HL Deb 13 May 1982 vol 430 cc313-20

Viscount Long rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd April be approved.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, this order will implement one of the recommendations in the report of the Children and Young Persons Review Group. The review group, which is popularly known in Northern Ireland as the Black Committee after its chairman the late Sir Harold Black, recommended a strategy for dealing with young offenders based largely on treatment within the community. It saw the Northern Ireland probation and aftercare service as the main agency for carrying through this strategy. It suggested that if it were to be able to call upon the support of the community at large, in doing so it should cease to be administered directly by a Government department and should in future be managed by a probation board set up for that purpose.

The Black strategy as a whole has been endorsed by the Government and in a recent statement the Secretary of State indicated that significant progress had been made towards its implementation. In particular, the Government have welcomed the proposal to establish an independent board to manage the probation service. The Northern Ireland service has until now been the only probation service in the United Kingdom to be centrally administered and while there may in the past have been good reasons for this, this is no longer the case.

I should mention that one particular aspect of the service's work—the Community Service by Offenders Scheme—has been supervised since 1979 by a community-based committee. The Government have been much heartened by the success of this scheme—a success which has been due in no small part to the work of that committee. The noble Lord, Lord Blease, was at one time closely associated with that committee. Indeed, at one time he was the chairman-elect before assuming his present responsibilities, and his help and guidance in the preparation of the scheme was invaluable. He undoubtedly has an intimate knowledge of the work of the Northern Ireland probation service gained through his close association with the service at that time.

I have explained the principles behind the order. I will now outline its content. Article 3 and Schedule 1 provide for the establishment of the board and set out its constitution. The board will be a body corporate whose members are appointed by the Secretary of State for a period of three years. The Secretary of State will endeavour to ensure that the board's membership is broadly representative of the community in Northern Ireland, and to this end he will seek nominations from groups with an interest in the work of the probation service. These will include the district councils, the lay magistracy, the legal profession, the trades unions, commerce and industry, the universities and voluntary organisations concerned with the treatment and welfare of offenders.

Schedule 2 provides for the transfer of existing property and staff to the board. Probation officers and probation assistants thus transferred will become employees of the board and this should ensure the continuity of service and experience necessary to launch the board.

Article 4 lists the main fun. Lions of the board. As well as providing an adequate and efficient probation service, the board is required to provide such staff as the Secretary of State considers necessary to perform social welfare duties in prisons and young offenders centres. The board may also, either directly or in co-operation with the voluntary sector, provide hostels and other facilities designed to assist the reintegration of offenders into society.

Article 5 requires the board to assign probation officers to the Northern Ireland courts. The provision of a proper and adequate service to the courts is of paramount importance. Advice in the form of social inquiry reports is helpful in determining sentences, and the availability of probation officers to give practical help to convicted persons and their families can also be a significant benefit to the operation of the courts. This article also empowers the board to give financial or other assistance to probationers, bailees or others in connection with whom probation officers are required to perform any duties.

The Secretary of State retains overall responsibility for the treatment of offenders in Northern Ireland. This is reflected in Article 6 which enables him to give the board directions of a general character as to the exercise and performance of its functions. Articles 7 to 10 and Schedule 3 make financial provision for the board and for the protection of the staff of the board for acts done in the course of their duty.

Article 11 empowers the board to make provision for the training of its own staff or the staff of voluntary organisations working closely with the probation service. Such training may be provided for those working on an unpaid voluntary basis as well as those working on a full-time basis for the board or for voluntary organisations. Article 12 enables the board to make loans to its staff to enable them to purchase vehicles essential to the efficient carrying out of their official duties. Article 13, by empowering the board to conduct or promote research relevant to its functions, reflects the importance of a continuous and rigorous assessment of its professional competence and effectiveness. Article 14 authorises inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State to inspect hostels and other establishments provided by the board or by voluntary organisations. Article 15 enables the Secretary of State to make rules for their proper regulation and management. These controls are made necessary by the fact that such establishments will provide accommodation for offenders, many of whom will be required to reside therein by the courts. Article 16 enables steps to be taken in advance of the transfer of functions to the board to enable the provisions of the order to be brought into operation.

Finally, I would draw the attention of noble Lords to another recommendation contained in the Black Report. As part of its wider recommendations in respect of children and young persons, the review group recommended that the proposed management board for the probation service should also have responsibility for the management of a custodial establishment. This would cater for the more serious and persistent juvenile offenders. The recommendation is not addressed in this order but will be the subject of whatever further legislation flows from the on-going consideration of the wider Black Report recommendations.

I commend this order to your Lordships as an important contribution to the better administration of the Northern Ireland probation service. It provides a management structure which will enjoy the confidence both of the staff of the probation service and of the community at large. I beg to move.

Moved that the draft order laid before the House on 22nd April be approved.—(Viscount Long.)

3.37 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for his explanatory outline of this draft order. We on the Opposition Benches welcome the legislation and believe that it has the general support of all parts of community life in Northern Ireland. The order provides for the establishment of a probation board for Northern Ireland which should enable a large measure of independence and of community influence to be exercised in the achievement of the aims and objects of the probation and after-care services.

The noble Viscount has drawn the attention of the House to the fact that in general the order arises from the recommendations of the Black Report. I wish to take this opportunity to place on record my tribute, along with the many others which have been made, to the chairman of that committee, the late Sir Harold Black. Those of us who knew Sir Harold found him to be a dedicated civil servant. In his public involvement he did much to promote the good and the wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland. The probation board is a tribute to the type of work which he undertook.

The noble Viscount referred to the remaining recommendations of the Black Report. We on this side of the House look forward to the implementation in due course of the other recommendations, as we consider these to be of vital importance to this aspect of life in Northern Ireland. May I thank the noble Viscount for his kind remarks regarding the part I played in the setting up of the community service scheme. I found it to be a very worthwhile experience. May I also draw attention to the fact that I was a founder member of the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, known as NIACRO.

I am still a vice-president of that body. The reason I wish to draw the attention of the House to that association is because it was from my involvement with it that I gained some little knowledge and direct experience of the administrative arrangements under which the probation services have operated in Northern Ireland. Certainly the Civil Service departments responsible for these probation services and also for the involvement of the after-care voluntary arrangements have had to work in very difficult and awkward community circumstances. It has been my experience that the Civil Service personnel, the probation service staff, and the voluntary service organisations have carried out their duties and responsibilities with a great degree of sensitivity and skill and a keen sense of the need for active co-operation to achieve positive results in these services.

The reason why I have drawn attention to this background is that, whatever might be the immediate difficulties confronting the new board, they have a very firm foundation on which to build the new services. They have an excellent team of experienced and professional personnel in all departments, supplemented and supported by reliable and active voluntary groups dealing with probationary matters. There are a few matters in the order which I wish to draw to the attention of the noble Viscount, Lord Long, in the hope that he will be able to clarify some of the issues involved.

The noble Viscount dealt with the point concerning the appointment of board members. I believe that the House will be aware that, on such occasions, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland receives a considerable number of publicly-stated views and opinions about the type of persons who should fill such positions and the qualities it is desirable that they should have. I understand that a chairman, a deputy chairman, and 10 members of the board are to be appointed and that there are to be five co-opted members of the board. It is not my wish to add further to the kind of advice which has been offered already both in public and in private, but I feel that I should ask for some assurances that direct trade union interests and the clearly discernible interests of the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders will be fully considered in regard to aspects of the board appointments.

Another point on which I should like some clarification is that, so far as I can ascertain, the order makes no reference to the post of chief officer. The duties of a chief officer and his relationship with the board are surely of paramount importance to the success and effective working of the board and the service. Will the appointment of the chief officer be made by the Secretary of State in consultation with the board? To whom will the chief officer be directly responsible—to the board, to the chairman of the board, to the Secretary of State, or to all three? Will the chairman—who, after all, is a part-time chairman as I understand it—and the chief officer be jointly responsible for conducting direct communications with the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office? These are all aspects of the establishment of a board of which this House has had experience in the past. I feel that the lines should be clearly defined in this instance and that these aspects should certainly be clarified now rather than wait until the board has been set up.

With regard to staff matters, I understand that some 300 existing staff members will be transferred to the new probation board. Up to the present, a good number of them have been employed under Civil Service conditions and new contracts of service will have to be drawn up between the board and the transferred staff. My understanding of the position is that there are four groups of staff under various gradings; the chief officer and senior officials, probation officers, probation assistants, and then clerical and ancillary workers. May I ask the noble Viscount whether appropriate negotiations with the staff representatives have been satisfactorily completed? Have the necessary new procedural and substantive agreements been drafted and discussed with the staff representatives concerned? I should like to underscore my belief that these are all important aspects which require firm assurances being given by the Northern Ireland Office before the transfer of staff takes place, in order to avoid acute staff problems when the board has been set up.

The noble Viscount also made reference to the role and responsibility of all-round provision of assistance to offenders and ex-offenders. This will involve the board's powers to set up hostels and special projects and grant aid to voluntary organisations to assist in this type of work. Will the noble Viscount give an assurance that the board will have powers to encourage the active support of programmes for the prevention of crime? In other words, in this order and in the setting up of the probation service we are concerned with dealing with offenders and ex-offenders and with rehabilitation work. But there is a clear and sharp distinction between the rehabilitation of offenders and appropriate measures required to help those at risk—especially those young persons in our community who are living in environments which are not conducive to leading what would be considered a normal life in our society.

The noble Viscount, Lord Long, also dealt with the question of training at some length. I was pleased to hear him say that training will be available within the service. I hope that a reasonable amount of this training will be undertaken within the service and that expertise will be built up in order to carry the training on, because it is a specialised service peculiar to Northern Ireland and one that requires its own type of training, expertise, personnel and facilities. Will the noble Viscount give an assurance that these training provisions will be extended, not only to the staff members at all levels but also to the board members? The noble Viscount has already made reference to the voluntary workers connected to the service. Will he give an assurance that the fees, lost-time allowances and other matters will be met in connection with the training of both voluntary workers and board members? With these remarks, I wish to give full support and approval to the order.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I too would like to thank the noble Viscount for this introduction to this order. I wish to make only a few points and to put two questions of which I have given "Prior" notice—or perhaps I should word that differently and just say that I have given notice of them. May I also pay great tribute to the work in this field undertaken by the noble Lord, Lord Blease.

The setting up of a probation board will come as a direct result of the investigations of the committee under Sir Harold Black and it would be of interest to debate those investigations more fully at some other time. It should be made clear that, while the setting up of this board is considered a step forward, the work of the probation service in Northern Ireland at present is highly spoken of by those in touch with its members. At the same time, it does seem sensible—in line with Government thinking and that of my party—that management of Northern Ireland affairs should be passed to those in the Province where possible. "Community participation" is the expression which has been used and this is very much in line with Liberal thinking. In the present climate in Northern Ireland, with serious unemployment in many areas the need for an efficient probation service is, unfortunately, highly important.

The questions I should like to ask the noble Viscount, Lord Long, are these. First, it has been said in the other place that the numerical strength of the probation service in Northern Ireland has shown a substantial increase between January 1978, when its staff numbered 107, and January 1982, when it numbered 170. This was treated as a considerable achievement. Another way of looking at this is that it is a sorry state of affairs that the increase is necessary. Can the noble Viscount give the House the figures for offenders on probation at those respective dates, so that we can see the important contrast of the ratio of probation officers to offenders?

The second small point I would put is this. Under Article 14(2) it is said that any person who obstructs any inspector in the exercise of his powers under paragraph (1)—that is, the inspection of probation hostels et cetera—shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £25. For quite a serious offence is this really an adequate maximum allowable penalty in this age of inflation?

Viscount Long

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, and the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for the great interest they have taken in this very important draft order for the new Northern Ireland probation service. If I may go straight to the questions that have been asked, the noble Lord, Lord Blease, asked what is the position of the chief officer. The chief officer is, and will be, the professional head of the probation service. The board obviously will rely heavily upon the chief probation officer for the day-to-day management of the service and for professional advice on how the service should operate and develop. I hope that will help the noble Lord. One further point about the chief officer. It will be for the board to appoint the chief officer, but the Secretary of State's approval to the appointment is necessary. I hope the noble Lord will agree with that.

As to NIACRO and the unions, the various bodies working now in the probation field, and this includes NIACRO, will be invited to put forward nominations for membership of the board. It will be for the Secretary of State to decide who should be appointed. The noble Lord also asked about terms and conditions of service for staff, including pensions. There is a worry here, quite understandably. It will be for the board to agree terms and conditions of service with the staff associations, but any representative grade will require the approval of the Secretary of State. Both NIACRO and the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance were fully consulted during the preparation of the order, following its publication as a proposal for legislation. Both were fully in support of the concept of a probation service managed by an independent board.

I think that the word "rehabilitation" is one that may cause some uneasiness to probation officers. I can see that point. It was for this reason that it was avoided in the body of the order. The reference to it is in Schedule 4, in the context of the Prisons Act (Northern Ireland) 1953. I think there was a further question on the victims scheme, which I think the noble Lord was worried about. I have no doubt the board would wish to consider the possibility of participating in some form of victims support scheme. Obviously the noble Lord will not wish me to commit myself at this moment. I am also fully aware of the Bulldog scheme managed by the Inner London probation service. I can see no reason why the board should not consider introducing a somewhat similar scheme in Northern Ireland. Again this would be a matter for the board. I think the noble Lord was worried as to where this leaves the social service. The order is not concerned with the question of professional practice. This will be a matter for another day.

On the question of payments to members, as the draft order makes clear, payments to members will be determined by the Secretary of State with the approval of the Treasury. Once they have been determined it will be the duty of the board to make the payments. The intention is that the chairman should be paid an honorarium, and other members, including the deputy chairman, an attendance allowance. This is consistent with the current practice in Northern Ireland in regard to statutory boards.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for his intervention in this important debate. He asked me about the adequacy of the fine proposed under Article 14(2) of the order. The Treatment of Offenders (Northern Ireland) Act 1976, which introduced the offence of obstructing an inspector, provided for a fine of then £10. The proposed fine of £25 in the order, while still modest, is in line with other proposals for increases in fines generally in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord then asked me about the number of offenders under the control of probation officers in 1978 and 1982. The total number of persons on probation at 1st January 1978 and 1st January 1982 was respectively 1,165 and 1,550, there being an increase of about 33 per cent. I hope that information is of assistance to the noble Lord.

With regard to staff negotiations, provisional negotiations are now taking place between the Northern Ireland Office and staff, and I think most of those negotiations have been held already. There was an important question put by the noble Lord as to what role the board will be expected to play in the prevention of crime. One would hope that the work of the board and its staff generally will be directed towards a reduction in the incidence of re-offending, and thus help to reduce and prevent crime. Job training, education and provision of accommodation will all help in this respect, but above all the supervision of offenders placed by the courts in the care of probation officers should help in this important task.

My Lords, I have answered as many questions as I feel it is possible to answer, and I recommend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.