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Probation Service Officers

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 14 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the entry qualifications and initial training requirements for a probation service officer; and how they differ from those required for a probation officer.

My Lords, no minimum entry qualifications are required for probation service officers or trainee probation officers. The 42 separate probation areas recruit probation service officers locally to nationally agreed role profiles and competencies. Probation service officer training is delivered locally, in line with a nationally agreed core framework. Trainee probation officer entry requirements are based on a nationally agreed competency-based application and assessment centre process. The training lasts two years, resulting in an honours degree in community justice and a diploma in probation studies.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply but perhaps I may reinterpret what he said. Can he confirm that there are in fact two types of probation staff: those with no entry qualifications who are trained for six weeks and those who are trained to degree level? Can he also confirm that between 2000 and 2007 the number of degree-level probation staff fell by 4 per cent and the number of six-week trained staff increased by 75 per cent, so that there are now more six-week trained than degree-level trained people? In the light of the work that we expect the service to do, does he agree that this reduction in the skill levels of the probation service is highly undesirable?

My Lords, I am afraid I do not agree with the noble Baroness on that. I believe that the report to which she refers is Probation Resources, Staffing and Workloads 2001-08, prepared on behalf of Napo. There has been a response to it from the Government. The figures are inaccurate. The number of professionally qualified probation officers in this period did not decrease by 4 per cent but increased by 20 per cent. The inaccuracy in the report was caused by double-counting, with probation officers in training both being counted as a separate group and being included in the figures for qualified probation officers. Therefore, I am afraid that on that point at least the report was wildly inaccurate.

My Lords, in that case, can the noble Lord kindly tell us what was the average caseload for probation service officers—that is, the lower level that we are speaking about—in Kent at the end of last year? I have seen it reported as being more than 56 cases each.

My Lords, Kent has confirmed that its current average caseload for a PSO is 68.8, which includes both offenders in prison and those serving their sentence in the community. Of course, it is expected that probation service officers will carry a higher caseload of low-risk offenders, particularly those in unpaid work, while trained probation officers will undertake more intensive work with a smaller number of high-risk offenders.

My Lords, in the light of the rapidly increasing caseloads for probation officers and probation service officers, what investment have the Government put into training probation officers in the past three years? More importantly, what investment do they plan for the future in the light of the current situation?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that there has been a sustained increase in probation service funding over the past 12 years. Indeed, between 1997 and 2007 total funding for probation rose by 70 per cent in real terms. The probation service is a high-performing organisation, achieving all but one of its targets in 2008-09. The noble Baroness will also know that there are proposals for the future training of both probation officers and probation service officers. Those proposals, set out in the new probation qualifications framework, are currently out for consultation with a return date of 31 July this year.

My Lords, what are the current requirements for a probation service officer to qualify? Is it correct that it is six weeks’ training and no educational qualifications?

My Lords, it is not six weeks’ training at all. Probation support officers do 12 months’ work in an area of the probation service. As part of that they are given core competencies and they are taught various things by various groups. Training is dealt with locally and, at the end of the 12-month period of training in a particular probation area, they qualify as probation support officers. However, under the new scheme the training will be somewhat different.

My Lords, in speaking about the training of probation officers, the Minister referred to the fact that their training proposals were out for review. In the mean time, according to the Home Office website this morning, all training has stopped. Will the Minister tell the House for how long that will be the case and whether we can assume that there will be no recruitment in the mean time?

My Lords, the noble Lord cannot assume that at all. He takes me by surprise when he says that the Home Office website says that. This is a matter for the Ministry of Justice.

My Lords, as the Minister knows, offenders in the community are categorised from tier 4 down to tier 1, tier 4 being the most serious. Can the Minister confirm that no category 4 prisoners or offenders are being supervised by anything other than qualified probation officers?

My Lords, offenders can be categorised as requiring a tier-4 level of service either because they are assessed as posing a high risk of serious harm, and thus need the full range of intense interventions, or because they may be assessed as being very likely to reoffend prolifically. A probation service officer would rarely be an offender manager in a high-risk-of-serious-harm case but would work as the offender supervisor under the supervision of a probation officer.