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Baroness Seear: My Lords, as the noble Baroness referred to the very interesting meeting which I had with her, perhaps I may underline the fact that the whole point of my theme was that, although probation officers do not need social work training, the training that they receive should be in an institution of higher education.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I do not disagree that the underpinning knowledge and education should take place in a higher education institution. But the point which I believe that the noble Baroness made very effectively to me was that there must be a proper practical link between what goes on in a higher education institution and the application of that knowledge to practical work within the service. I agree absolutely with that and would see that as a feature of any new arrangements.
I turn now to the Motion before the House. The key words, to my mind, are "professional qualification", "high standard" and "external validation". The Government fully accept that the involvement of higher
I am reminded of a person who applied to the service with two degrees which were both relevant to the work of the probation service. He had practised for seven years as a probation officer in Canada but was not qualified to enter the service without going away to do a two-year diploma in social work, without any guarantee of being taken into the service at the end of that. That will now cease to be the case.
Perhaps I may give another practical example which was given in the presence of myself and the noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, very recently. I attended the SOVA annual general meeting. During the course of the evening, I had a very interesting discussion. There were other people around so that it was a public discussion. I was told of a young man who had been working for some years with SOVA. He had been working with offenders in the community and was one of their most valuable workers. He had been working and interacting with the probation service. At this moment, that young man is a member of the Armed Forces. His duties are such that he is able to work voluntarily for two days per week. He wishes to join the probation service. He will leave the Armed Forces in two years' time. It would be madness to send him away for a single diploma in social work in order that he may enter the probation service. Some value must be placed on the work that he has already undertaken on two days per week in the voluntary sector where he has worked with the probation service and with SOVA, which is an extremely good voluntary organisation. That is the kind of flexibility that we need.
As I said, we expect the individual's input to be geared to his training and to be presented in modular form. It is very important that the arrangements should be flexible. Therefore, we shall be looking to universities to develop imaginative approaches to the provision of training by making appropriate use of
At the same time, we have every reason to insist that teaching standards are high. We also expect the higher education inputs to be provided in a way which recognises the probation service as an integral part of the criminal justice system.
The Government do not intend to return to the inflexibility of one single and rigid qualification required for appointment as a probation officer. I am glad to note that the Motion standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, does not call for that; it calls for external validation, and we agree with that. The Government want to see the creation of an appropriate NVQ for probation officers which recognises the standard of their competence and expertise, including their underpinning knowledge and understanding of the service. We would expect such an NVQ for probation officers to be at level 4 at least--a higher level qualification--reflecting the professional responsibilities of the work and giving headroom within the NVQ structure for advanced expertise to be recognised at level 5, which is the most advanced award.
Locating probation officer competences in that way in the vocational qualification structure opens up the rewarding possibility of a new continuum of an education and training qualification for all the staff of the probation service, centring around the probation officers' awards. The NVQ system does, of course, involve an important element of external assessment and validation--
Baroness Seear: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister again, but, as she has talked about NVQs at levels 4 and 5, she will be as aware as any of us of the mounting volume of criticism which exists about the NVQ method in relation to the underlying knowledge and understanding. I also believe that the noble Baroness is aware that there is a great controversy raging as to how that will be assessed under the NVQ system. If that is what is going to be used for the probation service, we urgently need an answer as to how the underlying knowledge and understanding would in fact be tested.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a most important point; indeed, both she and I have talked on the subject many times. I have to tell the House that I approach the matter from a different angle. Unless it recognises all of the standards--and they include both knowledge and understanding of the service as well as the practical competencies to practise as a probation officer--then level 4 will not be good enough.
If we can come together with the service--and we would prefer that the service works with us in that respect--it will be the service, together with the Home Office, which agrees the standard. If that standard happens to be higher, or different, in a positive way, from level 4, then level 4 will not be accepted as a standard. Rather than say, "We must come up to level 4 standard NVQ", much will depend upon the quality of
At the same time, we have no objection to the development of a range of academic qualifications which more experienced probation officers can aim for and which will recognise their developing expertise. Indeed, we encourage the continuing professional development of all staff in the probation service. The Government's decision document, published on 2nd October, makes it clear in terms that, once appointed as qualified, probation officers should have access to a range of vocational and academic qualifications which are relevant to their work and which build on their original education and training.
Indeed, for specialist work within the service--for example, sex therapy programmes, through-care work and the family court welfare work--further in-service training will be required. In respect of further vocational and/or academic qualifications, any contribution which universities make to the training of probation officers prior to appointment should, under the new system which we envisage, be capable of providing learning credits which could be put to a range of possible awards, including professional qualifications. In tendering to provide that contribution, universities should include proposals as to how they would make it work.
I hope that noble Lords will see that there is much common ground here; and that we want standards of training to be raised rather than reduced. It may assist your Lordships if I recapitulate the sequence of events as we see it which should apply to the whole process. Trainees will undertake training within probation services with an individually-tailored package of theory and practice managed by the service. Appropriate teaching and tutorial support will be provided by higher education and requisitioned by the probation service. Depending on the trainee's previous experience and aptitude, training could last a few months or up to two years. Competence to practise will be formally assessed against national criteria, including practical demonstrations and written work.
Successful trainees will be awarded qualified probation officer status by the probation service only if they achieve the required standard. All assessment and award procedures will be subject to quality control by HM Inspectorate of Probation and quality controlled. Moreover, and to take on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, training should provide a platform for the recognition of competence through NVQs and the development of competence through further training as appropriate.
The Home Office wishes to work with the probation service and with higher education to make the new arrangements a success. Indeed, many of the detailed points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees--and, indeed, by other speakers in the debate--cannot be determined without the active participation of the service. However, I am aware that concerns and anxieties remain. Development of the new arrangements is under way. Therefore, we need to make progress with those arrangements, without which a vacuum will develop.
Much has been said about responses to the concentration and about the so-called wholesale opposition to the proposals. I have to say that that is too simplistic a view. Many respondents saw the need for some change; indeed, that view is also held by many within the service and by some with whom I have had meetings over recent months. I admit that there is a lively debate about the nature of such a change and about the details of the new arrangements. I would use this occasion to invite the probation service to engage with us in the work.
The subject of consistency of standards has been raised. It is another important point that I should like to address. The Government will ensure that standards will be consistently applied between probation services and the consortia in which they will operate the new arrangements; through the way in which higher education makes provision and in response to the specific specifications determined centrally; and, of course, through the involvement of HM Inspectorate of Probation. We expect the consortia to work together and for there to be a consistency of approach. The involvement of higher education in the new arrangements should not be played down. That involvement will itself bring with it a concern for standards and consistency.
Just as the NCVQ oversees and accredits higher standards for management, as the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, affirmed, so those structures should embrace a whole range of occupations--an increasing spectrum, including professional working--into which probation officers' working standards will slot and be validated. Standards will be consistent. Recruits to the service will be salaried trainees. They will be subject to assessment procedures before acceptance as trainees to test their aptitude for probation work, their capability to undertake the education and training that is necessary; to give a value to any relevant education experience that they may bring; and to determine a programme of education and training that they will require in order to reach the standard necessary to enter the service as qualified probation officers. That standard will be consistently applied.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hilton, said that she could not accept the assertion so authoritatively put forward that underpinning knowledge will be removed. I hope that I have made it abundantly clear to the House that the underpinning knowledge is an essential, central part of becoming a probation officer. My noble friend Lady Faithfull was concerned about moving in a different direction from social work education. Social work may or may not be moving towards a three-year degree course, but probation work is a profession in its own right. In the new arrangements we are moving to a probation-specific training which meets the needs of individual trainees and of the service. Noble Lords have consistently under-estimated the nature and content of the proposed training, the involvement of higher education and the standards which have already been published as competencies for probation officers and, of course, national standards, which are also a matter for public publication.
I have discussed our changes in some detail. I hope that what I have said will have reassured some of your Lordships that the Government are determined to ensure that probation officers are properly trained. We know that much work is in hand to develop the assessment and training systems. I understand that noble Lords may feel that there is not enough flesh on the bones at present. Therefore, I suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, may consider withdrawing the Motion on the basis that the work is in hand to develop high standards of training, including higher education elements, to lead to a properly assessed and properly controlled standard of entry to the service which, in due course, will be externally validated under the NVQ system with the caveats that I have mentioned during the course of today's debate.
Our intention is that the new arrangements should, at a minimum, maintain the already high standards of the service. My own belief is that the new arrangements will lead to able, competent and professional probation officers. I emphasise that the Government recognise the difficult, demanding and sometimes dangerous work that probation officers are called upon to do. They are, and will continue to be, valued professionals.
I welcome the debate, and I am heartened by your Lordships' concern for high standards of training for probation officers. For my part, as the lead Minister with responsibility in this area, the next step is to put these principles into practice. That is where my energies will be devoted.
Lord Allen of Abbeydale: My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. It was a most unusual experience for me to find that, with one exception, there was unanimous backing for my proposal. For her part, the Minister will have felt a little lonely as speech after speech followed in support of the Motion. However, my experience over many years suggests that that is not such an unusual position for a Home Office Minister to be in.
I am grateful for all the trouble that the Minister took in preparing her reply to the debate. Although I cannot claim to have taken it all in, because she spoke at a fair pace, I shall read it all with great interest.
I am a little disappointed that the noble Baroness spent perhaps rather too much time in defending what is not under attack, namely the decision which has been made and which is embodied in the probation rules which came into force yesterday. I thought that I had made that clear.
I am also a little bothered by what the noble Baroness said about higher education. I do not think that I am wrong in saying that she suggested at one stage that a higher education component would be an essential part of probation officer training, but that is not what is said in the decision paper from which I quoted, if anyone can now remember what I said in my opening speech an hour or two ago.
I am afraid that I am not persuaded by what the Minister said about the NVQ. Ultimately, I am bothered that she has not conceded that there should be a professional qualification based on higher education and externally validated which would serve to unite the profession. In spite of the request that the noble Baroness made at the end of her speech, I must seek the opinion of the House.