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Bridgend Probation Service(Voluntary Sector)

Volume 451: debated on Wednesday 1 November 2006

I am pleased to see you in the Chair, Mr. Jones, particularly as I shall be discussing a Welsh issue.

We are here today to seek justice for the national charity Community Service Volunteers and a local charity, Sandville self-help centre, both of which work in my constituency. We are here because Bridgend probation service neglected its responsibility to support, assist and engage with the third sector, which works with vulnerable people, and because it failed to check facts before taking unilateral action that damaged the good name of both charities.

When we introduce and debate new legislation in Westminster, we are mindful of the protection that we seek to provide for vulnerable people, but at the same time we are mindful of the need to ensure that the creativity, energy and spontaneity of the voluntary sector is encouraged, not lost or destroyed. Sadly, Bridgend probation service and the social services department have not been equally mindful of those responsibilities.

Sandville self-help centre is a place where people in distress, people who are terminally ill and people who face a life of pain can go to find companionship, compassion, acceptance and that rarest of all things—love. Sandville is well known and held in high regard throughout south Wales. Its services attract people from across Wales and England.

Therefore, it was with some surprise in October last year that Gordon Jones, the head of services for older people in my local authority, informed me of concerns relating to the centre. He advised me that the probation service was concerned that prisoners were working at Sandville as part of a pre-release scheme operated by CSV, and the council was concerned that the centre did not do Criminal Records Bureau checks on volunteers or have policies and procedures for the protection of vulnerable adults and children. Mr. Jones advised me that the probation service and social services intended to hold a multi-agency meeting to share their concerns.

Knowing the unique nature of Sandville and its inherent goodness, I urged that its representatives and CSV were contacted to check what risk assessments were in place as part of the pre-release scheme, and that they be invited to attend the meeting. If that advice had been followed, perhaps the following catalogue of errors and the resulting disaster would have been averted.

Instead, the probation service and social services went ahead with their multi-agency meeting on11 November last year. Following the meeting, a letter was sent to Sandville’s service users advising them that, in the opinion of the multi-agency meeting, it was not safe for people to attend Sandville. I wrote to Tony Garthwaite, the director of social services, who confirmed that the probation service had not contacted CSV prior to the meeting but had stated that Sandville was not an appropriate placement for prisoners under licence. Mr. Garthwaite advised that the probation service intended to write to CSV regarding concerns about the category of prisoner placed at Sandville. Notes of the multi-agency meeting show that the probation representative raised concerns about a high-risk tagged prisoner who had been placed at Sandville for two weeks. No such prisoner had ever been placed at Sandville; in fact, no tagged prisoners had ever been at Sandville.

In January 2006, as a result of letters and telephone conversations between myself and Mr. David Moor, the acting regional director of CSV, it was confirmed that the probation service still had not made contact. Mr. Moor advised me that CSV has offered serving prisoners the opportunity to volunteer in the community since 1971, and that the scheme has been funded by the Prison Service since 1984 and managed by the National Offender Management Service since April 2006. CSV was therefore operating a well-established, highly regarded and successful scheme.

Mr. Moor advised me that formal risk assessments are carried out, supervision is undertaken and support is provided for placements at Sandville. He informed me that there was no requirement to inform the local probation office when placements were made. That had been made clear to the Bridgend probation service at a meeting it had with CSV at Sandville in August 2005.

I cannot understand why a Member of Parliament can find the time to write letters, make telephone calls and check facts yet the statutory probation service cannot. It sent an officer to the multi-agency meeting who had no knowledge of Sandville or CSV. Bridgend probation service has a long-standing working relationship with Sandville—community punishment offenders worked at the centre—but it was an officer with no knowledge who went to the meeting, not one with knowledge about the long-standing relationship.

At no time prior to the 11 November meeting did the probation service raise any concerns with Sandville about policies, procedures or police checks. It didnot write to CSV to follow up its concerns but in February 2006 suddenly ended community punishment placements at Sandville. The probation officer sent to Sandville to deliver the news was unable to explain to the charity why the decision had been made.

Angela Cossins, the director of operations at the Bridgend probation service office, claimed to have sent Sandville a letter explaining the decision at the end of March—a month after the gentleman from the probation service had gone to Sandville to explain why the scheme was ending. The letter was not received by Sandville until I wrote to the probation service and asked why it had not been received.

Ms Cossins did not advise Sandville or CSV that in August she had written to all chief officers and regional managers of probation in England and Wales, expressly mentioning CSV and stating that Sandville was not a safe placement for pre-release offenders. In August, I again wrote to David Moor of CSV to ascertain whether contact had yet been made by the Bridgend probation service. As it had not, he sought a meeting with Tony Richards, the assistant chief officer of the South Wales probation service.

Mr. Moor tells me that Mr. Richards admitted that he knew nothing of CSV, the pre-release scheme or its 98 per cent. success rate. Mr. Richards was so lacking in understanding of the CSV scheme that he asked Mr. Moor to provide details of prisoners placed locally by CSV and had to be advised that agreement to do this would need to be sought from NOMS.

Two voluntary organisations are involved: Sandville, which provides exemplary support for people while they are at their most vulnerable, and CSV, which transforms the lives of ex-offenders. Sandville was slow in implementing CRB checks and in writing formal polices and procedures—all of which I hasten to add are now in place—but the criminal records checks revealed that not one volunteer had so much as a parking offence to their character.

I must at this point commend Bro Morgannwg health trust. It was the only statutory agency that acted professionally and that proactively engaged with Sandville and provided the training, support and guidance that it needed.

On the other hand, we have a probation department that did not check its facts before holding a closed meeting, did nothing to help to develop policies and procedures, and waited four months to take action to cease placing community punishment offenders at Sandville and 10 months before writing a letter damaging the reputation of CSV and Sandville—a letter that was sent without checking facts or advising those named of its being sent.

Mr. Moor met probation services on 28 September and, despite his explaining the nature of the work of CSV and the valuable contribution made by Sandville, by the time I met Mr. Moor on 20 October no steps had been taken to withdraw the false allegations made in the letter. That is why we are here today. Mr. Moor has told me that Sandville offered seasoned offenders a difficult experience. Working at Sandville challenged their beliefs and their attitudes to other people and to society and helped them to develop pro-social attitudes, which Mr. Moor describes as the precursor to preventing reoffending.

The probation service has a primary responsibility to protect the public, and I appreciate that. But it also has a responsibility to check its facts, to understand the work of other agencies that work with offenders and to engage constructively with the third sector. I am advised that before writing the letter in August, the probation service believed that a young man who was released on licence from prison had returned to Sandville and was working there. That was not in fact true. The young man sought to return and had gone through the channels with his probation officer in England to seek permission to transfer the conditions of his licence to Bridgend, but was refused. In a letter to me, Ms Cossins described the probation service’s actions to date as regrettable.

The probation service has had a year in which to rectify its failures and to apologise to CSV and to Sandville. It has had two months in which to writeto chief probation officers in England and Wales and to admit it was wrong, as it gained a clear picture of the work of CSV and Sandville in its meeting with Mr. Moor. Sandville has all the criminal records checks, policies and procedures, yet pre-release and community punishment placements have not resumed. This debate should not have been needed, and I regret to inform my hon. Friend the Minister of the failure of Bridgend probation service.

In conclusion, I would like to read briefly from two letters from ex-offenders, writing about their time at Sandville and the work of CSV:

“The only genuine plus-point I have taken from my term of imprisonment is the Sandville Self Help Centre, their staff, their patients and the wonderful people who operate and run the Centre. Without Sandville I would have been released with enormous anti-establishment issues and an attitude of pure scorn on the prison system and an attempt at ‘rehabilitation’. In fact others incarcerated with similar views but without the experience of Sandville may well consider a criminal future as the wreckage of any previous life may appear to be too far departed to repair.

The Centre, Gwynneth and all her staff, from the first moment you walk though the door, welcome you and immediately begin to heal any self worth or esteem vulnerabilities you have. The value of being actually given true responsibility, trust, a sense of usefulness and accountability is priceless and one that nowhere in the prison…service or the ‘Offending Courses’ programme can either emulate or come anywhere near to replicating. You are carried away by the Centre’s ethos of helping those of a frail, elderly and (themselves) vulnerable disposition—and you do help, and you are proud that you do. This of course would not be a newsworthy headline. A non-Government funded, solely voluntary based independent Self Help Centre that can tame the ‘violent criminal’ or any kind of criminal for that matter! I have no doubt that Sandville has been pivotal in successful rehabilitation on many, many occasions in the past—it certainly has been in my case.”

The writer goes on to say that his probation officer has told him that out of the eight pre-release prisoners assigned to him in March 2006,

“only I and one other individual still remain under his charge—the rest have been returned to custody.”

The other letter is from a young man who has spent a number of years living in prisons. He says:

“I came to CSV from Cardiff Prison where I was serving a7 year sentence for fraud…I had nothing to look forward to. I was divorced and had no home or family or friends to go to on my release, which at that stage was still some 16 months away, and I had made up my mind that on release I would take my own life rather than be put in a hostel. I was the first person”—

who went to Sandville under the scheme—

“and so it was a learning curve for us both.

I learned that there was more to life than the pursuit of money and working here for two months was for me a godsend. At the end when you and Peggy suggested that on my release I could come and stay at Sandville and work as a volunteer I could see a light at the end of my tunnel. That fact alone enabled me to obtain early release on parole and for 3 months I worked as a volunteer for you enjoying every minute of it because although you knew of my past you treated me as a ‘normal’ person.

I have been clean now for over 2 years, the longest time since I first entered upon my criminal career over 30 years ago, and the majority is down to Sandville…If I was to slip up again I would feel that I had let you all down and I could never do that.

You do tremendous work for so many people but you have both changed and saved my life.”

Statutory services carry a great weight of responsibility. I appreciate the need to protect and to follow rules and regulations, but I also appreciate that statutory services have a responsibility to protect and to support organisations such as Sandville and CSV, which are critical to the work that the Government believe is vital—reducing reoffending and offering people a new life. Sandville and CSV should have been supported, encouraged and enabled. They should not have been abused.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) on securing the debate, and on the way in which she put the case for Sandville.

Before I move on to my speech, I want to say that the moving letters that my hon. Friend read out andthe sentiments that they included showed us all the importance of the debate this morning, even given the fact that there are few of us in the Chamber. When ex-offenders who have been put in places such as Sandville—no doubt this could be replicated across the country with other such centres—talk about the fact that they would have been anti-establishment and would have poured scorn on efforts that were made to rehabilitate them and to help stop them re-offending, when they talk about the way that those centres have helped them to develop self-worth and self-esteem, and about seeing light at the end of the tunnel, it shows the importance of the establishments that are represented by Sandville. It shows the need for us to get that right so that more people can address their offending and hopefully, on leaving, be rehabilitated and become full and worthwhile members of the community.

I liked the way that my hon. Friend used the word “love” about the way in which the centre operated. It is an underused and often misused word, but any establishment with such love and care is often the type of establishment—whether it is a school, a hospital or a centre such as Sandville—that delivers something worthwhile for the people who are there.

As I said, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It highlights not only the specific issue of the Sandville self-help centre but more general questions on the role of the third sector in the National Offender Management Service, the reduction of re-offending and the protection of the public.

The Government are committed to engaging with the third sector in order to improve public services. For NOMS, the opportunities for the third sector were outlined in a public value partnerships document, published in August. That committed NOMS to a greater working partnership with the third sector, and it specifically committed the probation service to sub-contracting 10 per cent. of front-line services to the third and private sectors by the end of 2007-08.

Such sub-contracting, and the roll-out of end-to-end offender management, will ensure that re-offending is further reduced and that public protection is increased. For example, only offenders who presented a low risk of harm or who show a low likelihood of reconviction will be allowed to work with children or vulnerable adults; and even though low risk offenders may be allocated to work in such settings, they should never be involved in the direct personal care of children or vulnerable adults and should not be left in sole charge of them. As my hon. Friend said, public protection is obviously a very important aspect of that work.

My hon. Friend described the valuable work undertaken by the Sandville self-help centre. I join her in paying tribute to its work, and the leadership of Sister Gwyneth Poacher. Sandville’s principle concern is to support the chronically and terminally ill and their families. In doing so, it has played an important part in rehabilitating offenders. As my hon. Friend is aware, offenders have been placed there as volunteers under the pre-release scheme and undertake unpaid work.

At first sight, it is not clear why that arrangement should not continue. It was clearly beneficial for offenders, the centre and the wider community. Although there were no doubts about the benefits that the centre brought about, questions were raised about public protection. That led to the events that concern my hon. Friend.

On 11 November 2005, South Wales probation service attended a multi-agency information-sharing meeting organised by Bridgend county borough council in order to raise awareness among the caring community about a number of serious concerns to do with current practices at Sandville self-help centre. The concerns raised were the lack of screening of volunteers and of Criminal Records Bureau checks, and the fact that the centre did not meet the regulations for providing personal care.

May I make it clear that Sandville does not at any time provide personal care? The care standards inspectorate for Wales has visited Sandville, and it is more than happy that it does not provide personal care and that it should not be registered as so doing.

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. Indeed, such clarification was my hon. Friend’s purpose in seeking the debate.

At that meeting, it was said that the centre has no written policy safeguarding and protecting of vulnerable adults or children, and that young offenders and prisoners were placed at the centre as volunteers prior to their release without the knowledge of the local probation service. Bridgend county borough council made clear at the meeting, through its social services department, that it had offered to help Sandville review and revise its risk assessment and risk management procedures through an action plan.

Given the probation service’s primary responsibility to protect the public, South Wales probation service suspended the use of Sandville as an unpaid work placement until appropriate risk management procedures were in place. The decision to suspend Sandville as a placement was made purely on the ground of the risk of harm and no other. It is regrettable that, after the multi-agency meeting on11 November, South Wales probation service did not immediately contact Community Service Volunteers, which has responsibility for arranging pre-release scheme placements for the prison service. I am informed that this lack of communication was due in part to CSV’s relationship being with the Prison Service rather than the probation service—a clear example of why prisons and probation need to be brought together under NOMS.

On 18 August 2006, South Wales probation service issued a notice through the Home Office to all probation areas, advising them not to use Sandville as a placement for offenders supervised on licence. That followed an instance of another probation area informing South Wales probation service that an offender released on licence had moved into its area and was working at the Sandville self-help centre.

In fact, the young man released on licence had not moved into the South Wales area; he sought to move, as I made clear. It is one of the ongoing inaccuracies at Bridgend probation service that a letter requesting that someone can move back into the area should be taken as evidence that that person has moved.

Again, my hon. Friend clearly illustrates why the debate is necessary. I shall return to the point when speaking about how we should move forward.

The communication from the South Wales probation service said that it was working to resolve the issues and that other areas would be notified when Sandville was available as a placement. Although the probation service suspended Sandville as an unpaid work placement, it did not have the power to suspend it as a pre-release scheme placement. That was the responsibility of the Prison Service, through its contract with Community Service Volunteers. However, as my hon. Friend knows, Community Service Volunteers has now suspended its use of Sandville under the pre-release scheme until the question of the risk of harm is resolved.

In the three minutes that remain, I want to see whether we can find a way through the problem. I want to offer my hon. Friend a way ahead and offer some help. I understand that the South Wales probation service and Community Service Volunteers are keen to see Sandville reinstated as a placement for offenders on unpaid work and the pre-release scheme. However, that depends on the risk of harm being managed appropriately for the placement of offenders. I am informed that South Wales probation service and Bridgend county borough council are happy to support Sandville institute in any outstanding processes and checks. I look forward to all parties working together—and I include my hon. Friend in this—to ensure that placements can resume as soon as possible. I ask her to help me by keeping me updated on the progress, or the lack of progress, in resolving the matter. To me, it seems to be mainly a matter of communication, with people sitting down together to resolve the problem, so I would be grateful if my hon. Friend were to keep me informed.

The case in question demonstrates the need for closer working under NOMS between prisons, the probation service and the third sector, which will reduce reoffending and protect the public. Such closer working will require a culture change by the probation service and prisons. We have to recognise that some third sector organisations that want to play a part in NOMS will have to make changes in order to ensure that the Government’s overriding commitment to public protection is met.

Not only do I hope that the problem that we have discussed this morning will be resolved as soon as possible for the benefit of all: I expect it. It will not be for our benefit; it will be for the benefit of all who use Sandville self-help centre. The letters that my hon. Friend quoted show that the centre can make a big a clear difference to people’s lives.

It is also important to say how valuable prisoners and offenders have been in supporting Sandville. They have undertaken many of the gardening tasks and the physical restoration work that the community so desperately needed. I pay tribute and express my gratitude to those offenders who have helped to ensure that the centre provides a good quality service.

My hon. Friend anticipates my final comment, but she made it much more eloquently. I thank her for raising such an important issue, and I hope that our debate will contribute to a resolution of the issue for the benefit of all concerned.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.