HL Deb 20 May 2004 vol 661 cc869-71

Baroness Stern asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their assessment of the current level of service provided by the London probation area.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, following serious concerns about service delivery the chief officer requested assistance from a Home Office action team. This has improved performance during 2003–04 in respect of court reports, victim contact, enforcement, accredited programmes and drug treatment and testing orders. These improvements are likely to be sustained during 2004–05. Work to improve basic skills performance continues with the learning and skills councils supported by the National Probation Directorate, which continue to monitor all performance closely.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. It is good to know that the crisis is recognised, because the London probation area represents one-quarter of the probation service. I would be grateful, therefore, if the Minister could confirm that 23 probation offices in London are not to close—that would have meant that offenders would have to travel long distances to report; that magistrates and judges no longer sentence without pre-sentence reports giving information about the defendant because they could not obtain them; that magistrates and judges now use noncustodial sentences, because there are now staff to supervise them; and that trainees and administrative officers no longer supervise large numbers of offenders.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Baroness has asked a number of supplementary questions. Perhaps I should deal with the question of office accommodation, because I think that it has been misunderstood. There is a programme of phased accommodation changes in London as part of a rationalisation of existing facilities, which are roughly 40 per cent in excess of requirements. It must be made clear that it is not a response to budgetary pressures that have existed. To date, only seven properties have been declared surplus by the London probation area. There are 17 further potential closures, but that is subject to satisfactory replacement by other properties. The seven declared surplus properties are small secondary offices generally used as field offices; they are not used intensively by the probation service.

We are content that staffing levels in the London area are improving steadily. In April 2003 the full-time equivalent staff number was 2,242 and by November last year it had risen to 2,453. During the period from November 2003 an additional 168 trainee probation officers have graduated. It is anticipated that a further 100 trainees and 70 probation staff officers will be appointed in the current year. I am trying to demonstrate to the House that there are staff to do the job. We recognise that there have been shortcomings and some failures in service. Swift action was taken to put that right, and I am now happy to report that the service is improving.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, will further resources be given to London probation. or will necessary improvements to deal with shortcomings have to rely upon the so-called process of contestability?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, yesterday the Minister in another place, Mr Paul Goggins, announced that London will receive an additional £3.6 million in increased funding for next year, an increase of some 3.9 per cent—nearly 4 per cent—in the London probation area baseline. Taken together with the additional funding for new trainee probation officers and probation service officers, the increase will be some 7 per cent. We are content that we have made very good provision for the London probation area. We anticipate that there will be continued improvements in the quality of service.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm whether staffing in the London probation area is up to establishment, and if not, by how much does it fall short of establishment? If it falls short, to what extent, in his opinion, is that due to the high cost of housing in London?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not aware that the service is under establishment. As I have explained, there have been significant increases in the numbers of staff employed by the service. The service has a very good record of staff retention. My details indicate that, since November 2002, 239 trainee probation officers have entered the two-year training programme and only four have left. I take that as a measure of their commitment and the quality of support that they receive. That shows great confidence in the whole service and its future. We have in place sufficient staff and have added substantial extra resources to ensure that the right numbers of officers are in the right places to deal with the problems that London faces.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as regards what these people do, is it the case that last year agency appointments were terminated with the result that many probation officers who did not have typing skills had to be retrained or are being retrained and had to type their own reports? Is it also the case that in January this year all visits by London region probation officers to prisons outside Greater London were terminated? What has been the effect of that on their work and on the future of the young people who they are looking after?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I was not aware that there was a difficulty with support staff. The probation service attempts to concentrate its staff on the front line, and I am happy to report to your Lordships' House that some 97 per cent of all those in post are probation officers dealing day to day with case load management. One would expect there to be a high quality of service. Obviously, I will look at the points that the noble Lord has made, because they are important, and I would not want to see anything happen to the London probation area service that did anything to deflect it from ensuring that its primary duties were undertaken.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, the confidence expressed by the Minster is not displayed by probation officers. I spoke at a rally last week for the National Association of Probation Officers. It was pretty clear from London officers that the workload is such that in some areas they are almost at breaking point. Will the cutbacks in the Civil Service that were announced by the Chancellor in his Budget affect probation service officers employed nationally? What is the impact of those cutbacks on local probation services?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord is conflating issues here. There are no cutbacks so far as the London probation area service is concerned. I have already described to your Lordships' House the substantial additional funding that has been put in place—in real terms, a 7 per cent increase. I am happy to write to the noble Lord with further details about the staffing profile of the service and give that detail to other Members of your Lordships' House who have asked questions this morning.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, is it a fact, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, suggested, that courts are not receiving pre-sentence reports? If so, what is being done about it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there were concerns about the service to court, and it is for that reason that the deputy chief probation officer was appointed, who was previously the chief officer in Lincoln. Since his appointment, additional support has been made available, and performance has improved considerably. I am happy to give that improved level of performance in detail to the noble Lord, because I could not do justice to the statistics at the Dispatch Box this morning.

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