Saturday, November 04, 2006

Probation Boards

Lord Avebury: My Lords, this is the second time within a week that proposals have been put before us that have been introduced with minimal consultation that is far short of what is required by the Cabinet Office code of practice on consultation.
The National Probation Directorate said in its response to the Merits Committee’s questions on the subject that it did not think that a formal public consultation was required, but it consulted informally a number of boards and board members. It does not appear to have consulted the Probation Boards’ Association, the Magistrates’ Association, the Local Government Association, NACRO and any other major organisation that is concerned with probation and its future. The Probation Boards’ Association has said that the regulations,
“will weaken local involvement in criminal justice, begin the process of centralising probation governance on Whitehall and remove the critical local partners on whom effective work with offenders depends”.
When the Government know that proposals they are going to introduce are controversial, it is only too easy for them to avoid criticism by picking a few consultees who can be cajoled into giving the right answers, while ignoring the leading players. I therefore suggest that there should be Cabinet Office guidance on these pseudo-consultations to ensure that the department at least asks for the official views of the organisations representing the persons or bodies principally concerned. I would be grateful if that suggestion could be referred to the Cabinet Office for its consideration and advice.
As a result of the useful work done by the Merits Committee, we now see more clearly what the real purpose of this exercise is. The Government pretend that they are offering greater flexibility, but this isin fact a preparatory step towards forthcoming

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legislation—the “nightmare on Marshall Street” legislation, which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, mentioned—under which boards are to be compelled to contract out 10 per cent of their services in 2007-08 and an increasing proportion in later years. Ultimately, programmes for the rehabilitation of offenders, including drug rehabilitation but not, apparently, alcohol rehabilitation, amounting to£250 million a year—about a third of their total expenditure—will all be farmed out, leaving the boards with direct responsibility for managing high-risk offenders in the community.
Mr Harry Fletcher pointed out to me this morning that the distinction between high, medium and low-risk offenders is artificial because, although 35,000 out of the 50,000 offenders under supervision at any time are classified as low-risk, this low-risk group accounts for about 80 per cent of repeat offenders. I was reminded of the work of Professor Jean Floud many years ago on dangerousness, in which she found that there was no reliable scientific method of predicting the propensity to commit serious offences. Giving the easy cases to the private contractors and leaving a core probation service to deal with the hard ones simply will not work, because so many of the offenders will need constantly to be transferred between one category and another.
The argument behind the order is that the boards will need expertise primarily in commissioning and contracting out the services, and that they will not need to have much of a clue about how to deal with low-risk offenders. However, they will still need to cope with the 1,500 high-risk offenders, and—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—with the 13,000 offenders who are classified as medium-risk. Presumably, whenever a low-risk client commits a serious offence, his case will be taken from the private contractor and given back to the probation service. However these matters are to be dealt with, it is hard to see how the boards will discharge their functions if they are composed entirely of businessmen—I take it that they will be mostly men—without experience of the criminal justice system or, indeed, of the mental health or local authority services. Nor is it clear from the response to the Merits Committee who, under the new system, will have responsibility for rehabilitation of offenders with alcohol problems, and it would be helpful if the Minister could say something about that when he replies.
We are not against the proposition that requiring four members of the board to be magistrates may be too prescriptive, but we note the Government’s apology for saying in the explanatory memorandum that there was substantial evidence that many magistrates and local authority members did not possess business skills. That is entirely in order because there was no evidence for this lack of skills among magistrates. I certainly hope that, as a result of this order, boards will not lose all knowledge of the criminal justice system now available to them from their magistrate members. That point has been made forcefully by NACRO, which is also among the bodies with which the Government did not bother to consult.

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Eliminating the requirement that two members should be local councillors is opposed by practically everyone I can think of, including the Probation Boards’ Association and the LGA. They point out that partnerships with the local authority and the police are at the heart of modern probation practice and are necessary for close liaison, joint funding and joint planning through local area agreements. NACRO says that the probation service needs to be closely linked with housing and education, since they are both crucial to the resettlement of offenders and the reduction of reoffending. The direct input from local authority representatives on the boards is a valuable way to ensure that these connections are strong and productive, and that probation services complement and reinforce the activities of local authorities in reducing crime. Napo has been told that it will no longer be necessary even for a member to live within the probation area, let alone be a member of the local authority.
We view with apprehension the upheaval which will ultimately sweep away the National Probation Service with the introduction of commissioning and contestability at regional level, of which this order is a precursor. We agree with the noble Baroness,Lady Anelay, that separating consideration of the composition of the probation boards from the foreshadowed primary legislation is wrong in principle. It deprives Parliament of its right to amend the proposals to reverse the damaging loss of the ties between the boards on the one hand, and the magistracy and local authorities on the other, while approving the greater flexibility of appointment periods and a reduction perhaps of the quorum, although I noted that the noble Baroness was not in favour of that either.
We agree also with Napo that moving towards a regional or national model will undermine the public protection work undertaken with partners in the courts, the police, health services, particularly mental health, sentencers and the voluntary sectors. We have not been able to identify a single organisation which is in favour of the upheaval that the Government are planning to inflict on the probation service, apart from the incumbent of No. 10, who will be leaving shortly—we hope. Is it too much to hope that with a regime change in the offing, there could be a moratorium on the harmful changes coming down the track for the probation service and that, as a sign of hope for the future, this order will now be withdrawn?

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