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National Probation Service: Budget

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they propose to reduce the budget of the Probation Service.

My Lords, the Ministry of Justice is seeking efficiency savings over the next three years as set out in the department’s annual report. Budgets have not yet been fixed but, as is the case across government, the Probation Service will need to make efficiency savings of about 2.5 per cent in the next financial year. This will involve difficult decisions but the NOMS agency is working to determine how the saving can be achieved in ways that protect front-line services. The aim is to reduce overheads, remove administration and drive improvement in underperforming or expensive services.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that somewhat disappointing and disarming reply. As we all know, there is not only overcrowding in prisons but a large increase in the number of prisoners and offenders requiring supervision in the community. If we are to reduce the use of imprisonment, we also need to have confidence in the community sentencing process. I recently saw an organisation diagram for the National Offender Management Service but I looked in vain, first, for the National Probation Service and, secondly, for the director of the service. In addition to managing offenders, you have to manage the staff of these services. Can the Minister tell the House who is the professional appointed to be responsible for the Probation Service in the administration of probation services in this country?

My Lords, the Secretary of State, of course, has a statutory duty to ensure that probation services are carried out. Although I understand the noble Lord’s disappointment, I hope I have just clearly expressed that the changes which must take place have to address unexplained variations in cost and performance between similar services provided elsewhere. Some probation boards do much better than others with the same resources, but that is true of organisations across the board. What matters is that any changes that have to take place—and they have been much exaggerated—aim first to reduce overheads and secondly to simplify processes so that scarce resources can be targeted effectively at front-line work with offenders.

My Lords, given the enormous pressure that the Probation Service is already under in coping with its existing workload, can the Minister explain how the Government will support the service when it must deal with the explosion of prisoners on IPPs, who will be subject to licensed supervision for at least 10 years and possibly for life?

My Lords, we are not going to attack the front-line work that the Probation Service does so brilliantly across the country. There are administrative changes and savings that can be made. As I have said before, in this organisation as in others, benchmarking and evidence-gathering have shown great variations in the cost and performance of similar services being delivered in similar probation areas. This will not be easy but it has to be done.

My Lords, in the report referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, in her earlier Question—a report that was co-written by the Chief Inspector of Probation—there was, as the Minister will remember, a general request for the Secretary of State to ensure an increased allocation of resources. The Minister is now talking about a saving of some 2.5 per cent. How will he bring those two factors together?

My Lords, we would very much like to be able to spend more on a whole range of issues but, being a responsible Government, we know something that the other side seems to have forgotten—you can only spend within your means.

My Lords, I am afraid that the business of government is hard, and it is about priorities. What we will not sacrifice is the front-line work being effectively done with offenders. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that since 1997, staffing numbers in the Probation Service have increased by over 7,000 and the probation resource budget has increased by nearly 70 per cent in real terms. Only in March of this year my right honourable friend the Secretary of State committed an additional £40 million to ensure that magistrates had tough community sentences at their disposal, and an additional £17 million was found for the Probation Service for this year. So I do not think that we will take lessons on this subject from the noble Lord.

My Lords, of course it is right that the Government should seek to make efficiency savings across all expenditure. Can my noble friend provide an assurance that the efficiency savings demanded of the Probation Service will be no greater than those demanded of the Prison Service?

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend an assurance on the exact amounts because we do not know exactly what the figures will be. However, as I said in my first Answer, we are seeking efficiency savings over the next three years, as set out in the annual report. We want to be fair to every part of the Ministry of Justice.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that an across-the-board, unimaginative reduction of one-fortieth could be extremely counterproductive and could, indeed, foreclose the prospect of a non-custodial disposal in many appropriate cases, leading to a critical situation in relation to prison overcrowding?

My Lords, I agree absolutely with the noble Lord. If it were just done across the board and without any imagination at all, it would be an absurd thing to do. We have to concentrate on where savings can be made—and savings can be made in almost every organisation—while ensuring that we focus on dealing with offenders who have been in prison or been given community sentences. As the noble Lord will know, in February this year we announced a further investment, in addition to the investment that I mentioned, of £13.9 million over the next three years to fund six new intensive alternatives to custody projects. I hope that that is something that the House will support.

My Lords, when we fought through the Offender Management Bill last year the Government made it clear that they wanted offender management to be a seamless exercise both in prison and out of prison, which would require more resources for those out of prison. Have the Government now abandoned that objective?

No, my Lords, we certainly have not. Those who are out of prison on community sentences are the front-line people we are determined to ensure do not suffer as a result of any cuts which we have to make. We will concentrate on them as it is essential to go on helping them. The noble Lord heard me mention figures a few minutes ago. The amount of money that the Government have put in over a number of years, and the number of extra probation officers, is a good record.