HL Deb 18 December 1980 vol 415 cc1203-5

11.31 a.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

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 whether they can confirm that approximately 25 per cent. of the 400 student probation officers successfully completing courses in England and Wales last July are still without jobs; and, if so, whether such a waste of expensively-trained persons directly damages the Government's expressed intention to make available to the probation service the additional resources necessary to tackle a reduction in the prison population.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

Yes, my Lords. The majority of courses leading to the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work end in the summer and some students, particularly those whose mobility is limited, may well be unable to obtain an early appointment as a probation officer in the area of their choice. In the current year the position is complicated by a fall in the wastage of serving probation officers, leading to a reduced demand by the service for students from training.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, which goes some way towards explaining the position. Is the noble Lord aware that a similar situation arose in 1978 and the experience of the Probation Officers' Association is that those who were trained at that time and did not get jobs never did get jobs? Does the noble Lord agree that it looks as if there is going to be a total wastage of the training of about 100 probation officers at a time when the probation service must be reinforced in order to deal with the appalling prison situation?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, so far as the question of reinforcing the service is concerned, I am most anxious to make the point that the problem has not been one of not increasing the size of the service. Recruitment has been, and is, buoyant. The problem is that the rate of wastage has suddenly fallen dramatically. That is most acceptable and welcome in many ways, but of course it causes the particular problem which occasions the Question asked by the noble Lord.

With regard to trying to overcome the particular problem which the noble Lord identified in his supplementary question, I would say that he may remember that at the end of last year my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made proposals for devolving to the individual probation and after-care areas the responsibility for selecting and sponsoring students. A benefit of that proposal, which is not yet finally decided, would be to enable each area to assess its needs and to adapt to the effects of reduced local wastage.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I am most grateful for that information. I think that that will be a helpful move.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that it would be a good thing to increase the numbers in the probation service since, bearing in mind the present cutback in public expenditure, it is less expensive to keep men out of prison, and to rehabilitate those men who have left prison, than it is to keep men in prison? Does that not also provide a very much better service for the country?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that a healthy probation service is an absolutely essential ingredient towards trying to reduce the size of the prison service. To that end—and my answer crosses the boundaries of both the previous Administration and the present Government—I should like to make the point that the numbers in the probation service have increased from 1975, when there were 4,869 full-time probation officers. At the end of December 1979 there were 5,306, while by the end of September of this year the numbers had risen again, to 5,413. We did indeed make provision for an increase of 1 per cent. in the current year in the size of the service.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in addition to increasing numbers in the probation service, it is essential to increase the resources available to them such as hostels, clinics, and so on? I find that in the court in which I sit lack of resources is a problem with which the probation service is faced. Does not the Minister agree that to increase the numbers in the service without increasing the facilities and resources that they can use will not be of much help? I think that this is a very important point.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness. I am not going to dodge the fact that local authorities are, of course, being asked to restrain their expenditure very severely indeed; I accept that absolutely. None the less, in that general context I should like to remind the noble Baroness that the Home Office has maintained the support that it gives to the voluntary hostel service, in which of course NACRO takes the lead, and my right honourable friend has taken an initiative in providing a small amount of money to establish particular hostels for offenders suffering from alcoholic troubles.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that some of us shudder—especially at this time of Christmas spirit—when we learn that three people seemingly are able to break out of prison by penetrating three great concrete walls, and are able to find ropes and planks? Will this kind of thing affect the probation service, or are we going to build better prisons, with a much more humane approach?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that is another question.