HL Deb 24 January 1990 vol 514 cc1138-56

8.5 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what are their plans for the future of the probation service.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in reflecting on the future of the probation service I pay a strong tribute to its remarkable achievements. I shall quote, with approval, a passage from the document entitled Probation: The Next Five Years. That document was published on behalf of the probation service in July 1987. It states: Over the last two decades the probation service has taken on major new tasks: statutory aftercare, including parole, probation work in prison and community service, as well as significant developments in its working approaches and methods".

The probation service can point with pride to great achievements and developments in the period 1979 to 1986. While retaining the confidence of the courts in probation supervision and negotiating its high success rate, the service has achieved a 48 per cent. increase in probation orders. That has increased its proportionate use from 5.7 per cent. of all indictable cases in 1979 to 8.4 per cent. in 1985. Eighty per cent. of people who commence probation complete it successfully. The figures available to me give the House a hasty, superficial picture in statistical terms of the achievements of the probation service. They can really however only be measured in much more human terms.

I, like others here, have at all times supported proposals to expand the role of the probation service, even with its present scale of commitments. I, like others, have always urged that more resources should be made available to it. I have a weighty document published by the Audit Commission. It is entitled The Probation Service: Promoting Value for Money. I shall not deal with that document today. It is concerned with the economics of probation. No doubt noble Lords will wish to consider the document on another occasion or possibly even tonight. However, I must deal with what I consider to be more fundamental aspects of the matter.

One would think that a bright future lay before the probation service. I believe that to be true. One would also think that members of the service would approach the 1990s in optimistic mood. That, I am afraid, is far from the case. It is that aspect of the problem on which I shall mainly concentrate. There is widespread apprehension, justified or unjustified, throughout the probation service. That is undeniable. I shall illustrate the situation briefly. I shall quote from NAPO News of October 1989 which states: This unifying theme of the government White Paper will be transition from punishment in prison to punishment in the community. The strategy is viewed by many in the Home Office as the most radical government policy on criminal justice since the war. Its success depends on the transformation of the probation service into an agency of social control.

I cannot speak for individuals, but the probation service as a whole is showing itself to be immensely suspicious of what that transformation might involve.

NAPO makes the point, with which I agree, that the success of the government plan will in any case depend on the co-operation of the judiciary. All progress in penal reform in the years ahead depends on inducing the judiciary, by whatever means, to send far fewer people to prison or to send them for shorter periods. I have said that ad nauseam in this House, and others have said the same.

Tonight I shall content myself with calling urgent attention to the programme of sentencing reform. It may be that my acting leader for tonight, my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs, will say more about the Labour Party programme of sentencing reform which has been set out in a new Labour Party White Paper on criminal justice. If that is not discussed tonight it soon will be in view of the number of White Papers and Green Papers coming from the Government. I should add that the probation service itself has recently published an impressive paper on sentencing in the Crown Courts.

I turn now to probation itself. In this House I and others of various parties have more than once expressed approval of the principle of punishment in the community. I cannot imagine a society in which those who break the criminal law are not liable to be punished. If we are to have punishment, as I am sure that we must, it seems to me that punishment in the community —which could be just as severe but much more constructive —is far superior to punishment in prison. There are other aspects of punishment, such as the deterrent effect, which I shall not discuss now. However, if we consider the constructive aspect of punishment, it can work much more effectively in the community than in prison.

I believe that if we set about it in the right way and all parties co-operate we should fairly soon be able to punish in the community 10,000 people who would be in prison under the present system. Can anybody say that in principle if that is feasible it would not be a good result?

Punishment in the community must be constructive. It must be meaningful to the prisoner. Above all, and now we come to the question of who will operate it, it must be compatible with the ideals and the values and traditions that have made the probation service admired so widely not only here but all over the world. That is the issue —how we can achieve that double purpose.

The probation service is very suspicious. On the face of it there may seem to be an impasse. Not only the Government but well-intentioned people like myself who have been concerned with penal reform for half a century are convinced that punishment in the community is the way forward. However, if the whole idea repels the probation service how do we move forward?

I have toyed with the idea of some other service. A new service —not the police and not the prison service —might be created to do the job if the probation service would not. I am sure that that is wrong and that madness lies along that road. Therefore we have to think of some way of securing the co-operation of the probation service in giving effect to what seems to me, in principle, to be good ideas put forward by the Government.

That is by no means impossible, provided no one stands on their dignity and we do not quibble over words. As an old university teacher, quibbling over words was for a long time my profession. A habit acquired early in life sticks. However, whether one calls it punishment or something quite different, whether one calls it supervision or surveillance, in the last resort it is important to reach agreement with the probation service as to how to go forward.

That is my message tonight. We —by which I mean the community, although I am speaking in particular to the Government who must act on our behalf—must find a way of giving effect to the idea that in the future thousands of people who have committed serious crimes (because people will go on committing serious crimes) will be dealt with in the community but in a way which the probation service will be proud to handle.

The probation service has achieved a great deal in the past. Perhaps its greatest achievement lies in the future if it can widen and deepen its vision. It is in that spirit that I have opened this debate tonight.

8.17 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, as the noble Earl has explained, this short debate is taking place when the probation service is at a crucial point in its history. Like the noble Earl I understand from press reports that the Government have it in mind to publish a White Paper and a Green Paper covering this very topic. I imagine that the Minister will not be able to say very much in advance this evening, not that that is entirely without precedent. This is however an opportunity to put forward views to which the Government will no doubt listen. We may also have the bonus of discovering what the policy of the Labour Party is, a matter on which I remain in some doubt.

I am conscious that much has changed in the probation service since I had some direct involvement with it. Some of the underlying problems about which I used to wonder have not changed all that much. Recent developments in the criminal justice field have now brought those problems to a head, as the noble Earl has so clearly explained.

I should like at the outset to pay my tribute to the dedicated work which men and women in the service have rendered over the years and are continuing to render. We have indeed much to thank them for.

All the same, it is a service with a number of somewhat remarkable characteristics. Although the Home Office provides most of the money, it has only a limited responsibility for saying how the service should operate. The local authorities put up a very modest proportion of the total but have a large share in settling the size of the service. The courts have no financial responsibility, but it is they who in practice decide how the service should be used. The lines of accountability are hazy.

The 56 separate probation areas and their probation committees can still to a considerable extent pursue their own separate ways. Although there is a great deal of good local experimentation and enterprise, the pattern varies greatly and the arrangements for evaluating those enterprises and making knowledge more generally available leave something to be desired. There can hardly be said even now to be an overall strategy.

Although a great deal of valuable work is undoubtedly done, for example, in preparing reports to the courts and in supervising discharged prisoners —a point crucial to the Carlisle Committee recommendations —the fact remains that in this country, as elsewhere in the world, it has proved extraordinarily difficult to evaluate the success of much of the work. The Audit Commission report to which the noble Earl referred suggests for example that over the past 10 years —it says over the last decade, but the decade has not yet ended —the fact that there have been more probation orders by the courts is mirrored by the fact that there have been fewer fines and other minor penalties, rather than because of any reduction in the number of those sent to custody.

There have been previous crises. I recall that, when we went in for prisoners' after-care and prison welfare services, there was quite an argument then for setting up a separate service or adding those functions to those of the prison service before it was in the end decided to entrust them to the probation service. When the committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Seebohm was considering the future of the local government social services, the rather rough people then in charge in the Home Office warned him off the grass so far as the probation service was concerned. However, I suspect that, if he had been given a free hand, he might possibly have recommended the course of action which has been taken in Scotland where, as I understand it, the probation service has ceased to have a separate existence and has been rolled up with the other local government social services. When community service was introduced here, there were some tremors about the probation service taking on any responsibility for something which has a punitive tinge to it. Even now, the individual who is required to undergo community service does not do so under the direct supervision of a probation officer.

I realise that the Home Office has for some time been wrestling with problems of financial control and accountability, the targeting of resources —to use the modern jargon —setting out objectives and principles and measuring performance. But the present crisis goes deeper than that, and I fear that it cannot be solved by the choice of suitable words.

The Government are, very properly, concerned that too many people in this country are sent to prison and have been looking around for new methods of treating offenders in the community, as they explained in their Green Paper Punishment, Custody and the Community which we discussed in some detail on an earlier occasion. That Green Paper has been followed up by experiments in, for example, electronic monitoring or tagging.

However, as I understand it, the Government believe that the courses outlined in the Green Paper will provide effective alternatives to custody only if they are regarded by the courts and the public as being not soft options but forms of punishment. The Government have given a clear sign that, if the probation service will not go along with the idea of enforcing sentences which, although they do not involve custody, are nevertheless punitive and intended to be seen as punitive, they are prepared to consider establishing a new service to administer those new penalties. If that happened, it would be inevitable that that new service would take over some of the existing responsibilities of the probation service.

I am not privy to Home Office thinking, but it would not altogether surprise me if there were contemplation that if, after all, those new responsibilities were entrusted to a refreshed probation service, it might be best to tackle the problems of accountability and inconsistencies between the different areas by going in for some form of nationalisation. After all, the Home Office could claim to have denationalised the national fire service at the height of the Labour Party's enthusiasm for nationalisation. What better department could there be than the Home Office for going in for a spot of nationalisation now? But all that is pure speculation and may be totally misconceived.

To return to my main theme, that punitive approach must be anathema to the ordinary probation officer, with all the traditions of the service since the early years of the century and its origins in Victorian times. It is not all that much of an exaggeration to say that the individual probation officer is likely to see much of his present responsibility as being to supervise the return to the community of one who has finished his punishment or, alternatively, as looking after the well-being of someone who has been entrusted to his care as an alternative to punishment.

It is a painful dilemma. On the one hand, can the probation service depart from its traditions and philosophy and accept that it should adopt a changed role in carrying out the Government's new policies of punishment within the community and face the prospect of substantial changes in its organisation if it agrees to go down that road with the possible benefit of more staff and more money; or, alternatively, is the solution to turn aside from the probation service and to create some kind of new service to discharge those novel responsibilities? If that second course is followed, would not the justification for a separate probation service be considerably diminished? Would not the arguments for following the Scottish precedent and putting the service along with the other local government social services be correspondingly strengthened?

I am the last person to underrate the difficulties, but I hope that the leaders of the service will in the end opt for the first of those hard choices and that they will be able to bring the individual members of the service to accept that decision.

8.28 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, it always gives me great pleasure to follow my old boss in any debate in this House, but particularly on this occasion, because the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, has made a particularly thoughtful speech, with the contents of which I agree without reservation. Like him, I welcome the fact that the noble Earl put down this Unstarred Question, although the debate is taking place only a relatively short period before the Government publish their White Paper on criminal justice policy.

I want to raise three issues tonight: first, the Home Offices's statement of national objectives and priorities for the service which was published in 1984 and the degree to which the statement has been accepted by the service; secondly, the further development of non-custodial alterations to imprisonment; and, thirdly —an issue touched on specifically by the noble Lord, Lord Allen —the relationship between the service and government. That seems to be a matter of exceptional importance at this moment for the reasons explained by the noble Lord, Lord Allen.

By way of introduction let me say that we are discussing these issues at a time when it appears that prison numbers may have peaked, for the time being at least. Nevertheless, the numbers still held in custody are alarmingly high, conditions in many prisons remain squalid (as was demonstrated in our debate on the chief inspector's report on Wandsworth Prison) and there is the clearest evidence that imprisoning defendants unnecessarily is likely to increase rather than diminish the future level of crime.

It is self-evident that these problems cannot be resolved unless we succeed in diverting large numbers of defendants from custody. That cannot be achieved unless the probation service enjoys the full confidence of the courts, has adequate resources and deploys those resources intelligently. That brings me to the first issue that I want to raise: the Home Office statement of national objectives and priorities.

As the noble Earl will be aware, the statement sets out three principal tasks for the service: first, the provision of reports to the courts, which may include reasoned advice on sentencing; secondly, supervising offenders subject to probation supervision and community service orders; and, thirdly, providing through care for offenders sentenced to custody and exercising supervision after release in cases where required by law. In short, the service is seen primarily, though not exclusively, as a criminal justice service.

The statement does not argue that the service's civil work should be entirely dropped. However, it says: The proportion of resources allocated to civil work should be contained at a level consistent with local circumstances and the foregoing priorities". I agree entirely with that view. I know that many probation officers do most valuable work in the civil courts. In some cases at least they often enjoy it a great deal more than work in the civil courts. In the civil courts they are often concerned with making extremely difficult decisions in highly sensitive cases and long hours of work are involved. But that work is performed entirely on behalf of the Lord Chancellor's Department because the Home Secretary has no responsibility for work in the civil courts.

I find it distinctly odd that the probation service should still continue to do this work without receiving any financial support from the government department on whose behalf it is working. I believe that this issue deserves a great deal more consideration than it has received in the past. On the wider issue —that is, the national statement —I should like to put to the noble Earl this question: are the Government satisfied by the response of the service to this statement of national objectives? It is a highly important document. When it was published it was welcomed unreservedly by many Members of this House in the debate that we had at that time.

However, the noble Earl will be aware that the National Audit Office, in its relatively recent report published in May last year, raised some serious questions as to how far the statement of policy made by the Home Office on that occasion had been adopted by the service. The issue is dealt with in paragraphs 2.9 and 2.12 of the National Audit Office report. I should be grateful for anything that the noble Earl could say on that point.

I turn now to the question of non-custodial alternatives to imprisonment, which we have discussed in this House on many previous occasions. I think that we all would certainly accept that community service has been an outstanding success. It was introduced on a trial basis by the Government of Mr. Heath. It was extended to the rest of England and Wales by the succeeding Labour Government, who also provided the resources for that extension. I believe that we all accept that it has been one of the most hopeful developments in penal policy since the war. I remember having a slight difference of opinion with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, not long after the extension of community service. We had an argument in this House about how many people had in fact been diverted from custody as a result of the introduction of community service.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, did my argument turn out to be right?

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I think that the evidence was ambiguous, as it always is when one looks at criminal justice statistics. I am sure that we all accept that many thousands of people have been diverted from custody as a result of community service. There is no doubt that without it the prison system might well have faced the breakdown which so many people have anticipated during the last decade. So much for community service.

I should like to ask about progress in two other areas which are highly relevant to the work of the probation service. First, where are we now so far as bail information schemes are concerned? I know that there has been substantial progress. Such schemes have been introduced in the areas of 50 magistrates' courts and I understand that extensions are planned. However, I think that one should ask how long it will be before these admirable schemes, which are undoubtedly having a beneficial effect on the size of the remand population, can be extended to the rest of England and Wales.

I believe that the Association of Chief Probation Officers estimated that in the areas concerned where these schemes have been introduced there has been a 13 per cent. trend in favour of bail in respect of defendants who have appeared in court for the first time. That is encouraging but I repeat that what we want to know is how long it will be before such schemes can be introduced in the rest of England and Wales.

Speaking entirely for myself at this point, I find it extremely disappointing that such schemes, which were introduced on an experimental basis in the 1970s, did not make greater progress. I am afraid that the reason for that was the strong resistance to the work of volunteers in the courts by many members of the probation service in the three experimental areas which were set up during the lifetime of the Labour Government. It was on narrow trade union grounds of that sort that these schemes did not proceed further. Unfortunately, as a result of that opposition many people went to prison unnecessarily. That is another reason why I very much hope that the probation service at all levels will be as positive as possible when reacting to policy initiatives —I hope well-meaning—by the Government.

The other non-custodial disposal to which I want to refer is far more controversial. It is the question of tagging. I know that many people in the probation service, and, it has to be said, outside it, oppose it resolutely —indeed, without any form of qualification at all. Yet were it to be established that tagging of defendants led to a situation in which fewer defendants were in custody, would it be right to continue to oppose in principle the introduction of tagging? My own answer to that question is: no, certainly not.

My noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge unhappily cannot be with us tonight. With his notable record in the field of penal reform, he has asked me to say that he would support the principle of using it for category C prisoners on the governor's recommendation and at the prisoner's express request, thus shortening the period of incarceration of the individual concerned. However, the case has still to be proved. Neither of us would support it unless there were clear indications that there was a serious prospect that it would reduce the number in custody. After the evidence from Nottingham, it is obviously right to proceed with further experiments before coming to a firm decision on the introduction of tagging in the remainder of Britain.

I come now to my third and final point: the relationship between the probation service and government. It is inevitable that there will be a row from time to time between the probation service and any government in this country. Of course there will be. It is altogether healthy to have vigorous arguments in public over questions of penal policy. But nothing would be more damaging than to allow these differences to lead to a situation in which the service threatened a policy of non-co-operation. In my view there have been far too many such threats in the past.

There was the fierce opposition —which was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale —by some members of the probation service at the time of the introduction of community service which has undoubtedly diverted thousands of offenders from prison. Al other times there were suggestions that they would refuse to supervise certain categories of offenders. And there was the folly —and it was folly —of the one-day strike ignored by the majority of members of the probation service, but undermining its reputation as a caring profession and, I fear, damaging itself substantially in the eyes of the judiciary.

In the situation that I have described there is certainly a corresponding requirement that government should listen seriously to the views of the service and not seek to impose highly controversial policies on an unwilling probation service unless there is clear evidence that the public interest so requires. I believe, as do both the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, that the probation service has immense opportunities before it. There is now widespread public agreement that our prison population is intolerably high and that steps must be taken to reduce it. The principal vehicle for that change can only be the probation service. It has been given substantial additional resources both by this Government and by their predecessor. I hope that the service will seize this moment of opportunity.

8.44 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, it is a very great pleasure for me to speak from the Front Bench in support of another attempt by my noble friend Lord Longford to bring attention to some improvements to some aspects of our penal or prison system. I am very glad —it has been echoed —that he gave such a well deserved tribute to the work and achievement of the very important and dedicated service that we are discussing this evening.

I was very interested, and thought it very relevant, to hear the noble Lord, Lord Allen, stress that the probation service was at a very crucial period of its existence. He then traced the movement of the probation service from its inception and described how it has moved towards taking on more responsibilities. That points to the fact that there is now the fear that the service is on a slippery slope and has moved too far away from the purpose which it took up in the first place.

From everything that has been said this evening, and from what we know, there is very little doubt that probation plays a vital role in our penal system. In such a debate as this it is important to re-assess the different parts of our criminal justice and the roles that they undertake in dealing with crime. First, we use custody in order to punish the offender, and —and many people think this very important —to provide deterrence, and a reflection of society's condemnation of wrongdoing. I believe that most people would say that the second objective —that of reflecting society's condemnation of wrongdoing —is achieved more effectively by custody than the first objective of deterrence. There is unequivocal evidence of a re-conviction rate of 60 per cent. within two years of those convicted for a custodial sentence. That is very high indeed.

Probation services start from the same standpoint: it is working towards a deterrence of offenders and therefore towards the protection of the public. However, they try to achieve the same goal but by an entirely different route. It is important that one approaches whatever the problem by a variety of different routes. The position is exactly the same if someone has an extremely bad headache. Some might take half a dozen aspirin and have a nasty stomach ache afterwards; and others might try to decide why they have a headache and to find some remedial system to deal with it and to prevent it happening again.

As has already been described this evening, members of the probation service are concerned that their methods of providing assistance, advice and supervision will be undermined through being asked to administer an additional system. It is described in the Green Paper, Punishment Custody in the Community; that is one of surveillance and monitoring. They feel very keenly from everything that I have heard that their traditional role must be kept entirely separate from the administration of punishment. The two should never be allowed to overlap.

The yardstick for the success of the probation service is impressive, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said, it is very difficult to evaluate. Nevertheless, the re-conviction rate among those following probation orders is 40 per cent. However, more significantly there have been studies that have shown that non-custodial sentences for comparable offences have a better result than prison sentences. There has been certain evidence that that is true. Moreover, the probation service is not convinced that some of the methods mentioned in the Green Paper, such as electronic tagging, tracking and intensive probation, will produce good results. In fact, they believe that they might even have the negative effect of increasing the number of breaches. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said —and I quite understand his point —with regard to the need for further experimentation with electronic tagging, he may agree with me that so far the experiment does not look very successful. As many as 60 per cent. of those tagged have breached already. That is a high level of failure. When one looks at the American experiment, it is significant that electronic tagging, although begun there, has been used extremely little. The probation service feels that the focus on punishment is already well met by the excessive use of custody, and that it is the alternative remedial services that it provides to deter re-offending which need strengthening. This is a view which has a great deal of support.

That is the first point; namely, that the Green Paper suggests that the probation service should be asked to administer a new order, thereby going down a more punitive path, in spite of the fact that the punishment process is utterly alien to the service's outlook. So the first question to the Minister is: what exactly do the Government want the probation service to do? On the one hand, the Government appear to be telling it that it is doing an excellent job; and, on the other hand, they seem to be suggesting a change in its traditional role. So it is a very valid point that there seems to be an inconsistency in the attitude of the Government towards the probation service and there is a lack of clarity on which I hope we shall be getting some answer this evening.

The next source of unease in the service comes from wondering what will be in the criminal justice White Paper and in the further Green Paper. This is most significant, for the service and the changes to its structure that might be contained are of immense importance. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen, has said, the Minister will no doubt tell us that we shall have to wait and see, that we shall have to wait for the criminal justice White Paper. But the anxieties as to the number of probation areas which might be changed and which will affect officers' jobs, and the fact that the level of Home Office control might change are of fundamental importance to the service. Therefore there is very little mystery as to why there is a great deal of undermining of morale within the service, which my noble friend Lord Longford mentioned this evening.

I should like to make two brief points in conclusion. First, I should like to mention the views of New Bridge, of which I am chairman, which was founded by my noble friend Lord Longford, and which carries out work which is supportive of the probation service through its befriending service and its employment service. An organisation which is a voluntary agency is able to go further, as it can be more innovative in its approach and its volunteers can also become more involved with the offenders with whom it works.

There is little doubt that New Bridge would be most concerned to see the probation service joining the punishment process, as it believes this would go right against the whole concept and ethos of the probation service which it as an organisation always has had. Moreover the Penal Affairs Consortium, made up of 16 agencies working in penal affairs and which now has a very strong voice, certainly recognises full well the difficult job facing the probation officers. Those agencies are organisations which are very well placed to do so. They acknowledge the important role in keeping down the number of people in custody which is carried out by the probation service, and all 16 agencies agree that there should be increased funding for the service. That has also been mentioned this evening.

My other brief point concerns the Labour Party's White Paper on criminal justice which my noble friend has already mentioned. They comment at length on expanding the probation service. They recognise the contribution of the probation services in providing effective and constructive alternatives to custody. They envisage an expanded probation service; expanding not at the expense of other alternatives to custody, which has so often been the case in the past, but taking an increased percentage of those offenders now in prison.

However, the paper adds that they feel that the service needs to communicate more effectively with other agencies and, in particular, with those who pass sentences, if it is to win greater acceptance of its approach to tackling offending. The paper also refers to the range of flexibile alternatives to custody already in existence, and how the availability of these options varies from area to area, and it states that the full range of non-custodial sanctions should be available to all courts.

It too, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned, talks of reforming the bail process and mentions the provision of more bail hostel accommodation, the establishment of bail information schemes at magistrates' courts throughout the country and ending the 28-day custodial remands introduced by the Government. There are many other points which it makes, but naturally I shall not go into them this evening.

Finally, may I ask the Minister whether he really will answer the questions put to him this evening? Will he also explain why the Government have adopted such a confrontational style with the service, as has been mentioned already this evening? Why instead do the Government not concentrate on strengthening the service by, for example, following up some of the Audit Commission's recommendations? That has also been put forward by all speakers this evening. Moreover, why do the Government also reserve so much criticism for the probation service and never find anything wrong with the judiciary? It, after all, plays a very important part in the criminal justice system and certainly comes in for blame from certain quarters. Again, the Labour Party in its document refers to its commitment to establishing a sentencing council.

So there has been clear agreement this evening that the probation service is vital, that it must be improved and not undermined, and that for the Government to stress the word "punishment" seems unnecessary, for everyone would agree that there is a punitive element already in a probation order. None of us would be particularly happy to serve a probation order.

So why are the Government insisting on stressing that word "punishment"? One can only believe that it must be because some element in the Conservative Party wishes to be appeased, that there are certain Back-Bench MPs who would like to think of there being punishment rather than another form of dealing with criminality. There are also certain ladies at the Conservative Party conference, and on the tabloids, which are very strong influences.

However, stressing the word "punishment" is completely indigestible to members of the probation service and goes right against their view of their traditional role. So I think all speakers this evening have said that they would like to see the probation service expanding if it is necessary to take in these orders, but that the confrontation really goes against some successful accord with the service. So we ask the Government to try to come to that accord, and I very much look forward to the Minister's answer as to what are the Government's plans for the future of the probation service.

8.58 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for having introduced this debate on the future of the probation service. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, said, as she sat down, that she hopes I would provide all the answers this evening. She knows full well that I will not provide all the answers this evening if there is likely to be a White Paper and a Green Paper in a short while. It would be more than my life was worth. But I shall do my best to answer such questions as I can, and to put your Lordships into the picture of how we feel the probation service is going and the sort of guidelines we feel it ought to follow in the future.

The probation service, as we all know, plays an important role in the whole of the criminal justice system. It is, after all, responsible for supervising all those offenders whom the court places on probation or on community service, and all prisoners who are released on parole. It is a very important part of our system. It is crucial therefore that the courts and the public should have confidence in the probation service and in what it does.

The basis of our present thinking was set out in the Green Paper, Punishment, Custody and the Community, published in July 1988. The document argued that those who commit serious and violent offences should continue to be sent to prison for long periods. We have ensured that tough sentences are available to enable the courts to do that. But the offences of some who break the law are far less serious and they could effectively be punished in the community. I believe that in general your Lordships would agree with that. However, I noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, did not believe that we should use the word "punish". Her noble friend Lord Longford had no hesitation in saying that he thought that people should be punished and that there is nothing wrong in punishing because it is giving retribution. Our view is that there is scope for doing that in the community.

The advantages of a community penalty are that offenders are not removed from society and placed in the company of hardened criminals. They can perform work of real value to society through a community service order. They can be made to discuss their wrongdoing and be shown ways of avoiding further offending by attending a day centre as a condition of a probation order, for example, and by remaining in the community. By doing so they are better able to learn self-control and take responsibility for their actions. In many cases a community penalty may be a more effective way of keeping them away from crime in the future than would be a prison sentence.

I do not believe that any noble Lord would disagree with that view. The probation service has developed a considerable degree of expertise in helping the offenders whom it supervises to come to terms with their offending behaviour and to see how it can be avoided in the future.

One of the aims of the Green Paper was to increase the number of offenders punished in the community as opposed to being sentenced to custody. In order to do that we need to convince the courts that probation and community service are not soft options. That entails developing methods of supervision which are appropriate for the more persistent but, nevertheless, less serious offender who at present goes to prison. That work is not dissimilar to the work already done by the probation service with the offenders under its supervision who otherwise would normally have received custodial sentences. It means that the officers in the probation service must put a greater emphasis on the control of offenders but not at the expense of their other skills.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, approved of the words "punishment in the community." The punishment lies in the restriction which it imposes on the liberty of the offender and the demands which it makes on him. A community service order may require an offender to give up many evenings and weekends when he or she would rather be doing something else. The work should be demanding and it may be difficult. A probation order may have conditions attached to it which require an offender to report to a probation officer at a day centre several times each week. It is not easy for anyone to have to face up to their wrongdoing and the effects which it may have on other people. It is a salutary experience to have to do so.

The Green Paper published in 1988 initiated a wide-ranging debate on the best way to deal with such offenders and the role of the probation service. We have considered the many responses that we received. As noble Lords know, and as the noble Lord, Lord Allen, reminded us, we hope to publish our proposals shortly.

As did every speaker, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred to widespread apprehension within the probation service. I hope that that is not so and I agree that we must find a way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, also referred to that matter, as did the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who hoped that the probation service would be as constructive as possible. I agree with him. The noble Lord also hoped that the Government would listen to the views of the probation service. Indeed, we shall.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, said that punitive measures should be separate from the work of the probation service. The effectiveness of our criminal justice policies depends to a large extent on the probation service. If punishment in the community is going to work —and we all want it to work —there must be a shift of emphasis and a new style of probation officer; that is, one who is conscious of his or her role as an officer of the court as well as of his or her traditional duty to advise, assist and befriend offenders. Those roles are not dissimilar but a shift of emphasis is required.

The probation service of the future needs to exercise authority and care over those whom it is called upon to supervise. The noble Lord, Lord Allen, asked whether there should be a new service and whether we should follow the Scottish pattern and allow it to become part of the local authority services. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, asked what the Government want the probation service to do and said that we must not be confrontational. It is not our desire to be confrontational but one cannot have a change in the system if one does not also have a change in attitude. As I have said, it is a question of shifting the emphasis.

It is not the view of the Home Office that there should be a new service, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Allen. We do not intend to set up a new service. But we should like to bring the working practices in every probation area up to the standard of the best. There is no point in destroying what is good. We see a considerable future for the probation service if it can grasp the challenge of carrying out punishment in the community—

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I wish to point out that the idea of setting up a new service was not mine but one that derived from the Green Paper.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I did not mean to imply that it was the noble Lord's idea. I meant to imply that he asked the question.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, asked what would be the impact of the statement of national objectives which was issued in 1984. The impact has been good. The Audit Commission said that, overall, the statement had a profound effect. It has accelerated the move from a service consisting of a loose network of independent practitioners to a much more coherent organisation with a clearer pattern of management.

The noble Lord also asked whether the probation service should receive financial support from the Lord Chancellor's Department for its civil work. The financing of the probation service is one of the issues concerning the organisation of the probation service which we will examine following the publication of the White Paper. I am bound to say that there are no plans at present to receive support from the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Both the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to tagging or, more appropriately, electronic monitoring. The success of electronic monitoring so far has been that the results of the pilot projects are coming through and are being carefully evaluated. We want to assess the results of all these experiments before we decide what the next steps will be.

I said that the courts need to have confidence in the value of what the probation service does; and so they do. We have sought to increase the courts' confidence in one sphere, through the introduction on 1st April 1989 of the national standards for community service. These represent an attempt to ensure that the best of local practice in community service is implemented throughout the country, and that a community service order will make consistent and tough demands on every offender who is sentenced to it. The evidence we have is that the probation service is changing in order to accommodate these standards and we hope that the courts will recognise this; but it is as yet too early to say what effect the standards have actually had on the sentencing decisions of the courts.

We have also tried to increase the confidence of the courts in the way in which the probation service deals with young adult offenders —those who are aged between 17 and 20 and who are at risk of going to prison.

Shortly after the Green Paper came out we issued a document called Tackling Offending, which urged local probation services to review their policies and practice in relation to this group of offenders —the 17 to 20 year-olds. We asked each probation area to draw up an action plan which would concentrate on those offenders who are most at risk of going to prison; provide individually-tailored programmes of supervision to address each offender's wrongdoing; aim at arrangements for closer co-operation with other agencies who are working in the criminal justice system; and monitor the results of probation efforts to see how effective the action plan is in diverting offenders away from custody and in reducing reoffending.

Most of the 56 area probation services have sent us copies of their action plans, and they are implementing them locally. Again, however, it is too soon to say what effect they have had. There will need to be other changes in the way in which the probation service operates. Many probation officers are themselves, I think, aware of this.

The recent Audit Commission report on the service identified some scope for concentrating the efforts of the probation service more specifically on offenders who are at risk of custodial sentences. The report also suggested that the service could make progress in demonstrating the effectiveness of probation programmes in reducing reoffending; in disseminating examples of good practice more effectively; and in aiming for more effective working relationships with other agencies.

Nevertheless, the service is in good shape, and its achievements over the past decade give us an encouragement for the future. My right honourable friend the Minister of State recognised this in a letter which he sent to the Association of Chief Officers of Probation just before Christmas.

The service is supervising more serious offenders. The proportion of those who are on probation and who are known to have had a previous custodial sentence has risen from 20 per cent. in 1979 to 36 per cent. in 1988. The number of offenders who are beginning probation has increased by 52 per cent. since 1979, while the proportion of offenders who were sentenced for indictable offences and who received a probation order has increased from 6 per cent. in 1979 to 9 per cent. in 1988. The number of offenders who are receiving community service orders has increased by 122 per cent. since 1979. The recent decline in the remand population —down by 1,200 in the 12 months to October 1989 —may in part be the result of the increased numbers of bail information schemes and bail hostels which are available.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, wondered whether I could give him any information on those schemes. We find it encouraging that bail information schemes are developing as well as they are. They are at present operating in 45 courts in England and Wales on a full or part-time basis and provision has been secured for schemes in more than 100 courts by April 1992. We are also examining how the bail information schemes and accommodation networks can best be integrated.

An extensive development programme is already under way to provide an additional 1,000 bail places at approved hostels by April 1993. I am glad to say that more than 150 places are already on stream. All this shows that more people are now serving their period of punishment in the community. In short, over the past decade, the probation service has dealt increasingly with more serious offenders and it has taken on a higher proportion of those who are sentenced for indictable offences. In my view, all that is good progress.

We are looking to the probation service to build on this in the next 10 years, and to draw confidence from its achievements to date in order to meet the new professional and organisational challenges which the future will bring. In all this, we recognise that the work of the probation service has increased greatly over the past decade. The probation service obviously needs sufficient resources to do its job properly, and my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made provision in his Autumn Statement for nearly 300 more probation officers and ancillaries in the year 1990–91. This is an increase of nearly 4 per cent. on current staffing levels.

Central Government expenditure on the probation service rose by 51 per cent. in real terms between 1979–80 and 1988–89. On top of this, we have provided for an increase in the specific grant which is payable to local authorities in support of capital and current expenditure on the probation service from £184 million in 1989–90 to £206 million in 1990–91.

It is important that the probation service of the future should have the resources which it needs in order to cope with the increasing demands which will be made of it. These increasing demands are, I suggest, a mark of the confidence which we feel in its capacity to do the important work for which it was set up. We have seen very considerable progress in what has been done. We hope that there will be more progress in the future.

I have done my best to answer the noble Earl's very important Question today within the constraints which inevitably apply. As the noble Earl knows, the Government intend to issue a White Paper shortly, and it would be peculiarly imprudent, and indeed unwise, of me to trespass on what it might say, and, even worse, to divulge it. However, I hope that what I have been able to say will at least have given some indication of the guiding principles on which it will be based.

The House will I know be grateful to the noble Earl for once again having displayed his assiduity and knowledge of a subject on which he is known to have such a keen and intense interest.

House adjourned at seventeen minutes past nine o'clock.