HL Deb 16 November 1967 vol 286 cc841-4

3.9 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress is being made towards bringing the Probation and After-Care Service up to the strength needed to match the tasks being set it.]


My Lords, plans were made in 1965 to expand the Probation and After-Care Service in England and Wales from 2,200 to 3,500 established officers by 1970. Those plans did not take account of some additional duties which have since been assigned to the Probation Service, notably prison welfare and parole, but in other respects the work-load has risen less than had been expected; in particular, the rate of increase in the number of probation orders has been significantly lower than had been forecast. The present strength of established officers is just over 2,700. About 360 students are expected to complete training and become available for appointment as probation officers by the end of 1968. While the net increase in strength has fallen short of what was thought necessary for the fulfilment of the plans, there has been a marked increase in recruiting and a decline in wastage, and I am confident that the Service will be able to meet the challenge of the new tasks which it has been asked to undertake.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply, and I am glad to know that the figures show an improvement. Would he not agree that there has been such an enormous backlog up to now that the possibility of reaching the target of 3,500, or anything like it, by 1970 is still very remote? Is the noble Lord able to say that he still has the same assurance which he and his noble and learned friend on the Woolsack had and expressed to us during the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill during the summer, when we laid several new burdens on the Probation Service?


Yes, my Lords. I am even more certain now that the position is and will be adequate: first of all, because in the target of 3,500 we had forecast a 7 per cent. annual increase in the number of probation orders, and the actual increase has been only an average of 1 per cent.; secondly, because the wastage, which was 7.6 per cent. in 1965, is now running at the rate of only 5 per cent.; thirdly, because the work-load has actually decreased. When we made the estimate we thought it would be impossible to get below an average case-load for men officers of less than 60 until we had 3,500 officers in post. The actual case-load is now 56. Finally, although there have been extra duties, the number of probation officers involved is far lower than was estimated. Only the equivalent of 15 officers have been required for work on the parole boards, and the equivalent of 15 to 20 officers for after-care.


My Lords, is it not a fact that when the Criminal Justice Act comes into full operation, it is likely that there will be greater use of the Probation Service? Is it not a fact, also, that the salaries paid to probation and after-care officers are certainly a deterrent to recruiting, and that it is time we looked at the situation and gave them salaries commensurate with the work they do?


My Lords, no one is more anxious than I am now, and no one has been in the past, to see that adequate salaries are paid to probation officers. But the fact that we have less wastage, and the fact that we have actually a record number of 360 trained officers coming into service in the next 14 months is, I think, evidence that we are meeting, or are going to meet, the targets that were set. With regard to the additional duties which will be placed on probation officers by the Criminal Justice Act, some of these I have already dealt with, and we are taking account of the remainder.


My Lords, could my noble friend give an assurance that in the recruitment of officers to the Probation Service nothing will be done to reduce the standard of entry?


My Lords, we are anxious to get to the stage where all probation officers coming into Service will be trained, but unfortunately we still have to accept direct entrants. I am hopeful, however, that the number will steadily decline so that shortly we shall have only fully trained officers.


My Lords, I am glad to hear that the noble Lord is more confident, but may I ask him how he accounts for the fact that, while he gets more confident, the local probation committees are getting more anxious—so anxious, in fact, that they are recruiting this year twice as many untrained staff as last year? Would he confirm that in the first nine months of last year they recruited 39 untrained staff and that, so far, in the first nine months of this year, to meet what they anticipate will be the need, they have recruited 79 untrained staff?


My Lords, periods of nine months are not always a fair comparison. Over the last three years it is true that there have been recruited by direct entry 210 officers, an average of 70 a year. Thirty-four of those were already in voluntary service. I do not think the number will go up, and the fact that the case-loads have gone down is indisputable evidence that the pressure has been relieved. If we have a record entry of trained officers now into the Service the case-load must continue to go down, and if probation committees are acting in the way the noble Lord suggests, they should take cognisance of this.