HL Deb 05 April 1995 vol 563 cc186-99

3.15 p.m.

Viscount Tenby rose to call attention to the Government's proposals for the recruitment and training of probation officers; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in moving the Motion perhaps I may say how grateful I am for having been presented with the opportunity of raising this subject now at the beginning of what is a comparatively short discussion period on the Government's proposals for the recruitment and training of probation officers. In passing, perhaps I may also say that I am delighted that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham has decided to make this debate the occasion of his maiden speech. I am sure that we all await his comments with the greatest interest.

Although, to some, probation may appear a somewhat specialised and peripheral part of the criminal justice system, that is not the case. Most disposals of criminal and associated matters are settled in the magistrates' courts. Perhaps here I should disclose an interest as a magistrate although I stress that the views I express are purely personal and in no way representative of magistrates as a whole. In all those courts, the probation service plays a critical and constructive role. But that is not all. It is also active in the higher courts, in prisons, and in after-prison care. Its presence is crucial in family court proceedings.

There are approximately 7,000 staff in the probation service, dealing with a variety of offenders, totalling some 140,000. That can be compared to the rapidly rising—the daily rising—prison population which now stands at about 51,000. The House will see the importance of the service and note its relatively low cost to the nation of about £450 million as against the £1.6 billion spent on custody. In short, the well-being and competence of the probation service are essential to the smooth running of this country's criminal justice system.

Over the past few years, the Government have succeeded in alienating, or at least irritating, most elements of the system: judges, banisters, magistrates, the police and the prison service. I gave thanks in my simple way that the probation service had at least been spared their attentions. That was a naive conclusion, indeed, for the proposals contained in the Government's recent review of probation officer recruitment and qualifying training have succeeded in uniting all relevant practitioners in opposition to them.

The basic propositions, which I put as simply as I can, are that the recruitment net should be cast wider to catch those who today might wish to become probation officers but who are deterred by the current restrictive educational conditions, and that training should be better suited to the work in hand. I believe that both objectives are ill-conceived and fly in the face of current facts and experience. There is no shortage of recruits for the places available. Incidentally, there are now fewer places following a cut of some £17 million last November in the budget. It is by no means clear that the service is losing out in obtaining the mature recruits who are said to be wanted. In 1993, for example, over half the recruits entering the service were over the age of 30 and more than 40 per cent. had had previous work experience.

We are left, therefore, seeking other explanations for the Government's intention to dismantle a system which all the other parties involved agree is working satisfactorily. I shall return later to that important point. Broadly speaking, the Government have said that their objectives are to free up entry into the probation service; to dispense with outmoded and unnecessary qualifications, linked to the broader spectrum of the social services; to make it possible for older and more mature applicants with already proven relationship skills to join the service; to close down the two-year courses at certain universities and transfer the responsibility for training packages to regional consortia within the service; and, finally, through those changes, to match service recruitment and service needs.

Given this far-ranging blueprint, one may be forgiven for thinking that the present service is in a bit of a mess, full of people of fashionable social service ideas and dogma, numerically unbalanced as between the various sexual, racial and class elements in our society, and indifferent to the presence of potential recruits of great experience clamouring to get in but unable to do so because they are not paid-up members of the social services club. That may be the perception in certain quarters where there is an inbuilt belief that the probation service is in some way soft, but it is a picture that I and, I suspect, many others do not recognise.

I have been a magistrate in Hampshire for over 20 years, during which time I have enjoyed the professional and constructive advice of the local probation service. I recall comparatively few occasions when I and my colleagues have not followed, at least in principle, the advice offered to us. Perhaps I have been lucky in that respect, but I do not believe my experience to be unique. There is no organisation in the country that does not bear repeated examination; nor is there one which, with a tweak here or a bit of fine-tuning there, cannot be turned into something better. If there are faults in the probation service and all are agreed on the diagnosis, let the matter be remedied. No doubt in such a frame of mind the Home Office invited the Industrial Society to review probation recruitment and training last summer. The society's verdict was: Our research suggests that the probation service is very effective in the training and recruitment methods it employs. None of the professions we looked into had better links with the education bodies delivering the training. It is those links the Government propose to sever. Although the proposals are up for discussion over the next seven weeks, the relevant universities have already been informed that courses are being discontinued in October 1996 at the start of the academic year. That is what I call consultation!

In passing, it is extraordinary that the Government should seek to discontinue courses without the knowledge upon which one expects such decisions to be based. I quote from the Dews Report, the internal Home Office scrutiny conducted after the Industrial Society's survey: In allocating the quota of sponsorships to different universities and colleges the Home Office has no systematic information about the quality of different courses. Why on earth not? Is that not the kind of information on which one bases any decision relating to such courses and whether or not they should be continued? The government discussion paper makes clear that the discontinuance of university courses and the consequent obligation upon probation officers to obtain a diploma in social work will help to reassure those of mature years seeking a second career in probation that such an ambition will not be unduly delayed in future. That fear may be present, but the fact that currently more than 50 per cent. of diploma in social work students are over the age of 30 scarcely supports the theory.

On the other hand, it may well be the case that the increase in the number of mature women who apply—I am aware that in some quarters there is a feeling that at present there may be rather too many of them for a proper balance—is due to the fact that, with the removal of the training salary in recent years and its replacement by university grant, not unnaturally some men of mature years with family obligations simply cannot afford to make the financial sacrifice.

One thing is sure. The elimination of the requirement to obtain a diploma in social work will undervalue probation officers, run the risk of discouraging high-calibre entrants and, most seriously of all, pose the threat, with the removal of university standards of excellence—particularly marked in the case of the probation service—of a fall in standards throughout the service at the very time when they are most in need of rising.

Because the implications of the many new criminal justice Acts which pour from Whitehall in a seemingly never-ending stream will require new skills, it is argued that probation officers should not be tied to predetermined university courses. But one of the matters that distinguishes the relationship between the teaching at these universities and the needs of the service itself is the practical co-operation between the two parties that is so effectively overseen, as required by statute, by the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work. In September of this year yet more changes will be brought into effect in the syllabus—I believe for about the third time in recent years—to take account of government requirements and recent legislation.

It has been said by some—and the point may be made again today—that it is unnecessary for probation officers to have such a diploma when it is not mandatory in the wider field of social services. But that world encompasses a vast range of services of varying skills. It would be neither practical nor useful to make it a blanket requirement in such circumstances. On the other hand, the work of the probation officer is precise and highly specialised. The demands that it makes upon its practitioners can be adequately recognised and measured only by structured higher education and the award of a diploma. I cannot emphasise enough that that is of critical importance in ensuring that the work is validated by an outside body.

It is only too easy to condemn proposals across the board. I shall try to be helpful in the few areas where that may be possible. The idea of regional co-operation between probation areas is a constructive one, which I feel sure can benefit the service. But if the Government are hell bent on making some changes, if only to indicate action in response to a perceived shortcoming, I beg them not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Why should easier entry for mature recruits preclude people who wish to pursue a long-term career in probation from obtaining a professional qualification? I say to those who fear that the two streams cannot exist side by side and that it will create a "them and us" divisiveness that they must have the courage and imagination to try to make it work.

I must refer in passing to the proposals issued in the middle of last month by the Government in relation to community sentencing. If implemented, they will raise the number of criminal justice Acts to about seven since 1986. One is almost tempted to think that the Home Secretary must be on a productivity bonus—or not, as some may feel. The proposals are not part of the present debate but if they are implemented they must have considerable repercussions on a probation service already trying to come to terms with the changes we are discussing, if the Government are unwise enough to pursue them.

I made the point earlier, to which I promised to return, that we should perhaps look elsewhere to discern the real reasons behind the Government's proposals. Indeed, the gaffe—if I may use the appropriate vernacular—has already been blown by a newspaper article at the end of February. That article called for the recruitment of more ex-servicemen and women as a means of instilling greater discipline into the service. Such new recruits, experienced as they are, will not naturally need some airy-fairy social service diploma; indeed, its requirement will be a positive deterrent to men and women who are bursting to get up and go. Perhaps I may again pray in aid Hampshire. Since it is the home of the Army and the Royal Navy, it has more than a passing knowledge of ex-servicemen and their many attributes. I am delighted to say that some already serve in the local probation service and are much valued. Do you know what they say? They say that, although their previous experience has proved useful to some degree, nothing they have done before quite equips them for what they have to do now. In view of the fact that their new areas of responsibility include drug and sexual abuse, family breakdowns and mental illness, that is hardly surprising, mercifully. Naturally, they have to receive extensive state of the art training in those areas.

In short, we are left with The inescapable conclusion that an entry and training system which has been refined over many years and which works, according to the Industrial Society and the people who have to implement it, will be dismantled, not through cost implications, for reasons of efficiency or because of a shortfall in numbers recruited, but as part of the ceaseless activity on every front which the Government so often mistake for a coherent policy on crime and its prevention. That policy will be damaged to a considerable extent if the proposals are implemented. I beg to move my Motion for Papers.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Carr of Hadley

My Lords, I must first declare an interest, in that I am president of the Rayner Foundation, which invented and founded the probation service and which has been much involved with it throughout its life. In that honourable position I had the honour to succeed the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, whose service to this country's criminal justice system is unique.

I thank, as I am sure the whole House will, the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for raising this subject. The probation service is not just an integral part but is a vitally important part of our criminal justice system. I imagine that the Government were already aware, before today's debate, of the dismay and the strong opposition which their recruitment and training proposals have caused within the probation service, and not just within the probation service itself but within many of our universities, and, collectively, in the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. My plea to the Government is to take those fears and objections very seriously indeed; do not, whatever happens, just dismiss them, let alone ride roughshod over them.

I am not for one moment saying to the Government, "Do not make any changes". Indeed, all governments have a duty to make changes if they believe that changes are necessary. What I am saying to the Government is that, in making changes, they should think deeply and clearly; discuss fully and carefully with those involved; and at least seek hard to arrive at some agreement before implementing them.

I am a strong believer in the need for change in changing conditions. Indeed, earlier in my political career I was a joint author of a book called Change is our Ally, but successful change needs to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Upsetting applecarts is not usually a good way to make progress.

How do the Government intend to proceed? I hope that we shall hear a detailed account of how they intend to proceed from my noble friend the Minister when he winds up. In their discussion document issued in February, the Government invited comments up to 26th May. That seemed to promise a reasonable opportunity for genuine consultation and discussion. But, as has already been said by the noble Viscount, in that same document the Government appeared to announce a firm decision—not for consultation—that after the beginning of the next academic year no further probation stream students would be sponsored through the universities.

If that decision is a firm and final one, it kills the present system stone dead. So what is there of substance left to discuss? It seems to show the offer of consultation to be no more than a sham. I do not believe that the Government intend to do that. I certainly hope not. So I beg my noble friend when winding up tonight to make it clear that there will be genuine discussions, which there cannot be if that decision is held over them as a final decision.

The present arrangement has been operating since only 1992 —barely three full years. Moreover, it is clearly still developing and changing in that evolutionary way that we want. Starting this September, I understand, it is intended to boost major developments within the current system; for university courses to be taken on a part-time, and not just a full-time basis; to be non-residential if required; to make use of distance learning; and for the system to make more adequate allowances for the previous experience of a mature candidate transferring in mid-life.

The object of those further developments—which are occurring within the system, not despite it, and helped by it—is to make it easier than it may be at the moment for older men and women who started life in all sorts of other careers to join the probation service if they have a calling to do so. I thought that that was just what the Government wanted, and want, to happen. It is happening under the present system and, with good will and a bit of a push, it can happen more and more. There is no need to upset the applecart in this way. So why tear up by the roots this relatively new system which is developing satisfactorily? It is particularly difficult to understand when the evidence provided to the inquiry conducted by the Home Office by the assessor that the Home Office itself appointed (the Industrial Society) gave the present system such an excellent bill of health. The noble Viscount mentioned some details of that.

So all, I thought, was going well and going in the direction of change which the Government believe to be necessary. Therefore I beg the Government to listen hard and to think hard before committing themselves too easily to this charge into the valley of such acute dispute with a profession so dedicated and united on this matter as is the probation service.

I see, and I understand, the changes which the Government seek. They want the age structure and the breadth of background of the probation service to be broadened. But I am convinced that they could achieve that successfully by developing and working on the present system and not by destroying it, with all the ill will that that will cause. So I beg the Government to think hard and to realise that what the service wants desperately and will fight to the end over is to maintain its genuine professional status, which means that the training must include a genuine higher education element and a qualification which is validated independently and not just by the employer.

3.38 p.m.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, in view of the limitation on time, as a precursor I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, whose analysis raised many of the points which would otherwise have taken time. I ask a question about the nature of this document. If the noble Viscount had not used the procedures of the House, would the House have had a chance to debate this discussion document? What do the Government have in mind? They were going to discuss the proposals with those interested. Were they going to discuss them with us? I congratulate the noble Viscount on giving us the chance to do that.

I want to talk principally about the nature of the discussion paper. I have spent some time looking at it in the past three or four days. What is it for? May 26th, and the discussion is over! Are all the points to be discussed and analysed? An administrative document—not a White Paper—written by civil servants in the Home Office is what has appeared. It is to be discussed within a matter of weeks. There are profound aspects of the matter to be discussed. As has already been made clear, a major change is to take place from the beginning of the next academic year. Can that be altered? The decision has already been taken. What is the point of discussing the matter? There are other points of discussion within the document. Is it a fait accompli? Are we wasting our time?

At page 17, paragraph 2.2, the document states: over a number of years there have been doubts in the Home Office … about … social work qualifications". Who in the Home Office has had such doubts and why have they not been declared previously?

The introduction to the paper, which does not augur well for the future, states: This review has been undertaken on behalf of the Home Office who were concerned". When before the war I was earning money as a pupil teacher I would have put a line through that straight away. But who were concerned about the matter? How can we analyse the situation unless we have the evidence? The report is only a partial analysis.

The report explains that 12 per cent. of the respondents—that is the probation officers—were of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin and that that is well out of proportion to the population as a whole. Only 12 per cent. responded. When I visit prisons I find a high proportion of Afro-Caribbean men. It is valuable to have Afro-Asian probation officers to deal with the problem.

The report states: A high proportion of the offenders are black". I thought that I detected a slight racial overtone, or undertone, in that. Whatever the situation in respect of the number of women, if there is a problem it should be attended to. One should not attempt to alter the situation by doing what is proposed in the document.

All noble Lords have received advice from probation officers and universities up and down the country, and I am grateful. I have received advice from the probation service in West Yorkshire, with which I have had close contact for the past 30 years. It is a good service and perhaps I may quote from a document that I received from its members based on their practical experience. Commenting on the point about younger people beginning their careers, the document states: Eighty per cent. of recruits are aged 27 or over and entering a second career". That does not sound like young people in the sense in which we are talking. As regards the issue of more military personnel and police officers being encouraged to join, those in the West Yorkshire service point out that many former Armed Forces personnel, engineering workers, police, company directors, prison officers and rugby league professionals are involved. It may be a good thing to have former military personnel laying the law down and I should not like to have the law laid down by a former rugby league professional.

The deputy manager of a hostel in Leeds—I know him well—is a former regular Army warrant officer. At present he is a quartermaster in the TA and he states: It took a while to adapt from military attitudes. Most of the men in this hostel don't want to be here. We are intervening in their lives and the way to change their behaviour is through advice and persuasion and not by ordering them about". If there is a weakness in recruitment and cost, do something about it. I do not find the document up to the standard that I expect from the Home Office. It is not a document on which to work out what to do. I do not have time to develop my argument at length but perhaps I may refer to a point which arises on pages 22 to 23. The report praises the work of the Central Council for Education and Training. Then it states: There is considerable criticism of CCETSW. One commentator described it as running a 'crusade for social reform' which (when combined with the internal politics of social work departments) led to courses more concerned with ideology than with teaching skills for dealing with offending behaviour". I hope that vice-chancellors read the document because there is a gratuitous criticism of university teaching by civil servants at the Home Office. I presume that they visited all the social work departments or perhaps they listened to this one chap, whoever he is. I ask merely for a chance for us to study the document. Can we not have a Select Committee? Can we not probe and ask questions about the document? It is not the way to make major changes after 26th May.

3.44 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I follow two former Home Secretaries and therefore I approach the debate with considerable humility. I wish to confine myself to training and the type of courses for probation officers. When I read the Home Office review of probation officer recruitment, it became clear that in approaching the review of training the Home Office was influenced by the thinking and development of national vocational qualifications. The aim of the qualifications is to test the adequacy of people for a job by testing their competence on the job.

I am very much in favour of the development of the national vocational qualifications. For my sins, I am chairman of the lead body for the administration of NVQs. Therefore, I am well aware of the difficulties involved. A major criticism, which is highly relevant to the subject we are discussing today, is that under the proposed system it is difficult to test the adequacy of the knowledge and understanding required by professionals for the jobs they undertake. That is the core of the matter.

The criticism has come from many sources. The noble Viscount may be aware, for instance, of the work of Professor Smithers at Manchester University. His is only one of many voices. They have raised the difficulty of finding out under this system whether people have an adequate knowledge and understanding.

What is the knowledge and understanding that probation officers require? There can be no doubt that, first and foremost, probation officers deal with human behaviour—in particular, human misbehaviour—in complicated social situations. Probation officers need to be trained to dissect, analyse and understand that human behaviour and the way in which people who have transgressed may be able to return to a normal law-abiding life.

Human behaviour and misbehaviour in social settings is the very stuff of which the studies of psychology and sociology are comprised. Those subjects continue to be studied in universities throughout the country and have been so for many decades. Probation officers need to be well drilled in those subjects. How can they be well drilled unless the drilling takes place in institutions of higher education? In such institutions continuing research is being undertaken and the various points of view, attitudes and studies can be discussed and challenged. Above all, those studies, which are essential and at the core of the work of probation officers, can be linked with their practical training on the job.

Such relationships between the theoretical study and the practical training are at the heart of good training in this area. That is being done well by university departments which have experience in the subject. Such linkage between practical training and academic study is of great value from both angles. The practical work illuminates the theoretical study; the theoretical study enables the practitioner to have greater insight into the practical sphere. There is no substitute for theoretical study in an objective higher education atmosphere together with its linkage, properly devised with the practical work.

Some people may say that such training in psychology and sociology is all airy-fairy stuff, that probation officers do not need it and that their job is a matter of common sense. Indeed, that thought appears to run through the report. If that is what the Home Secretary is saying, as appears to be reflected in the newspapers, he is in the position of the man who discovered that for all his life he had been talking prose. When the Home Secretary says that "prison works" and that what is required is "tough punishment" and "tough supervision" he is making a psychological statement, whether he knows it or not. We might call it "Howard's theory of deterrence". In a proper university setting, "Howard's theory of deterrence" would be examined along with all the other theories of deterrence and motivation on which psychologists and sociologists have been working for decades. He cannot escape from that.

It may be said also that on-the-job training is adequate. In the industrial field, where I have more experience of training than in the area of probation, that is well known as "sitting next to Nellie". There have been some extremely good Nellies. Our old apprenticeship system was based on sitting next to Nellie. The good Nellies did a very good job but the bad Nellies were a total disaster, and we all know they were. In my own experience, many years ago, I remember using a Nellie to train a new office worker. In that case, the Nellie was heard to say, "I discovered the best way to do this job. Why on earth should I tell her?" That is not an unknown attitude of the Nellies who are lumbered with training.

There is no substitute for proper training in the essential understanding of those enormously difficult problems. They are difficult because of the nature of human beings and they are difficult because of the extremely complex social society which we now have. I beg the Government to tear up that ridiculous document; to have proper discussions; and not to cancel the university courses until those discussions have genuinely taken place.

3.51 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham

My Lords, with all the buffetings that Bishops receive, I find it very restorative to be in such a polite and courteous place as your Lordships' House. Nevertheless, I make my maiden speech with considerable trepidation because I am all too aware of the wisdom that I find in the scriptures: As the work of the potter is tested in the kiln, so a man is tried in debate… Do not praise a man till you hear him in argument, for that is the test". With regard to this debate, I must declare a personal interest as a member of the Council of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders and as chairman, since 1988, of its Young Offenders Committee.

Today we are considering the recruitment and training of probation officers. That is a matter of concern not only to probation officers themselves, and not only to the people who are placed under their supervision and whose needs require a properly professional service. The public at large also has an interest in the recruitment and training of probation officers because of the public's proper expectation that offenders who are supervised in the community should be supervised effectively. Therefore, it is a matter of concern to us all that probation officers should be adequately and appropriately equipped for the exacting professional task which they are charged to fulfil on our behalf.

As we have already heard, the Government propose to make far-reaching changes to the way in which probation officers are to be recruited and trained. They want to ensure that a wider range of people than at present should be enabled to work as probation officers. That in itself is a laudable proposal as long as professional standards are not put in jeopardy. They also wish to remove the training of probation officers from the universities and so from their long established links with social work training. That is a more controversial matter which I shall not pursue today. Nevertheless, I hope that I may be allowed to reflect for a few minutes on what we know about the tasks which probation officers have to undertake; about the characteristics of those whom they have to supervise in the community; and about the skills and attitudes which are therefore required of them.

The work of probation officers is varied. They prepare reports for criminal courts. They undertake supervision of a variety of offenders serving community sentences or after release from prison. They have an important role in assessing the best interests of children caught up in divorce proceedings.

Their case-loads include large numbers of people with a multiplicity of personal and social difficulties. One in 10 has been in a psychiatric hospital. One in three misuses drugs. Half of them drink too much or are addicted to alcohol. Only about one in five will be in waged employment. Many of the others will be living in conditions of poverty. This is particularly true of some of the younger offenders in question, notably those 16 and 17 year-olds for whom no income support may be available.

It is of course true that we are talking about people who have committed offences, sometimes serious offences, and that crime deserves punishment. But most of those offenders will not have committed crimes so serious as to send them to prison, or if they do go to prison, it will generally be for a fairly short period. So whether they go to prison or not, they will soon be back in the community, and that is where they must be helped to learn to live constructively and without breaking the law.

Helping such people to live constructive lives in the community: that is the work of probation officers. It goes without saying that it is no easy task—responding to chaotic, disorganised people who will not do as they are told and who find it difficult to get up in the morning, let alone apply for work, attend interviews or keep appointments. They are people with little stake in society and therefore with little sense of responsibility to it or for it. Working with such people requires dedication, patience and skill, firmness and humanity, and proper professional expertise. Those are qualities to be found in abundance among probation officers. To do their work they need the kinds of skills which can motivate people, which can raise their spirits when life looks bleak, which can help them to take responsibility for their actions and which can encourage them to take opportunities to change for the better. It takes very special qualities to be able to exercise those skills day in, day out, with people whom everybody else has written off. It also takes a thorough and appropriate training.

Some of your Lordships may have seen the research which was published last year by the Policy Studies Institute into persistent young offenders. That small but intractable group illustrates at their sharpest the human problems which face probation officers. There is wickedness, yes, but there is also terrible sadness. That research revealed a picture of fractured and dispersed families, of weak relationships, of children seldom at school and, indeed, rarely in touch with the world of adults at all. Strengthening relationships with home, with school, with work, helping offenders to become aware of the consequences of their action—that is the stuff of work with offenders. It is demanding; it takes time; it does not always succeed. But unless such work is undertaken, supported and maintained, there is little prospect of young people turning away from crime.

I hope that there is no need to defend the importance and value of supervision in the community. There is plenty of evidence to show that supervision in the community can be effective in reducing re-offending and so protecting the public. I am told that a recent summary of research found that, while the re-conviction rates for community sentences as a whole are not strikingly better than those for custodial sentences, better targeted and organised programmes can make a considerable difference in terms of re-offending by as much as 20 or 30 per cent. Just as important, research has found that, compared with custodial sentences, community sentences do not generate long-term negative impacts on those who have been sentenced. By contrast, custodial sentences have been found to be linked to increasing social problems in the period following release from custody. That is not good news if we hope not only to respond to the crimes of the past but also to reduce the incidence of crime in the future.

For my conclusion I should like to be more overtly theological. All social questions are questions about the nature of human beings. They therefore, in the Christian view, have an inescapably theological dimension. Human beings are made in the image of God, and they find their true fulfilment in love for God and one another. It follows from this that we may write no one off. The image of God is indeed marred in every one of us, but it is also capable of re-creation by the renewal of relationship, trust, responsibility and love—but all at immense cost. If we write anyone off as beyond redemption or rescue, we are writing off not only our own flesh and blood, but the flesh and blood which, according to Christian faith, God made his own in the body of his Son. Next week the Church will keep Good Friday, which will remind us not only of the uncertainties of all human justice, but of the compassion and justice of God and of the true dignity of man.

That, in the end, is what we are talking about when we discuss things like the recruitment and training of probation officers. Probation officers need training which is appropriate to the true nature of a role which is grounded in our duty to the dignity, the frailty, the responsibility and the capacity of our own flesh and blood.

4 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, it is my privilege to congratulate and thank the right reverend Prelate on behalf of the whole House even though, with time being so short, I cannot say more than that his speech was a most impressive one, based on great knowledge. I hope that we shall hear the right reverend Prelate speak again in terms of equal quality, given—if I may be forgiven a personal note—the fact that we are both honorary fellows of the same Cambridge college.

The Oxford dictionary says that the characteristic principle of the Conservative Party is the maintenance of existing institutions, but I do wonder a bit when I think of local government, the police, the health service, education and, alas, the Civil Service. Now it is turn of the probation service.

In thinking about today's debate, I recalled that when some years ago it was decided, regrettably, to transfer the children's department from the Home Office to the DHSS, we had to consider what should be done about the comparatively small probation service. For a brief moment we even wondered whether we should follow the Scots, do away with it as a separate service and roll-up the duties with the rest of the social services—a course which, I imagine, would not have commended itself to the present Home Secretary. But, in the end, we concluded that, for England and Wales, it would be best to keep a separate service and develop a high level of training. After some experimentation, that is what I thought had been achieved. No service is perfect, and some of the criticisms in the Dews Report are perfectly valid. But there seems to be precious little evidence that, in general, the courts are dissatisfied with the service. I am glad to say that my noble friend Lord Acton, who is to speak later, will be able to give the House the fruits of the research project which the Government have so far declined to publish. Like everyone else, I read the blessing conferred by the Industrial Society. The Government tend to be a hit unlucky when they go for advice to outside experts.

I am not sure that quite so many people as might be supposed share this Government's passion for sending as many people as possible to prison, but there is probably some feeling that non-custodial punishments are a soft option. It is the Green Paper, not being debated today, which tries to address that issue. As regards today's topic, we are dependent on a newspaper report that the Home Secretary has said that he is looking for retired Army officers who would not stand any nonsense and would provide more discipline. A difficulty, though, is that no one will apply, or stay, unless he or she has some sense of mission. One does not take on the task of supervising a group of resentful youths clearing out overgrown ditches on a wet Saturday afternoon unless one really believes that it is all worthwhile.

Anyway, there is much more to probation work than community service, including the supervision of discharged prisoners some of whom are murderers who have served long terms in prison and who now have to re-establish themselves in the community. There is also the question of advising on the best interests of children in family disputes.

The trouble is that the individuals with whom the probation service is concerned are not just people who happen to have had a brush with the law. They can be drug takers, alcoholics, mentally ill, unemployed, homeless and possibly the victims of crimes themselves. To deal with such a variety of human behaviour calls for a high degree of skill and knowledge, perhaps going beyond the normal experience of an Army officer. It seems to me that simply to go back to direct recruitment, with in-service training leading to no qualification, carries great risks. It could discourage the good entrant so that we end up with probation officers who have had less training, who possess less skill and who are in greater isolation from other services in the community. The faithful in the party would no doubt greet with rapture any suggestion that life for criminals was to be made tougher. But the cheering would die away if one or two cases were to go badly wrong as a result of lack of expertise on the part of a probation officer.

I believe that the Government must take note of the fact, as we heard today, that two former Home Secretaries feel grave concern about the proposals. I am authorised to say that there is also a third Home Secretary who would like to join the other two. He is someone who happens to be president of a Welsh university which runs a successful diploma course. If, as I am sure, this is a genuine exercise in consultation, I join with others in asking the Government to think again.