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Baroness Seear: Two!

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Baroness says that there are two. I do not know whether there are three, or perhaps just one. I think there is only one. The noble Baroness really must not try to upset me. It is most confusing. What I wanted to say was that I was not quite so frightened by what the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said because I am used to him always disagreeing with what his old department does. He does that conscientiously and in an agreeable way. I hope to try to point out to him that he need not be quite so concerned.

The debate was notable for the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham. He correctly diagnosed the difficulties and what was needed to turn people away from crime. I thought it was a philosophical, theological and a practical speech. He ended by saying that we must write no one off, and of course he is absolutely right. He started off by saying that it gave him pleasure, in view of the buffetings which Bishops receive, to take part in such a civilized debate. The nearest circumstances which I am likely to experience as regards being a right reverend Prelate is sharing as a Minister the unhappy experience of being buffeted, which apparently is the experience that they also receive.

The proposed new arrangements for the recruitment and training of probation officers—and the place which they have in the programme of change in which the probation service is involved—are very important. I shall do my best to try to explain what it is that the Government propose and why. I know that changes often cause dismay. People like what they know and that is understandable. The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, in what I thought was a deeply impressive speech, and for a Minister an uncomfortable speech, thought that he saw the shades of Mr. Bounderby in the Government's proposals. I hope I shall be able to persuade him that that is not so.

I wish to assure your Lordships that we are not, as it were, throwing probation officers into a free fall. I wish to reassure particularly the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, that we wish them to be trained specifically to be probation officers rather than that they should have to undertake a course which is generally designed for social workers. The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton of Eggardon, made what I thought was an astonishing speech. She castigated my right honourable friend the Home Secretary for almost everything he has done. She criticised him for taking note of what people feel. I do not think I need apologise for my right honourable friend for doing that. The noble Baroness also criticised him for saying that criminals need discipline. I frankly think that they need discipline and they need help as well. But what really worried me was when the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said that he agreed, almost word for word, with what the noble Baroness had said. That made me think that she must be wrong. The noble Earl applauded the progressive views of some people in a

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somewhat donnish way —if I may say so—of which, of course, he has some experience, and suggested that everyone who took a contrary view was wrong and their views constituted the views of the mob.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, also talked a lot about the gulf between "them" and "us". He asked whether anyone could go from one to the other. He then introduced Dives and Lazarus. He did not say who he considered Lazarus to be, but I rather gather from the trend of his observations that he thought that he was Lazarus and that possibly those of us who took a contrary view represented Dives. All I can say to that is that I do not think I shall have to wait to die in order to discover what it is like to be roasted in the—

The Earl of Longford: My Lords—

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I was going to say that I do not have to wait to die in order to discover what it is like to be roasted in the fires of hell, because I think I have experienced that this afternoon.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, will the noble Earl abandon his charming facetiousness and reply to the serious points which I and many other people made?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, of course I shall answer the points. I am sorry the noble Earl thought that I was facetious but it was he who started talking about Dives and Lazarus and I was merely questioning which he thought he was. I have a jolly good idea about that.

In recent years the probation service has been through a pretty fundamental change. It has changed from being a social work agency to being a criminal justice organisation. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Plant, felt that it should be part of a criminal justice organisation. That is a substantial shift. Over the past few weeks the Government have announced a series of proposals which aim to bring the service more into line with the proper expectations of the courts and of the public, and this will affect the future direction of the service. I am thinking here of the revised national standards and the Green Paper on community sentences. Today's debate though relates entirely to the issue of probation training.

Having announced our proposals for the recruitment and qualifying training of probation officers on 22nd February, we said that there would be a three-month consultation period during which people could give their views on the proposed new arrangements. Your Lordships' debate this afternoon will form an important part of that consultation exercise.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and my noble friend Lord Carr said "Tear it up". I wondered what it was that they wanted torn up and assumed that they meant the consultation document. The consultation document is a document for consultation and it would be a great pity if it were torn up.

The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, my noble friend Lord Carr and the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, were all concerned about whether there was to be consultation, as was the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. My noble friend Lord Carr said that we really must listen to people. It was stated clearly when the scrutiny report and the discussion paper were

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published that the proposals were subject to a three months' consultation period and all the interested parties had an opportunity to comment on the proposed changes.

Baroness Seear: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl, but if it really was a consultation period why were the universities told that the courses will stop? That is at the centre of the matter about which there was supposed to be consultation.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I was just coming to that point had the Baroness not pre-empted me. The Government have to say what they think ought to happen, and then they consult on the subject. The Government said that they believed that those courses should come to an end. That is part of the consultation process.

We thought it quite right that those concerned, including the universities and people interested in becoming probation officers, should be warned of what the Government had in mind. Final decisions will be made after the consultation period.

A first meeting will take place on Friday between the Home Office and the main interest groups. Sponsorship of courses will continue until and including those starting in the autumn of 1995 and finishing when students graduate in the summer of 1997. We do not anticipate sponsoring new students in the autumn of 1996.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and my noble friend Lord Carr, wanted to know whether that is part of the discussion. It is part of the discussion. The noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, asked whether it was a fait accompli. It is not a fait accompli because, if it were, there would be no discussion. However, I am sure that your Lordships will understand that the Government have to say what we propose and then people can discuss it.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked whether universities have received copies of the report and the discussion document. All universities received the report on 22nd February. Their views are welcomed as part of the consultation process.

The noble Lord, Lord Acton, asked whether the survey of magistrates and judges carried out by the Home Office Research and Planning Unit will be published. Magistrates and judges were asked for their views about the standard of performance of various kinds of probation work. There was, in general, a high level of satisfaction. I can tell the noble Lord that the report will be published shortly.

Lord Acton: My Lords, will the noble Earl kindly expand on the word "shortly"?

Earl Ferrers: No, my Lords, I cannot expand on "shortly". It is rather shorter than longer.

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Lord Acton: My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether "shortly" means during April?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I cannot do that. The noble Lord will know that that is a perfectly normal parliamentary expression. If I could have told him that the report will be published in April I would have done so. I can tell him that it will be published shortly.

The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, and the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, asked why it was necessary to review the present system when it is so new and also what evidence there is that the system does not meet probation service needs. As to the first question, although the Diploma in Social Work is fairly new, it replaced the Certificate of Qualification in Social Work on which the present system of probation service qualifying training is founded. That system has been in operation now for more than 10 years and has given rise to many concerns, which are summarised in Chapter 3 of the scrutiny report.

As regards evidence that the present system does not meet the needs of the probation service, the fact is that probation officers and social workers do different work. Previous speakers have stressed the specialised nature of the work and the skills required. The corollary is that it must be open to question whether it makes sense to have a common training regime and qualification. We do not accept that the revised diploma will necessarily deliver the core competencies laid down for probation officers.

Most of your Lordships seem to think that the proposed changes are an attack on the probation service. They are not. The probation service is a vital part of the criminal justice system, and the Government have a responsibility to support it and to ensure that it works well. We do not underestimate for a minute the dangers and challenges faced by the service in its work. I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, from his personal knowledge, recognised that there were difficulties and that there needed to be changes. The fact that changes were necessary was also mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, and my noble friend Lord Carr. I pay my respects to probation officers, because they do considerable work, often in very difficult circumstances under difficult conditions. I agree with my noble friend Lady Macleod that they have a difficult task and need broad shoulders.

Trying to reduce offending is a formidable task. The service will need to be highly professional, and it will require first-class training if we are to ensure that all probation officers will have the necessary knowledge and skills for their duties. We do not believe that the present sole requirement for probation officers to have a social work qualification is in keeping with the changes which the service is undergoing in becoming a criminal justice agency.

Here I agree with my noble friend Lady Seccombe. We think that that requirement deters many suitable applicants who have much which they can offer the service but are at present excluded, and that the current arrangements for training do not provide good value for money. For instance, a prospective probation officer can

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be sponsored through university for two years but he or she has no strict obligation to join the probation service afterwards.

Last year we set up a scrutiny of recruitment and qualifying training. The scrutiny team was asked to consider how entry routes into the probation service might be enlarged in order to attract those with suitable experience, and how Home Office funding might be better directed towards qualifying training for the probation service. The scrutiny—or the Dews Report, as it has become known—was completed in September. It was published in February, and with it we produced a discussion paper which set out our views on the report and our proposals as to how best to proceed in the light of the report. It is usual for the authors of reports to be identified.

The Dews Report drew attention to some of the strengths of the present system, and rightly so. But it also highlighted some very important weaknesses. In particular, it said that the statutory requirement for the Diploma in Social Work inhibits the recruitment of many potentially valuable recruits. It also said that there is no direct link between Home Office sponsorships on Diploma in Social Work courses and subsequent employment in the probation service. In addition, it said that, despite recent changes, the Diploma in Social Work is insufficiently relevant to the work which probation officers are actually called upon to do. Those were pretty hefty criticisms.

Therefore, we proposed to remove the basic requirement that one had to have a Diploma in Social Work before one could become a probation officer.

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