friend referred. The vast majority of young people are perfectly law-abiding, but that makes the behaviour of a small number even more inexcusable since it tarnishes the image of young people, most of whom lead responsible lives and contribute a great deal to their communities. However, persistent offending is a significant problem.

A high percentage of crime in any particular area is most often found to be committed by a small number of offenders, sometimes very young offenders. My hon. Friend referred to that. For example, one study of persistent offending found that, by age of 17, 1 per cent. of all boys born in 1973 were responsible for 60 per cent. of convictions in their age group. We are determined to tackle this problem of persistent offending. To do so, it is essential that the courts have available to them effective and appropriate powers.

My hon. Friend referred to the remedy of secure training centres. I would like to say a word about that because, where the crimes are serious enough, it is right that the courts should have a range of tough measures to deal with them, from custody to community sentences. In particular, when young offenders go on and on committing crime, rejecting the chances offered them by courts to change their ways through supervision in the community and continuing to cock a snook at the public, the law and society, then the courts should have tough sanctions against them. There, my hon. Friend's point about early penalties being more effective may well be relevant to what we have in mind.

The Government introduced in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 a new sentence—the secure training order—to strengthen the courts' powers in respect of 12 to 14-year-olds who persistently offend and who fail to respond to a community sentence. It will provide the courts with a much-needed sentence for this group of offenders combining a period of high-quality training in detention with a close supervision after that in the community. The order can be for as long as two years.

We are now pressing ahead with the building of five new secure training centres. Invitations to tender for the provision of secure training centres at Gringley, Nottinghamshire and Cookham Wood, Kent are currently been assessed. Invitations to tender for building and running the other three centres will be issued as soon as the necessary planning consents have been granted.

The courts also need a range of tough community sentencing options for those offenders who commit crimes which are not sufficiently serious to warrant custody but which ensure that offenders pay for their actions. Community sentences have a crucial part to play in punishing offenders in appropriate cases and in ensuring that offenders put back something into the community. The Government are determined that community sentences should be rigorous and that probation services take quick action, if offenders continue to misbehave, to return them to court.

I said that I would say something about national standards, because that is why, in March, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary published new national standards for the supervision of offenders in the community. They apply equally to probation services and social services departments. The new 1995 national standards are designed to deliver greater protection of the public from further crime and more vigorous enforcement of community sentences by probation and social services departments. These new standards ensure that offenders serving community sentences face demanding programmes of supervision or work or both, in which the courts and the public can be confident that supervision will be physically or mentally demanding and that no community sentences can be properly or validly described as a soft option—as some do describe them, as my hon. Friend remarked.

The public want to see offenders make reparation to the community, and they want to feel safe. The new standards emphasise the development of programmes of supervision, which have those objectives as their primary aim. That means that the loophole in the old standards, which resulted in a number of offenders going abroad, looking like a reward for their offending, has been closed. Every activity must now be assessed to ensure that it cannot be seen as a reward for offending.

I have run out of time and must conclude by urging my hon. Friend to continue his discussions with the Minister of State. As I said at the beginning, I am grateful to him for raising this issue so that I could remind the House of some of the Government's recent initiatives to combat serious and persisting juvenile crime and strengthen community sentences. I have listened to my hon. Friend's concerns with great interest, and I hope that he will continue his interest in this important subject, to which he has made an important contribution.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.