Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Earl Russell: I congratulate the Minister on the care and eloquence with which he tried to make his case. However, I am afraid I do not believe that he succeeded. First, I think that his case rests on a false factual premise. He argued that the word "probation" was not understood. In fact, it has passed into the language. The phrase "on probation" is so well understood that it is even used in reports on cricket or football team selection. Further, if the Minister is afraid that that may appear to be a soft touch, I should remind him that when it is used in that way it carries a very distinct suggestion of the "male" fist inside the velvet glove. It is not at all a soft phrase.

I am not convinced by the case for putting such expressions into tabloid language. But if we are to do so, we might as well do it properly. Let us take, for example, the phrases in the Bill and imagine them being put into a draft for an article that is to appear in the Daily Mirror. I shall begin with, the "community rehabilitation order". I think that the blue pencil would come out at once. Alternatively, we could take a "community punishment order". It seems to me that the blue pencil would ask whether this is punishing the community. There is also the "community punishment and rehabilitation order"--far too many words! If the Government are going to try to put this wording into popular language so as to change the impression generated by it, they might make a better fist of it than they have done here.

4 Oct 2000 : Column 1574

Secondly, as my noble friend just said, this proposal is an attempt to change the language in order to change the impression given, without changing the substance. In my view, that is something that hardly ever works. It must lead to one or the other of two conclusions: either nothing changes--in other words, neither the image nor the substance will change--or, alternatively, the substance is changed in order to justify an attempt to change the image. Either of those would cause a number of us on all sides of the Committee very considerable concern.

The question as to whether or not this renaming will work reminds me of a story that my father used to tell me--I do not know whether or not it is a shaggy dog--about the naming of Iceland, a name which, he said, deterred potential settlers. Therefore, the next time that people discovered a piece of land in that quarter of the globe, they chose to name it Greenland in order to make it sound rather more attractive. However, I do not believe that the settlement in Greenland ever justified that. The renaming in this Bill will, at best, be a case like Greenland. In fact, I shall think of these provisions as the "Greenland clauses".

Finally, name changing can cause a great deal of confusion; indeed, since I became a Member of this place 12 years ago, I have completely lost count of the number of names that have been given to the body that once upon a time used to be known as the University Grants Committee. I tend to refer to it by a name at least two names out of date. If we do this to the public, they may manage to cap that yet.

Lord Elton: The noble Lord's expression does not suggest to me that he is liable to take this matter way and think about it. However, if he does so, I hope that he will look with care at the syntactical point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. The noble Lord is actually going contrary to the structure of the present language. In a community service order, it is the community that is served. That is the verbal interpretation that is now current among all who have encountered this document. The noble Lord is now proposing a "community punishment order" and wants to reverse the process so that it is the community which does the punishing. In the other case, the community is not being rehabilitated, it is rehabilitating. If the object of the exercise is to get the process understood, the language used has to be unambiguous; this is not.

Lord Dholakia: I am grateful to the Minister for what he said. However, I was not in the least bit surprised. He made great play of the new terminology. Perhaps I should remind him that a Minister flew to America and on his return used the terminology "a correctional service", which I believe was the title that the Government originally had in mind for the Probation Service. However, when a protest was mounted, that suggestion was immediately withdrawn. I believe that this renaming will provoke a similar reaction. I warn the Minister that we shall certainly take this on board when we reach Report stage.

4 Oct 2000 : Column 1575

My main concern here is the expression that the Minister keeps using. He repeatedly said that the public do not understand. But when have members of the public been consulted on the issue? I give way.

Lord Bach: What I meant when I spoke about the public not understanding is that they have considered for a long time--indeed, perhaps they have even been right--that those who are made the subject of a probation order have really "got off" easily for what they did. That has been the trouble with the expression "probation order" in the past. I speak from long, personal experience in the field. If one of my clients received a probation order, it would be a victory for me; but, in his mind, it would often be a let off for him. That is a truth, which is often not expressed.

Therefore, because the Government believe that community orders--whether they be probation or community service orders--have a real function in the criminal justice system, we are determined to ensure that they are seen to work--

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I, too, held the job in the Home Office of being responsible for the Probation Service. In my experience, wherever there was a misunderstanding about the role of the Probation Service and whether or not it was effective, it had nothing to do with the name; it had everything to do with the practice of the Probation Service in a particular area. If the public saw people on probation loafing around, leaning on their shovels or not doing what they should be doing, their perception of the local service was diminished. It was never a question of the connotations of a name, but rather the public's perception of how the service operated.

Much has changed in the Probation Service since then. Good practice is now spread throughout the service. The noble Lord is wrong to believe that a change of name will change the culture of the service. The service is a good one, irrespective of the names of its provisions.

Lord Bach: Part of the process of changing the culture of the service involves changing its name. In some places the name became associated--sometimes wrongly, sometimes rightly--with defendants effectively being let off their offence. No one considered the punishment or rehabilitation elements; a probation order was often considered to be a let off. That is how we believe the general public have often viewed probation orders. The danger is that if the general public have that perception, the whole concept of community sentences becomes devalued. For that reason the Government are making it quite clear that the purposes of community sentences are reduction in reoffending; protection of the public; and proper punishment of offenders. This is not a case of adopting a hard line policy for the sake of it. The alternative to having acceptable community sentences is to send all offenders to prison. That is not something that the Government or any noble Lord present would want.

4 Oct 2000 : Column 1576

As the term "probation orders" has unfortunately become devalued, we believe that it is essential to change it.

Lord Dholakia: I return to the remarks I made before giving way to the Minister. It appears that we are talking at cross purposes here. I sat as a magistrate for 14 years. I issued probation orders, community service orders and so on. The defendants did not have an easy time of it. Their lawyers pleaded their case and the individuals concerned pledged to obey the terms of the order. The problem is that the Government play down the success of community service and of the Probation Service.

A similar thing happened in the case of the Parole Board. No problem arises in 95 per cent of parole cases. However, if one isolated incident arises, everything is blown out of all proportion. Likewise newspapers do not report the conditions that attach to probation orders in articles on the Probation Service. It is up to the Government to explain to the public what probation orders involve. One gets the impression that the Government, through this Bill, are saying to the general public, "Law and order are high on our agenda and we are trying to be tough". As I said earlier, we shall certainly return to this matter on Report.

Lord Elton: Clearly we do not want to spend too long on this matter, but does the noble Lord seriously expect us to accept the proposition that the word "probation", which has three syllables and is well-known and understood, will carry less impact than the word "rehabilitation", which has six syllables, is not generally understood, and is unfamiliar to the criminal classes?

6.45 p.m.

Lord Renton: I must apologise to the Committee for having missed the first part of this discussion as I had to attend an important meeting upstairs. I should disclose that I did quite a lot of judicial work--about 30 days. I was a Recorder for eight years and a relief judge at the Old Bailey for two years. I also sat as a deputy chairman of quarter sessions, in early days in Kent and in later days in Essex. Therefore I have a lot of experience of the effect of putting people on probation. I must say that I admired what the Probation Service did. There is no doubt about that. I am not a die hard so far as legal reform is concerned, as many noble Lords know, but I think that we should avoid change if it is not really necessary. I do not think that it is necessary in the case we are discussing.

Also there is a practical argument against what is now proposed. If Members of the Committee look at the expressions "probation orders" and "community rehabilitation orders" on page 21 of the Bill, they will find that the expression "probation orders" consists of only five syllables. The expression "community rehabilitation orders" consists of 12 syllables. What a mouthful for the people in the courts to have to use and to absorb!

4 Oct 2000 : Column 1577

I agree that there is not much difference between the terms "community service orders" and "community punishment orders"--there is an increase of only one syllable there. However, if Members of the Committee compare the term "combination orders" on page 22--which has only six syllables--with the term "community punishment and rehabilitation orders", they will find that the number of syllables is doubled to 12. I cannot see any advantage in changing the old expressions. If there are no advantages, we should bear in mind the disadvantages of imposing unnecessary mouthfuls on the people who work in this field. I implore the Government to think again about this matter.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page