HL Deb 16 July 1997 vol 581 cc1046-74

5.56 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

rose to call attention to proposed cuts in the Probation Service; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, we can all agree that this is an excellent and opportune moment to discuss these issues. Not long ago I put down a Written Question to the Minister who will reply asking what funds would be available to the Probation Service in the years to come. He said that the whole matter was undergoing prolonged and thorough consideration. I understand that there is an Answer to a Written Question today. I have been unable to see it. It announces something still more fundamental. However, the door is ajar so far as concerns government support for the Probation Service in the years to come. I understand that no final settlement has been reached. I am glad that the door is ajar. I hope that the debate plays its small part, and will be the beginning of pressure to push the door further open.

I am not one of those—and I am sure that there are not many on these Benches—who believe that any legacy left by our predecessors in government is bound to be unhelpful or possibly malignant. Certainly, my dear friend sitting at my side, my noble friend Lord Graham, is not one of those. For example, I believe that the economy is in rather better shape than usual at present. But we are not concerned with those matters today.

If, by some strange good fortune, we had won the election in 1992—I have no right to speak for my party except as a humble Back-Bencher—the Labour Party would have inherited an excellent and promising legacy in the penal field. The 1991 Act would have been recently passed—a culmination of rather slow but steady progress towards more humane treatment of prisoners and a more enlightened approach to prison sentencing.

That was not to be. However, I shall always remember with gratitude the efforts made by some Conservative Ministers. I think in particular of the constructive efforts in the penal field over a crucial period of the noble Lords, Lord Hurd and Lord Patten. But in 1993 something untoward happened. Mr. Michael Howard became Home Secretary. I do not think that one can ever blame one man for government policy. Nevertheless, that policy will always be associated with his name, and I daresay he is proud of it. I have called him the Prince of Darkness many times. However, I do not believe I have done any damage to his career. He is now, I understand, shadow minister for foreign affairs; so I am glad to say I have not done him any lasting injury. As I have said previously, his great talents will find alternative uses, and that seems to be in prospect.

Leaving aside personalities, let us examine the policy. It was based on the theory that "prison works", and that it works better if it is made nastier for prisoners. That policy was duly carried out, in total contradiction to the policies of the noble Lords, Lord Hurd and Lord Patten, and other Conservative leaders. The result has been a steady increase in the prison population. It has increased more than 50 per cent. in the past four years; and, if matters continue as now, an increase of some 20,000 in the next seven or eight years seems likely. That is the result, not of accident, but of policy—all the more so because, as I ventured to imply in a Question I asked the Minister yesterday, according to the late government (we do not want to dispute everything they say) crime has not been increasing in recent years. Nevertheless, not only has there been a remorseless increase in the prison population up to the present time, but such an increase is also in prospect. That is the result of that policy.

On the other hand, the Probation Service is to be cut. I shall not argue about figures; everyone agrees that it is to be cut. According to official figures the cut is not very severe; but it is definite and pronounced. According to the leaders of the Probation Service, the National Association of Probation Officers and the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, it is much more serious than it appears and is cumulative in its effect. People like Mr. Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers and leading representatives of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation would say that if this policy of steadily and remorselessly cutting the Probation Service were to be continued, the lasting effect would be overwhelming.

I shall give only one small example of the kind of thing that is happening. At present I happen to be visiting Wandsworth Prison twice a week. There were 14 probation officers at the prison; the number is being reduced to five. Those responsible for welfare are to be reduced to two. That sort of thing cannot be done without causing very serious damage to any idea of rehabilitation.

I give one other small personal example. A very remarkable gentleman, Mr. Bob Tierney, whom I have mentioned before, was in prison for 17 years and has now become a probation officer. That is a rather wonderful achievement in the circumstances. But what are his prospects? He has a one-year contract, and after that, who knows? That is what members of the Probation Service face today. Anyone who adopts such a policy will be doing lasting damage, not only to the Probation Service itself but to the whole future of social work in this country.

Since I prepared these remarks, there have been one or two announcements in the newspapers. The Lord Chief Justice has made a powerful speech. I shall not attempt to summarise it here, but we all ought to study it very carefully. I hope that he will not mind my referring to his remarks, as summarised on the front page of the Daily Mail. The article stated that the Lord Chief Justice says we send too many people to prison, and that prison does not work. The Daily Mail went on, of course, to denounce him. The Sun newspaper denounced him even more strenuously in a leading article under the heading, "Lock 'em up". That is the alternative. The Sun puts these matters a little more plainly than Mr. Michael Howard ever did. But "lock 'em up" is the alternative to the kind of policy pursued by the leaders of all parties, including, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who has become the chairman of a prison reform trust. If you "lock 'em up", you do not need a Probation Service.

We cannot duck the issue. There can he alternatives to prison. That is what is in the mind of the Lord Chief Justice. I was also glad to read in the Daily Mail a leading article headed, "Mr. Straw's U-turn". I suppose that if someone is praised for making a U-turn, it implies that he was not on quite the right lines before. However, I do not want to labour the point. I am delighted to hear that he has made a U-turn—although, again, the Daily Mail denounces him for making it. Either we associate with everybody who has ever been concerned with penal reform in any party, or we fall back on the policy of Michael Howard and say that prison works and to hell with a Probation Service. That is the issue. It cannot be ducked. I hope that everyone in the House will agree that there should be a larger role for the Probation Service and that the idea of cutting it is quite detestable.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

6.5 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, it is always extremely difficult to follow the noble Earl, Lord Longford. Not only do I not have his lengthy experience; I am afraid that I do not have his wit either. Nevertheless, he has done us a service by raising this subject today.

The context for the cut in probation finance is a Home Office three-year plan which assumes declining expenditure and that the service will, continue to respond to the challenge of improving operating efficiency without compromising standards of service. In other words, more has to be achieved for every pound. The current grant—excluding capital grants and credit approvals, grants for probation hostels and the money which comes direct from the Prison Service—which is the main support for funding probation, is to be cut by £11 million, from £331 million to £323 million between 1996–97 and 1999–2000.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, suggested that the degree of that cut is being described differently in different places. The baseline suggests savings, year on year, of something around 4 per cent. over the next three years. That target has to be achieved against a background of already substantially improved performance in 1995–96, during which efficiency savings of 5.2 per cent. were achieved; a reduction in real unit costs since 1991–92, of 12 per cent.; and staffing cuts, which have also already begun, of around 100 per annum in the next three years.

The Central Probation Council claims that in real terms, bearing in mind inflation, the overall resources will have declined by nearly 30 per cent. between 1994–95 and 1999–2000. If we take the probation committee which I have just joined, that equates to three years of cuts, in this year and two subsequent years, of £400,000—a total of £1.2 million in a budget related to that basic Home Office grant of around £6 million. So however we look at the issue, something is being done to constrain and reduce the amount of resources that are available to the Probation Service.

Yet the workload with which that service is having to deal is increasing all the time. Again, the Central Probation Council estimates that that increase is likely to be over 12 per cent. in the years 1994–95/1999–2000. It is true that the increase in community sentences is levelling off. But money payment supervision orders are on the increase; and perhaps that reflects a wish not to send people to gaol for debt default, as we discussed in response to a Question yesterday in this House. Combination orders are also increasing and that increase is likely to continue as the complexity of cases resulting in a community sentence increases.

The increased prison population also increases the potential caseload in the through and aftercare area. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, described the situation where the number of probation officers in Wandsworth is declining. In my own area, the contracted amount of probation work within prisons declined last year, no doubt reflecting prison governors' own budgetary pressures, but it is increasing again this year. In other words, it is a rather unpredictable element of the Probation Service's work. The Home Office exerts downward pressure on costs per case via its three-year plan. But, as one of my local Probation Service officers said the other day, it is hardly necessary as costs per case are bound to decrease if the number of cases rises and the amount of money available to deal with them decreases. One hardly needs a programme, when in itself it is a programme for reduced costs per case. Whether the quality of the work can be maintained as the cost per case declines is what most people are worried about.

Recently there was some pretty unhelpful publicity with respect to the Probation Service. On 2nd July there was a series of dramatic headlines. The Daily Mail stated: Killing and raping whilst on probation. The Daily Express said: Stop this scandal of prisoners being freed to commit murder. I do not believe that anyone actually frees prisoners in order that they may commit murder. Nevertheless that was the way the Daily Express put it. Even the Independent, which one thought might know better, had the headline: Probationers commit 'a murder a week. Again, that is not exactly accurate. Some probationers re-offend, particularly those who have recently come out of prison and are among the most dangerous people in the care of the Probation Service.

At any one moment there may be up to 200,000 people in the care of the Probation Service. If 100 of those re-offend during the year, committing serious crimes, it is extremely unfortunate for the people who are the victims of the crimes. However, in terms of risk assessment, it may not be quite as serious as the figures suggest when dealt with in the way that they were in the press. That material was released, I understand, by the Home Office in order to show not how unsuccessful the Probation Service was, but how successful it was. The way in which it was released was so unfortunate as to attract those remarks.

Again, if people who are dangerous are released into the care of the Probation Service—and about 15,000 of the 200,000 fall into the very dangerous category—under such circumstances, it emphasises the need to have a Probation Service which is fully equipped and able to deal with that level of care and responsibility.

A problem which attracts public attention is sex offenders released after they finish their term of imprisonment. I do not speak in this House or anywhere else on behalf of my party on these matters, but it seems to me that it might well be more sensible to think of a totally different regime for those kinds of offenders. It would take into account the fact that many are mentally ill and should perhaps be treated in a totally different way. They could be held in safekeeping until it is thought that they are safe to be released, rather than being kept in prison where they receive virtually no treatment and are then released after the term of their sentence.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, rightly pointed us in the direction of the alternatives to probation. I was lucky enough over the weekend to listen to a lecture given by a senior and respected retired judge. He pointed out a number of interesting things about the prison population which everyone may know, but I shall trespass on your Lordships' good will and repeat them. The numbers in prison in the last 40 years have risen from 21,000 to 62,000. The cost of keeping each prisoner in prison has risen from £5,000 per annum to £24,000 per annum. The re-conviction rate has risen, on average, from 16 per cent. to 40 per cent. within two years. The re-conviction rate for teenage boys is 80 per cent., but it is much less for other categories of prisoner.

Who goes to prison? Overwhelmingly it is young men who have a low educational achievement and a poor family background. The single biggest predictor of offending behaviour is the fact of having been in care. That amounts to the same thing since a youngster is not in care normally unless he has a dysfunctional family. People who go to prison are usually unemployed. In other words, they are precisely the people who have not received or not been able to take on board the education for parenthood and relationships which were the subject of the previous debate.

What happens to those people when they are in gaol? Education has been cut in many prisons. There is a lack of person-to-person contact and of encouragement and support for most prisoners. You and I, my Lords, can no doubt remember when our children or perhaps even ourselves (talking about some of our younger Members) would come home during our early adult life for restoration and support, with the general feeling that we could be where we wanted to be and behave as we wanted to behave. That is precisely the support which the young adult who offends does not have. Where can he—it is largely he—best get that support? Does it come to him in prison? I suggest not. But in community service, community punishment or community treatment, the offender is in contact with a supportive probation officer. He may receive very good training or work experience. He may be able to attend a day centre where he receives help with his psychological, emotional and personal problems. Such help is not always available in most prisons. Speaking personally, I would have supposed that it is more cost effective, in terms of the total overall cost to the community of a continuous offender, to do as the noble Earl suggested; that is, to encourage the increased use of community sentencing and to discourage the irrational increase in the number of prisoners who currently serve at Her Majesty's pleasure.

6.19 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, yet again the House and the nation are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for providing a platform for dialogue with Ministers. It is timely, urgent and crucial to the penal estate and to the nation. Normally we spend time trying to convince the Minister that there is a case to be answered, but I do not believe it is so today. It is certain that this Minister understands very well the case that was made by previous speakers. I want to appeal to him and his ministerial colleagues on hard headed, pragmatic, value-for-money grounds.

We are talking about an underestimated, under-appreciated aspect of public service. Although we are talking of the Probation Service, I include the Prison Service. Prison officers and probation officers do not get the credit that they deserve for what they do. It is one of the dirty jobs in society and in the main they do it without complaining and without blaming anyone else. One of the purposes of tonight's debate is to give them some encouragement and support that in the House of Lords they have friends who understand the problems.

Perhaps I may tell the Minister what I have been advised in briefing. There are very significant statistics. I am told that a prison place costs £24,500 a year to maintain; a probation order £2,270; and a community service order £1,700. So, the cost of prison is 11 times that of a probation order. I realise that the gravity of the offence, the nature of the individual and the sentencing policy all play their part in those statistics. But I hope that the Minister would take the line of trying to move toward reducing that disparity. Currently, it seems that all too easily people who commit offences and deserve to be punished are sent to prison, rather than not being sent to prison and other means being used to punish them. I was delighted to hear from the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that there has today been a broad announcement to the effect that a review will be carried out—a not unfamiliar phrase from this Government over the past three months. I hope very much indeed that that review will produce something realistic which will he of benefit.

This debate takes place against the background of a horrific rise in the prison population. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, mentioned that increase. My statistics indicate that on 17th January this year the prison population stood at 57,000. That was the level of the projected average prison population for the financial year 1996–97. By the year 2000, the average prison population is projected to be 66,000. That is horrendous. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, when he held the position of Home Secretary, saying that a prison population of 42,000 was intolerable.

We have sought to solve the problems of an increasing prison population by creating more places in which to put offenders rather than by trying to find means and methods of reducing the number of those who deserve to be incarcerated. I believe that that is a very sad reflection on us all.

I sought advice on that puzzling situation and the first thing I was told was that, although it was a dramatic rise, to be fair it could not have been foreseen precisely. When I asked to what it was thought the increase was due, I was told that it was the greater use of custodial sentences by the courts, particularly the Crown Court, and an increase in the average length of sentence from 19.8 months in the period from October 1994 to September 1995 to 21.6 months in the period October 1995 to September 1996. So, that is the action of the courts.

The consequence of the previous Government's policies has meant an intolerable strain and pressure being put on prison officers and probation officers. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, referred to those consequences. Less money, more work to be done and fewer people to do that work mean that the people doing the job have heavier case loads. Let me repeat some of the noble Baroness's statistics. It is estimated that between 1994 and 1999 2,750 probation officers will have been lost from the probation service. That represents 19 per cent. of the workforce and is an enormous number. So, 80 per cent. of those who were doing the job now have a workload not of 100 per cent. but of 120 per cent. That is quite intolerable. The workload has increased by 12.4 per cent. As for resources—we all know that ultimately it is resources and their deployment which are the answer—they have fallen as well. Those policies have had a severe consequence on the workload within the probation service.

What has been the consequence on probation officers, especially those whose service is in prisons? Probation staff in prisons carry higher case loads and are expected to produce more court reports. Again, that is reference to what the noble Baroness said. Caseloads are expected to rise by four to five on average but in some areas they could rise by more. Early retirement and redundancy schemes will be introduced in at least 60 per cent. of probation services. That is almost a cop out. It is understandable that people under such pressure find it intolerable and seek a way out by means of redundancy and early retirement. We cannot blame them. But that is not a solution to the problem of the penal estate. Let me say again that prison officers and probation officers are much maligned. They deserve our support.

What does all that mean in practical terms? I have been sent a note from the publication Probation Staffing, Home Office, April 1997, which states: There is growing evidence of job substitution. Probation officers are being replaced in courts with non-trained or administrative staff and in some areas court cover is severely restricted. Many noble Lords have experience in this field. When I had the proud privilege of representing the interests of prison officers I went into about 32 prisons in five years, in order to familiarise myself with the nature of prison officers' problems. At that time—I give full credit to the previous government—there were three prisoners being held in one cell. Officers were faced with the slopping-out procedure; and police cells were used for prisoners. It was a horrendous situation. Conditions improved vastly over a period, which I cannot define, but there are now signs that we are slipping back. A great effort was made to make sure that only one person occupied a cell but we are now told increasingly that there is doubling up (that is the term used) and trebling up. We shall never return to the slopping-out procedure and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and her colleagues for taking up that matter as a top priority.

In up to a quarter of the area offices have been merged or closed in order to save on revenue or capital costs. As a result, those on supervision have to travel greater distances and many will find it harder to keep appointments. That is the fall-out from taking neat accountancy and Treasury-driven decisions which produce as an answer a bottom line that balances. But the consequence is a poorer quality of service and rehabilitation.

During the time that I used to visit prisons, it was a great sadness to find that, because of a shortage of officers, the education service had been restricted and employment opportunities reduced because of the lack of supervision. Prisoners who are incarcerated are entitled to receive the best that can be provided to rehabilitate them into the outside world and of that they were being denied.

All that has had a disastrous effect on the probation service in prisons. During the past financial year, over 80 of the 650 seconded probation officer posts in prisons have been lost. In the past year, 12 per cent. have disappeared. The need for those posts has not diminished; indeed, it has increased. There were 15 per cent. fewer probation officers seconded to prisons at the end of 1996 compared with the end of 1995. As a result, fewer courses aimed at preventing reoffending are run and the quality of through-care and rehabilitation will deteriorate. That situation is patent and obvious.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister, from his vast experience in and around the penal estate, will understand the reasons for our concern. It is our good fortune that he is there to carry those concerns into high ministerial discussions in order to bring sanity into the dangerous world described so graphically and compassionately by my noble friend Lord Longford, to whom we continue to be beholden for this opportunity to debate the issue.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that this is what I call a benign debate rather than a malignant one. It recognises the problems, though we do not have real solutions to them. However, if we can encourage the Minister, when he discusses these matters with his ministerial colleagues, to take from this House and this debate steps that can be taken—hints of which have appeared in the press over the past few days—to reduce the prison population and, above all else, to increase and maintain the quality of the service of the probation officers for those unfortunates who need it, he will do this House and those who need that improved service a great benefit. We shall all be grateful to him for that.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Masham of liton

My Lords, I congratulate and thank the noble Earl on having this timely debate. There is real concern that the Probation Service is to be cut when its workload is at an all-time peak. The demand is clear. The Probation Service can supply the expertise to reduce crime if government funding allows it to do so. Will the economics balance out?

I too have a few figures and I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am not right. Over the five years—1994–95 to 1999–2000, the probation situation is: workload increase, plus 12.4 per cent.; real terms cut, minus 29.4 per cent., which equals £114 million; loss of staff, minus 19 per cent. Probation areas offer excellent value for money in the fight against crime. The average cost per prison place, per year, was £24,500 in 1995–96. The annual unit cost of a probation order at that time was £2,270; that of a community service order—the Probation Service's most commonly used order—was just £1,700 in the same year. That means custody costs were 11 to 14 times those of probation intervention. Probation intervention is extremely economical and effective in reducing crime.

A consultant who works with many of the 54 probation services nationally stated recently that he had never seen the service under so much pressure, with staff dealing with increasing numbers and cases of increasing seriousness. In North Yorkshire, where I live, they are undertaking a root and branch review of all their business processes to seek to fund efficiency savings. They remain one of the most underfunded services against the cash limit formula. The formula has been in place for several years but the correction factor between the better and worse funded services has been slow to correct the imbalances.

The five probation services—Gwent, North Wales, Derbyshire, Cleveland and North Yorkshire—are now in discussion with the probation associations about speeding up the correction process. The 17 per cent. by which North Yorkshire is short in its budget amounts to around £3 million to £4 million in revenue budget terms and would purchase over 30 additional members of staff to assist with the enormous demand of supervising offenders to national standards and working with couples in dispute over their children.

North Yorkshire operates a detailed risk management policy whereby every offender and family court client is screened for risk to the public. Where serious concerns are identified, risk management meetings involving the police, social services and others are called which have, on occasion, resulted in the recall of the offender to court or to prison. In that context, it was not helpful for the Home Office recently—if it did—to pass to the press a circular outlining the collection of "serious incident reports" from the 54 probation services. That revealed that around 180 offenders nationally had committed serious or grave crimes while under formal supervision to the Probation Service last year. Those statistics demonstrate the kind of difficult and demanding people who are involved and ask questions about how far the service can be expected to manage risk in the community.

There is a link with the ever-increasing prison population and the workload of the Probation Service, since everyone serving over 12 months leaves prison under the supervision of a probation officer. That supervision of prisoners returning to the community offers a number of safeguards to the public. Now that the Prison Service and the Probation Service are linked under one Minister—Joyce Quin—there will be a more automatic triggering of probation resources when the prison population changes?

I have the honour at the moment of chairing an inquiry into girls in prison. The inquiry visited nine adult women's prisons where girls aged under 18 are also held. We found in every prison that the probation department was struggling to provide a service at all, let alone something resembling what was required. Most departments had suffered recent cuts, reducing the number of probation officers available in prison. For instance, in one prison they had just lost their senior probation officer, resulting in there being no probation line manager within the prison.

On average, we found that there was one probation officer for every 100 women. They often have to deal with a whole range of different groups with widely varying needs—lifers, sentenced prisoners, remand prisoners, vulnerable prisoners, deportees, mothers and babies and young offenders. With such a low ratio of probation officers to inmates it is impossible for them to cater for all those different needs. In addition, overcrowding is putting the uniformed staff under enormous pressure which has meant, among other things, that the personal officer scheme is not operating properly in most prisons.

Personal officers are supposed to deal with practical problems faced by the prisoners; for instance, sorting out problems relating to their housing on the outside or issues to do with children. In reality they often do not have time to do that and the job falls to the probation officers, leaving them with little time to work with the prisoners as they are trained to do. Most probation officers we spoke to rarely did individual work with the prisoners and, if they did, they could not commit to regular sessions. That was not good for morale. The most they could do was to organise group personal development courses. However, even those were not always possible. One probation department was only able to offer one course for lifers and nothing else.

In another prison, where 50 per cent. of its population were young offenders, there were no courses for young offenders because the probation officers—two officers for 250 women—simply did not have the time. The upshot of that situation is that regimes in prisons are becoming less and less rehabilitative. Prisons are becoming places where prisoners are simply contained and controlled until they are released. This means that re-offending rates will increase. If no meaningful work is done with people while they are in prison there is an increased chance that they will offend again, resulting in more victims, more expense for the public purse and another person wasting more life in gaol.

I read recently that the Home Secretary intends there to be more work in prison. That is excellent news. On one visit to a prison some time ago the inmates told me that when they made things they were then broken up in order to re-use the materials. That must have been soul-destroying. On a visit to Italy once I saw an excellent prison shop. Perhaps I may ask the Minister: will there be prison shops here? That would give prisoners a challenge. I have always felt it to be a dangerous situation when prisoners are locked in their cells for many hours. The devil finds work for idle hands.

I hope the Minister will be able to tell us tonight that there is a good future for the Probation Service. We in North Yorkshire would not want to see reduced the skilled staff who are working with offending behaviour, sex offending, conflict and violence, vehicle crime and the drug action teams.

6.41 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity given to us by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, to debate the effect of a reduction in funding for Probation Service activities.

While I never worked in a probation service I have worked in the Scottish criminal justice social work service and as a prison social worker. The integration of offender services within the social work departments was a keystone of the Kilbrandon Report. The single door approach has been maintained over the past 28 years. The generic caseload has comparatively recently been altered into the form of specialist teams within the 32 social work departments. Indeed, that was an inevitable adjustment. Funding of qualifying offender services is 100 per cent. by the Scottish Office. This variation is, for me, an example of the inappropriateness of trying to pretend that the United Kingdom can be run as a unitary state. Clearly, we have here, in Hong Kong parlance, one country, three systems.

Moving on from the constitutional argument and returning to the world of probation, I wish to focus on the nature of the work and the effect that a reduction in the service must have on the professional task. The main thrust of the probation officer's work ought to be seen as behaviour modification. That work will he effective if, and only if, the probationer has built up a working relationship with the probation supervisor. In most cases, "working relationship" is an inappropriate description. For most probation clients, nothing really happens until they have transcended the professional or compulsory nature of the working relationship and moved it on to more personal terms. They need to have accepted their supervisor as a person in spite of the professional relationship. That is, of course, not true of the probation worker's position. The relationship must remain professional for the supervisor, though it is bound to have the appearance of a more personal relationship.

At this point it may be helpful to recall a description of my humble efforts to build a professional relationship with a prisoner I shall call Robert, which is not his real name. He was about to come out on licence, at two-thirds of an eight-year sentence at a young offenders institution in Scotland. His faith in social workers and YOI licensed supervision was less than nil. He had spent five-and-a-half years fearing licence and expecting to be recalled as soon as sufficient evidence had been "manufactured". He blamed his previous social worker for recommending a substantial sentence in the pre-sentence social inquiry report. The initial meeting at the prison looked like a waste of time. Social workers were not just "unhelpful" and "useless"; they were worse. However, some store was set by my promise to see him again before his liberation. The second visit was pretty much the same. But the fact that I had come back as promised was credited to me. When he was liberated I believe that the licensed supervision grew to be positive. Certainly, it was not the negative experience that Robert had feared.

The point of the last few sentences has to be this. Building a working relationship with probationer clients is not something that can be rushed. Unless it is achieved, very little else can be achieved. Certainly, the terms of the various orders can be explained and supervised administratively. But the relationship is the basic foundation building block. It is as fundamental as the three Rs in education.

As the probation services are asked, rightly, to take on ever more complex work, so the funding ought to be expanding to provide the opportunity for this new work actually to happen. But that is not the case. Budgets are contracting and caseloads are increasing. Opportunities to intervene meaningfully are therefore contracting. Each case is a new and unique entity. Building that relationship cannot be rushed or treated as a timed process, just to be shortened by a wee bit.

I conclude my remarks by asking how long the public will continue to be persuaded that better public services can be provided for ever lower taxes. Public intellectual resistance to taxation decreases in the light of publicised targeted spending. The public will come round to see that quality services can be delivered only for the full price. Discounted schemes are bound to be less effective and ultimately seen as a deception.

I realise that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, did not plead with the Treasury for less money. I do, however, regard the fiscal strategy adopted by his Government as being unhelpful. I must hope that the probation services can survive this cutback in their socially useful operation.

6.48 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I have almost no credentials for taking part in this debate other than that my wife is a trained probation officer and worked as a probation officer for many years in Peckham and Camberwell, two rather difficult areas, if I may put it like that, of London. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Longford on, first, winning the ballot and, secondly, on winning it at a particularly important time. Over the past few days we have heard about the rise in the prison population and about the need to consider disposals other than custodial sentences. We know that court orders for probation are rising. As my noble friend pointed out, this does not seem to be the right time even to consider cuts in the Probation Service.

I mentioned that my wife was a probation officer. She emphasised to me even this morning the point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, about youth crime. It is all very well to say to a young tearaway that he should go to prison, Borstal or have a custodial sentence, but as the noble Baroness rightly said, there may be a parental problem. There may be a relationship that needs to be established. Unless such a young tearaway is sensitively handled by a probation officer, he or she can easily become a hardened criminal, particularly if he or she is sent to one of those great schools of crime, Her Majesty's Prisons. This is not the moment to consider cuts in the Probation Service.

Leaving aside the importance of coaching young tearaways away from serious crime—I do so with some reluctance because I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas—the truth is that virtually all high-risk offenders who are already known to the courts, the police, the prisons, and the psychiatric services come to the Probation Service at some time. Whether or not they get parole, they are released on licence from prison and those who do not get parole (on the grounds that they are too much of a risk or are too dangerous) will be released and go immediately to the Probation Service. Even severely mentally disordered offenders are still put on probation by the courts as are, for instance, offenders addicted to drugs. In the light of that, this is not the time to cut the Probation Service.

So, what is happening? The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, described it very well. If the Home Office three-year plan is not modified by the new Government, by the year 2000 the budget for the service will have been cut, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said, by well over 20 per cent. in real terms compared with 1994. The total caseload, on the other hand, is estimated to rise by some 10 per cent. during the same period. It does not take much imagination to realise what the result will be. The result will be that the higher caseloads will mean lower quality and hence more danger to the public. Higher caseloads will mean loss of morale among officers, overwork and the consequent breakup of their own family situations. Higher caseloads will mean more re-offenders. All that is against the background that was described by my noble friend Lord Graham and by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, of a cost of something over £24,000 per annum for a place in prison as opposed to a cost of about £2,500 to supervise somebody on probation. It really does not seem to make sense.

I do not think that we should forget that probation officers work without any protection and often, as your Lordships will appreciate, in circumstances of great physical danger. We hear a great deal about the risks of service in the Armed Forces and the police—and rightly so—but in many cases, more numerous than is realised, probation officers are the unsung heroes of our society, using their training and skills to keep offenders from committing ever more crime and at substantial personal risk. They deserve our thanks and our support but, above all, they deserve a fair deal. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will assure the House that they are going to get it.

6.54 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I join other Members of your Lordships' House in saying how greatly we are indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for giving us this opportunity to discuss the Probation Service. As noble Lords will recall, we are returning to a subject that we have discussed previously in your Lordships' House—in fact, twice in the past two years. Today, as on previous occasions, Cross-Bench concern has been expressed about the present situation. Today we have focused, as was the intention of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, on the further cuts, but I believe that we could take the debate a little wider and consider the future of the Probation Service as a whole.

In the debate on the Address on 19th May, I said—I hope that I may be allowed the vanity of quoting myself— I hope also that the Government will spare a thought for the future of the Probation Service".—[Official Report, 19/5/97; col. 160.] I also said that the changes made in recruitment and training had been strongly opposed in your Lordships' House and that they could easily be reversed and quite soon.

It would be unreasonable to ask today for a major statement of government policy—and, if I asked, I certainly would not get one—but perhaps I may cast a small pebble on to the Government Front Bench. Whatever review has been announced today, we must be careful that such reviews do not become an excuse for a difficult decision postponed. There are some welcome signs of a more open, sympathetic and realistic approach to prisons policy. Ms Joyce Quin, the Minister of State in another place, has started well and is rightly earning good opinions. As has been said, it is a comfort that the Probation Service comes under her. However, we must remember that it is often possible to make a preliminary decision and not to postpone a decision indefinitely for a full review.

Perhaps I may make a suggestion to the Minister with regard to the recruitment and training of probation officers. On coming into office, Ministers could immediately have asked their officials for an assessment of the objectives and validity of the changes introduced by the previous government, taking account of the views expressed by the then Opposition, and for a statement about how far the process of change had gone and how best it could be reversed. A summary report could easily be in ministerial hands within two or three weeks. There would be no need to go to Cabinet. It would enable Ministers to give us an indication at least of the way in which their minds were moving. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will not simply rest on a review as a justification for saying nothing of substance today.

My second small pebble is the hope that policy changes will not be announced or made by means of extra-parliamentary winks and nods. Policy changes should not be announced elsewhere. I noticed, for example, in the Observer last Sunday (13th July) that a front page headline read: Stop filling jails, Straw tells judges". In what was an obvious briefing, there was a reference to, a reversal of the hardline 'prison works' rhetoric he [Mr. Straw] adopted before the election". If that was indeed a briefing and if we have to draw the conclusion which the Observer suggested—and that would be sustained by an interview given by the Home Secretary on "World at One"—I hope that we shall have a plain Statement to Parliament on prison policy and, if not today then very soon, a plain Statement to Parliament on the future of the Probation Service.

On 7th July in the other place, the Minister of State, Joyce Quin, answered a Question from Miss Widdecombe on what discussions the Home Secretary had had with Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons about a possible merger between the Prison and Probation Services. The Minister of State who replied, Ms. Joyce Quin, said: None about a merger". Later she said: We have made no decision about a merger".—[Official Report, Commons, 7/7/96; cols. 603–604.] Can the Minister clarify precisely what that means? Is a merger an option that is being considered by Ministers within the Home Office? Currently, I am an agnostic on the issue. There is no catch in my question. It would be consistent with the Government's wish for more open government if one knew that at least the possibility of a merger was currently being looked at.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, my noble friend Lady Thomas and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred to the figures available in the three-year survey of Home Office expenditure. I make a simple summary of those figures. I refer to the last year for which outturn figures are available, 1995–96. In that year the Prison Service cost £1,329 million. There were then only 50,000 inmates—happy days. The Probation Service cost £400 million, with a total caseload of 183,500. I render those figures in the following simple way. For less than one third of the cost the Probation Service takes care of more than three times as many offenders. If that was true on the basis of the 1995–96 outturn figures I believe that it is true today for the figures anticipated in the last financial year and also the current year.

I do not make too much of such a comparison because I am aware that I do not compare like with like. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of evidence in those figures that the Probation Service is good value for money. If the Home Secretary really means what he says and that we should stop filling our gaols, then, as noble Lords have said, there will be a much larger role for the Probation Service and it will need more resources. I understand that in the current financial year it would be difficult, consistent with the declared policy of the Government, to reverse the cuts. Although they may appear to be small in real terms—I believe that they amount to £10 million between two successive years—I hope that the Minister will give some indication that possibly those cuts will be reversed, at least for the financial year 1998–99.

I found the review of the Probation Service published in the Home Office annual report profoundly disappointing. It had none of the humanity which I believe such a document should contain. Ten achievements were listed in paragraph 9.10 for the year covered by the report (1996), of which four were concerned entirely with financial and administrative achievements: extended activity sampling; investigation of unit cost variations; continued implementation of the computerised case record administration and management system; and the Home Office had pursued the possible use of private finance for the provision of Probation Service accommodation. I do not minimise the need for good financial control and administration, but I wish that among the achievements of the service in 1996 something more positive had been said about what the Probation Service exists for and how far its objectives had been fulfilled.

I looked for greater enlightenment at The Three-Year Plan for the Probation Service. I was very disappointed. At times I found it incomprehensible. It is full of aims, priorities, standards, goals, targets and KPIs. I was sufficiently unfamiliar with the buzzwords of current management jargon that I had to reflect awhile on the meaning of KPIs. I now understand that they refer to key performance indicators. It was a difficult report to follow, and certainly not reassuring. It was very difficult to find the word "rehabilitation", to which the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has referred. It contained no flavour of what the Probation Service did and why it existed. I could find only one short sentence in 49 glossy pages dealing with what were called new qualifying training arrangements for probation officers. That was the only reference that I could find to the matters that we have discussed twice in your Lordships' House to which we attach the greatest possible importance.

I recognise that the Probation Service will require the careful attention of the new Government, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, who said that probation officers were the unsung heroes of the penal system. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, it is an underestimated service. It is unglamorous but very important. I believe that if we do not give it the resources that it needs we shall come to regret it.

7.6 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I also join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Earl for initiating the debate. I was given the name of one of the maidens of darkness during Michael Howard's period of office at the Home Office. During that time the noble Earl and I had many happy times together.

As a result of time constraints the debate must concentrate solely on the Probation Service. This means that the interesting debate about early intervention, crime prevention programmes and the importance of parents, schools and partnerships within communities to address pre-offending and diversionary programmes cannot be addressed. Indeed, these issues were discussed recently in another debate in your Lordships' House, which remains on the record. The Probation Service was established to pick up the pieces after all else had failed and people had offended. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. There is often unfair criticism of the Probation Service and a lack of appreciation of probation officers and their work when they are the people who are called upon to deal with some of the community's most difficult problems. I therefore place on record both my appreciation and acceptance of the centrality of the Probation Service and its work and of community sentences in the criminal justice service.

The question implied by the Motion—the future funding of the Probation Service—is a matter for the Government. As is publicly known, the Government have agreed to continue with the planned spending totals of the previous government and not vary departmental totals for at least two years in this Parliament. It is also publicly known that areas of additional spending already planned by this Government as and when money is found have not so far included the Probation Service. Funding of the Probation Service is set out in the Government's expenditure plans and The Three-Year Plan for the Probation Service. More money has been devolved to the area committees and there has been, and continues to be, heavy investment in new technology. That factor should not be overlooked when considering the scope for efficiency savings in the search for better value for money. Officials in the Home Office—a number of whom I recognise from where I stand—will be aware of my frustration at the speed of progress. I hope that the new technology for the service in both equipment and training is almost complete.

In this debate there has been much exaggeration of the statistics. I leave the Minister to use the official Home Office statistics when he comes to reply to the debate. I was privileged to have had the responsibility for the Probation Service during my time at the Home Office. Contrary to common perception, we regarded the Probation Service as an important part of the criminal justice system. Effective community sentencing and supervision of offenders following release from prison is essential.

The Probation Service is expected to ensure that community sentences provide a tough, demanding punishment which is effective in reducing crime. In carrying out that work, it must have regard for the safety of the public, which involves effective risk assessment, enforcement and the management of offenders and their programmes. The Probation Service is also charged with improving the quality of service and making the best possible use of resources. National standards were introduced in 1992, and revised and republished in 1995 in order to strengthen the supervision of offenders.

The standards required of community sentences are that they are demanding as punishments; that supervision is rigorous; and that offenders are returned to court promptly if they fail to comply with the requirements of the sentence. We believe also that, wherever possible, parents should be involved in the process of reforming young offenders. Where the courts, Probation Service, parents and families work together the chances of success are that much greater. I have seen some pretty impressive work done by the Probation Service in co-operation with those groups in the community. They have worked well in diverting people away from crime.

Of course, where parents do not co-operate, the courts have the powers to bind them over; to require them to attend court; and to order them to pay fines or compensation arising out of their children's behaviour. A novel community sentence has been undergoing, and continues to undergo, what appear to be, on the evidence to date, successful trials. It has the potential to make a substantial contribution to sentencing, and could have the effect of helping the Probation Service. I refer to the curfew order by electronic tagging. I am pleased to say that the Government have dropped their opposition to that policy. I believe that they are now convinced that the technology is working and that it could make a contribution to community sentencing.

The Conservative Government Green Paper Strengthening Punishment in the Community was widely circulated for consultation. For a long time community sentences have been a secret garden—known and understood by the courts and the Probation Service, but not by the general public. There is a range of orders: probation orders; community service orders; a combination order; a curfew order; an attendance order; a supervision order, all of which address the varying degrees of seriousness of offending, suitability, and degree of restriction of liberty, plus of course the age of the offender.

The Green Paper introduced the proposition of a single integrated sentence to replace the range of sentences. It would then be a matter for the courts in open court—it is important to emphasise open court—to address the sentencing needs appropriate to the offence committed. The main elements to be addressed included punishment in the community, restriction of liberty, reparation, and the prevention of re-offending, which of course includes rehabilitation. In that way, the offender before the court, instead of having a sentence meted out in terms of hours, weeks, or years, and then awaiting a visit to the probation officer to find out what it meant, would know the length of the sentence and what was expected of him or her at the time of being sentenced. That would result in a more transparent system and would go some way towards enabling the public to know the effect of the sentence. The hope was that it would dispel the perception that a community sentence is a soft option.

It is true that much of what the Probation Service does is effective, but it must be said that programmes exist where it is hard to see the challenge to the offender, physical or mental. There are some programmes which fall short of the best. It must therefore be in the interests of the Probation Service itself that public attitudes and perceptions of the service are improved and that the serious work of the service is more publicly appreciated.

In my view to some extent the Probation Service has always been its own enemy. That is a point I shared with it on many occasions. Happily the service is opening up. It is subject to rigorous standards and systematic inspection, both on performance and across the whole service on a thematic basis. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, was so scathing and indulged in some scoffing about being concerned about monitoring the standards of the Probation Service. The public want to know about the quality of the service. It has to be measured. He does not like the jargon words "key performance indicators", but they are important. They are set out in some detail in the document. Without some understanding of where the best practice lies, and learning from best practice, the service will not improve. As a result of the national standards and introduction of key performance indicators much improvement has been wrought in the service.

The inspectorate performs a great service. The reports on the performance of the Probation Service which have been produced by the inspectorate over recent years have been material to the improvements in service delivery. Having said that, there remains considerable scope for further progress to be made. The Green Paper to which I referred, and the consultation which followed, resulted in some interesting pilot demonstration projects. They were designed to show how far changes in approach by the courts and the Probation Service, acting in accordance with the principles set out in the Green Paper, but within the current law, might increase public and sentencer confidence in community sentences. It was the previous government's intention to keep any possible new legislation which might be needed as a result of those projects under review. So anything the Minister can say about those projects, and the future of the service on the basis of those projects, will be helpful.

A statistic which continues to concern many of us is the reconviction rate for those who serve prison sentences compared with those who serve community sentences. I am afraid that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, underestimated the figures on reconviction rates. Over half of all those who are sentenced to prison or community sentences re-offend within two years. Over recent years, the reconviction rate for community sentences has been slightly higher than that for those who serve prison sentences. I make nothing of the slight difference. It is so slight—something between 1 per cent. and 2 per cent.—that one could almost say that the reconviction rates are about the same, whether offenders serve prison sentences or community sentences.

I wish to make a number of points. First, the reconviction rate is too high both for prison and community sentences; and, secondly, the community sentence reconviction rate should be much, much lower. Those sentences deal with a lower category of crime and prisoner. That will continue to be a great challenge. We all look forward to progress being made in that direction.

A "what works" approach to evaluation was introduced while I was at the Home Office. The key to improvement will lie in the degree to which effective practice is identified, properly evaluated, properly recorded, and learned from. Results from changing to more effective programmes as a consequence of that information, will be important and critical to improvements in the service.

One reads in the press of a possible merger between probation and prison service officers. Until one knows the detail, I shall refrain from commenting on hearsay, but that is how we usually hear about the Government's policies. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, the contempt the Government have so far shown for Parliament is regrettable. We hope that such statements will be made to Parliament and not by Mandelson's PR machine to journalists.

I do not comment in detail on any merger, but there are territorial difficulties between the two services, particularly in the area of shared responsibility for prisoners before release. Some of the reduction in numbers of probation officers in prisons, which has been referred to by a number of noble Lords, is not just a matter of finance, it is a territorial dispute between the Prison Service and the Probation Service. I know that Home Office officials are looking at and monitoring that carefully. I left the Home Office before we had any results of that monitoring, but no doubt the Minister will have more information about it. But this area needs to be addressed and I know that Home Office officials are aware of that fact.

The through-care work that is done by the Probation Service is among the most onerous and dangerous and, I must say, it is also the most effective work. Whatever changes are envisaged, that work must not be neglected. Indeed, it must be nurtured. I find it difficult to see how the two services could merge' without the utmost difficulty, not least to address the issues of education and training and the cultural differences between them.

As regards the vast sums of money which it is said can be saved, as recently claimed in the media by a Government Minister, that will cause great consternation in both services. I shall be most interested to hear about the vast sums of money which can be saved from such a merger. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, at this stage I shall keep an open mind.

As regards training, I personally invested time and energy developing for probation officers a system of training of the highest quality. Progress was frustratingly slow and at times I was concerned about what appeared to be a reluctance on the part of those involved in developing the project to address the fact that the Probation Service deals predominantly with offenders. Although there is an element of preventing re-offending and of rehabilitation, which is essential to the work of the probation officer in effective supervision and management of punishment programmes, the fact that it is dealing predominantly with offenders must be reflected in the training schedules. I have no wish to disregard family court welfare work, which the service carries out so well. However, the basic training for entry into the service must prepare probation officers for the core work, which is the effective management of community sentences and the post-supervision of prisoners.

Ministers and noble Lords opposite spent much of the past 18 years exhorting the previous government to spend more on almost every service. Day in and day out, they were critical of levels of expenditure by the previous government, as is the noble Earl, Lord Longford, today. In government, as the Minister has learnt quickly, life is very different. Resources available for expenditure on services will always be limited. How the money is spent, the effectiveness of services, the quality of the output information rather than an obsession only with the input of resources are all important factors. However successful prevention programmes are, there will be a major role well into the future both for prison places and effective community service.

The dramatic change in the Labour Party during the past two years in accepting more and more of my party's law and order policies is to be welcomed and will command our support. The noble Lord finds that amusing. Almost on a daily basis he is concurring—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I find nothing amusing. Someone was whispering in my ear.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I misread the body language. I shall pose only one question to the Minister. If he responds to the thrust of tonight's debate in a way that panders to what I believe was being asked by most of those who have spoken in the debate, can he tell us this? Of those who would be sentenced to prison, who would he diverted to community programmes and what category of offender or offence would qualify for such a diversionary programme?

7.23 p.m.

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

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl and all those who have contributed to our discussions tonight. The Probation Service has developed significantly during the past decade. Savings have had to be made and they have not been comfortable ones. I wish to say at the beginning of my short remarks that I endorse what was said so graphically by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and reiterated and reinforced by other noble Lords.

The Probation Service and the work that it does is valued and appreciated. I can say that having had long experience of it both in practice prosecuting and defending in criminal cases and, not without significance and of great value in terms of experience, in sentencing as a trial judge, I know the valuable work that it does and I know the difficulties under which it labours. It is vital that if community sentences are to be available to the courts they and the public are confident that those sentences are effectively carried out.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked a question, saying that if I were to pander—a curious word—to what had been demanded I should be obliged to say of those prisoners who now go to prison, in which detailed category, which would be dealt with by alternatives. I believe that in our country sentencing is a matter for the courts. The Government's duty through legislation in Parliament is to provide alternatives. It is not possible to answer that question in a considered way because it does not focus on the point. The Government are determined to provide that the courts have at their disposal a range of effective sentences in which there will be public confidence.

I believe that the probation service will have a good future because it is essential as a component of our penal and criminal justice system. It is certainly true that community sentences have in the past been regarded as a soft option. One must recognise the proposition that sometimes they were a soft option, often because of delays built into the system, so that a community service sanction ultimately seemed of no effective matter to the offender. That is a situation which the Home Secretary promised to attack almost from his first day in Queen Anne's Gate.

It has been said by a number of your Lordships that one needs to have resources properly allocated and properly considered. I understand the slight tease from the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, about KPIs. One cannot spend millions of pounds of public money without having some testing. I am hound to say, both of us probably coming from a similarly philistine background, that when I first encountered KPIs before going to Queen Anne's Gate I thought that they were management mumbo jumbo. In fact, when one examines them one sees that they are not, because one must discover what is the most effective use of public resources.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, said that this is intended to be a benign debate. I take it as such. I cannot repeat too often that these debates ought not to be the occasion on which to try to score party political points and I hope your Lordships will hear none of that from me tonight.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said that announcements should be made to Parliament where at all possible and I entirely agree. That is why I am happy to say that today my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made an announcement to Parliament in another place in the form, I believe, of a Written Answer when he announced the review which is to take place. It is to take place on the following basis. All noble Lords know that there is on hand a comprehensive review of all Government spending. The Home Office review, which my right honourable friend announced, is looking at other options for integrating the work of the Prison and Probation Services in England and Wales. I regard that as an entirely prudent, sensible approach.

As has rightly been observed, the two services have grown in different ways. They have a different history and they had different purposes to attend to when they respectively came into being. The Home Secretary believes, and I am sure that he is right, that it is time to have a review into how they interrelate. They have different management and organisational structures, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, pointed out. But the point underlying the philosophy of the review is that they deal often in turn with the same individual offenders. They have the same aims of protecting the public from harm and of bringing about the rehabilitation of offenders.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, was a little unkind to the three-year plan because if one looks at Goal A in paragraph 2.2 and then casts an eye through pages 11 to 13, there is a good deal of material which can, as the noble Baroness said, be read only in the context of rehabilitation—the critical success factors identified, crime reduction on release, post-release licences, employment and training work and physical and mental health problems. I think that the noble Baroness made a good point that that is all in the context of rehabilitation and can mean nothing else.

Therefore, the review will attend to various options. I was gratified to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said about my honourable friend the Minister responsible for prisons and probation. I think what he said is generally recognised and it is a benefit to have my honourable friend looking after prisons and probation in that way, not simply because of her quality as a Minister but because it is more appropriate that it be done that way.

We do not wish to waste time. I shall specify the parameters of the review in a moment. It is intended originally to be an internal review which will provide options for the Home Secretary's consideration by the end of November. I do not believe that to be an unreasonable timetable. The initial part of the review will be internal to government with a view then to wide consultation when credible options for improvement have been identified. It is not the case of one service taking over the other. The question is what areas of work they have in common; how they can better help each other; and how they can better serve the wider community, which both wish to do.

The terms of reference are: first, to identify and assess options for closer and more integrated work between the Prison Service and the Probation Service in England and Wales, including any implications for the structure, organisation, management, working practices, human resources, funding and legislation governing the functions of those services. Further, it is to examine international models reflecting good practice and to identify any lessons concerning the effectiveness and efficiency, organisation and management structures exhibited by those models. Perhaps I may say that in the past, I think we have tended, in that area and others, to be rather too insular and to believe that there are no lessons to be learnt from overseas experience. We wish to put that right. Thirdly, we also intend the review to provide a preliminary analysis of the options identified, including estimated costs and benefits as a basis for consultation.

That is a step of practical utility. It is time limited to the end of November for the Home Secretary and thereafter open to the widest possible consultation. I recognise readily that we shall get nowhere in these difficult areas without consultation with those most intimately affected; namely, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, the Prison Service and Probation Service.

As regards money, it is well-known that our policy is to stick to the overall base lines set when we came into office. That means that the amounts envisaged for the Probation Service are £428 million in the present year going down to £425 million next year and £417 million in 1999–2000.

I hope to offer this crumb of comfort. That does not rule out adjustments to the level of funding given to the Probation Service. But it would mean that since there are no extra resources overall, any extra given in that area would have to be funded by a cutback elsewhere. Of course, that is one of the purposes of having a review.

Qualifying training was a distinct question raised by a number of your Lordships. At the moment, there is no legal requirement for any specific qualification for appointment as a probation officer since the change in the regulations. We have had a presentation from ACOPS, CPC and NAPO. We understand their concerns. We are giving careful consideration to their proposals. I hope that the Government's position, in its definitive state, will be announced before too long. I hope that that may be of assistance.

The noble Baroness asked me specifically about two projects. With her great knowledge, I believe that she was referring to Teesside and Shropshire. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for providing me with the opportunity to tell the House that those projects are continuing. We support their continuation. The Home Office is carefully evaluating the projects and when we have got the lessons, we shall consider them with great care, including possible implications for legislation. I hope that that is a satisfactory answer to what I may describe fairly as a most helpful question which illuminates part of our debate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked about prison shops. I should like to give careful thought to that and I undertake to transmit it to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary for his careful consideration.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, said that we are looking for a fair deal. I agree, within the limits of what we can deal with. He said that we must assess objectives. I agree. I am bound to say that I think the Home Office has, in the past, assessed objectives even though different conclusions have been reached. I do not think it to be a legitimate complaint that the Home Office had not put its mind to the point, even if we may have reached different conclusions.

The question was raised about information as regards serious offences committed while under probation supervision. The public has rights. One of those rights is the right to information. There was no intention at all to undermine the Probation Service when that material was provided: quite the reverse. The intention in releasing the relevant probation circular to the press was to set the information in context. As the noble Baroness pointed out, the proper context was—and I happily repeat it—that the Probation Service has about 200,000 offenders under supervision at any one time. Many of them present real risks. No one overlooks the gravity of the offences which were mentioned but in the context of 200,000, it may be that that should have received a rather more careful reflection in some newspapers.

That is the problem about information. Either one clutches it to one's sweaty bosom and lets it out to no one or one distributes it into the public domain. We thought that it was right to distribute it. It is unfortunate that a counterspin—I use the vogue word—was given to it on this occasion because it seems to have been rather unfair and perhaps rather ill considered.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, perhaps I may make matters absolutely clear. I agree entirely with every word that the Minister has just said. I was attempting, perhaps not as cleverly, to make the same point.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am most grateful for that. I believe that we have a duty to reassure and reinforce people who are carrying out very difficult jobs. They are vulnerable not only in the way described by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, which I recognise well, but sometimes they are vulnerable to criticism which might have been a little better considered and informed.

The trite observation, which I make despite its triteness, is that no one can say in how many cases skilled, dedicated intervention and work by the Probation Service prevented further offending. Of course, that news, which is good news, is never attractive because there is no headline which can be drawn from it.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, does that point not illustrate very well that probation officers need extremely good training?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, probation officers need very good training but I would not derive that moral from that story. The moral I derive from that story is that information is disseminated. One needs to put the good part of the story in the same context as the bad. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness that it is such difficult, skilful and stressful work that it obviously needs careful training. Indeed, prison officers' work is strained and stressful. It is very easy for those of us who go home after our day's work to forget that doing that sort of work, it is not easy to dissociate the rest of one's day or one's evening from that difficult work.

I hope that I have been helpful to your Lordships in this short debate. Nobody can pretend that it is an easy situation. The causes of that unease are not as relevant as the present remedies to which we must try to look. I believe, not simply because I stand here delivering the Government's view, that this review is of critical importance. It has the possibility of bringing about a sea change in how we deal with offenders.

Prison for some is bound to be the sanction that public safety requires and the public interest demands. It is not an appropriate sanction for all those who commit crime at every stage of their development. I believe that all speakers have agreed that if one catches potential offenders when they are young, one saves them the loss of wasted life, to use the phrase of the noble Baroness on another occasion when we discussed the matter. It saves enormous amounts of money; and, not least, it saves the anguish and heartache of so many victims whose interests also need to be carefully attended to. Sometimes those interests seem perhaps to be marginalised because we focus so much on how we deal with offenders. I respectfully suggest to your Lordships—I know that the noble Baroness and I are entirely at one on this—that while we must remember that criminals are victims of crime in a deeper sense, the innocent victim and his or her interests should never be overlooked.

I believe that I have trespassed a little on your Lordships' patience. However, in conclusion, I make the observation that in American rodeos a bur is sometimes placed under the saddle of the horse to make it restive. My noble friend Lord Longford never needs that because—and I mean this in all seriousness and sincerity—he has been absolutely indefatigable in the pursuit of what he believes to be right and just. I have never pretended that I agree with him on everything, but I salute the way that he never lets go and continually seeks the improvement of conditions within our society.

7.42 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am most grateful to all speakers who have taken part in tonight's debate. I often tell people that we have the best debates in the world and the worst voting system. However, I shall leave the latter point on its own and stick to the first one; namely, that we have very high quality debates.

First, I should like to thank those who have spoken from all parts of the House. We have heard the chairman of the Labour Peers and their representative on the advisory committee; in other words, the two most representative Labour Peers available, apart from the Front Bench. They have spoken very strongly as liberal champions. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, also took part. She has surpassed all of us in visiting nine women's prisons. I have visited more than nine prisons but not more than nine women's prisons, so that is a record.

All parts of the House were strongly represented and all speakers said roughly the same as I submitted in my convictions at the beginning of the debate: that there is no possible justification for the cuts in the Probation Service when this country is richer than it has ever been, and in view of the large increase in the prison population. I repeat: there is no possible justification for those cuts. No such justification has been provided, not even from the Front Bench. I did not exactly expect my revered friend the Minister (who spoke so kindly of me a moment ago) to do so. I realise that he is tied by his office. He is in a position where he has to say, to use the Irish phrase, "Mind you, I have said nothing". He is not in a position to commit the Government.

So far as concerns the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I feel a great deal of sympathy for her. She referred to the fact that I called her "the maiden of darkness" in the past; but I have also called her "the angel of light" on other occasions. I listened to her speaking with such deep feeling, expressing such care for the Probation Service and wondered how someone who cares so much could share a large part of the responsibility for imposing such outrageous cuts. I have only one explanation: the noble Baroness did her best to resign, but her resignation was not accepted. That has happened to other people. When I was Minister for Germany 50 years ago I tried to resign but Clem Attlee knew the answer to that one. He wrote me a letter saying, "Dear Frank, I have received your note and will try to look into it later". So I am sure that that is the position of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. However, she is now approaching freedom because she will be joined by the noble Lords, Lord Hurd and Lord Patten, who are great penal reformers. Therefore, she will no doubt astonish us all very shortly.

In conclusion, I should like again to thank all speakers who took part in the debate. I only hope and believe that this debate will have had a good effect. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at fifteen minutes before eight o'clock.