Figures for 31 March show that there were a total of 8262.5 full-time equivalent probation officers in post in England and Wales. On the same date, there were 227.7 full-time equivalent vacancies that were actively being recruited to, which accounted for 2.68 per cent. of the total posts available at that time.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Recently, I met probation officers in south Cumbria, who expressed deep concern about the Home Secretary’s attitude towards the probation service. Given the Minister’s reply, does he accept that the Home Secretary should stop undermining the probation service with ill judged rhetoric in inappropriate places and poorly thought out legislation, and instead support the probation service by acknowledging that it has met the overwhelming majority of its performance targets this year, unlike his Department?
If anyone is undermining the probation service it is the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. The Home Secretary has said on numerous occasions that the probation service is working hard and well, and that the public need to understand exactly what it does. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Offender Management Bill, which is in Committee and tries to enhance the role of the probation service and probation officers. The Government are confident that they want to promote a successful probation service, not undermine it like the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are doing.
I know from his statements in the Chamber and conversations I have had with him elsewhere in the House that the Minister is an enthusiastic proponent of contestability. In future, when the probation work undertaken by the probation service doubles, then doubles again, because the private and voluntary sectors will be involved, does he accept that the quality of probation officers recruited to fill the vacancies to which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) referred is likely to decline, because private sector organisations, but not voluntary sector ones, are likely to provide services down to price, not up to standard?
My hon. Friend and I disagree on this issue, but I respect his viewpoint. The probation service must grow if we are to reduce reoffending rates, so we must make sure that providers, whether the probation service, the voluntary sector or, indeed, the private sector, can provide the best service. The Government and I do not want to prevent anyone from providing such a service. Training and development enhances the role of probation officers, and a backstop will always be provided by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation, which will maintain consistent standards of inspection.
Shortly before Christmas, I had the privilege of visiting the probation service in Milton Keynes, and I wish to pay tribute to the work of Anna Perry and her team. Is the Minister aware that in the past year alone the average officer’s case load in Milton Keynes rose by 15 per cent., so that he or she dealt with 46 cases? At the same time, on the front line, there has not been a real-terms increase in budget. To be fair, that is partly because of the rapid expansion of Milton Keynes, but does the Minister accept that morale in the probation service is at an all-time low in the town?
I do not accept that the morale of the probation service is at an all-time low. The service wants certainty about the future, and I do not believe that there is a lack of investment. For instance, since 1997, there has been a 21.5 per cent. increase in probation officers, from 6,827 to 8,298., so there has hardly been a lack of investment. We must make sure that morale among probation officers is high, and that we cut reoffending and protect the public from violent offenders.
Last November, at a time when probation service morale was already at an all-time low, the Home Secretary went to Wormwood Scrubs, of all places, to give the service a pre-meditated kicking in front of an audience of convicts, whom he charmingly described as the experts on probation work. How does such behaviour help reduce the reconviction rate of those released from prison?
This is not the first time that the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised the issue. The Home Secretary has been clear about wanting to ensure that the probation service delivers not only for probation officers, but for the public at large. He has pointed out in speech after speech, in particular in the Second Reading debate on the Offender Management Bill, that he holds the probation service and probation officers in high esteem. However, we all agree that they are not reducing reoffending. That is the fault not of probation officers, but of society. The Offender Management Bill provides an opportunity to put that right.