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National Criminal Justice Board

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether there is a representative with operational experience of the National Probation Service on the National Criminal Justice Board.

My Lords, before I answer the right reverend Prelate’s Question, perhaps I may on behalf of the Leader of the House and the whole House mention that another right reverend Prelate is leaving us today, one for whom many of us have great affection, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. I know that the House will wish him well.

Phil Wheatley, director-general of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) represents the prison and probation services on the National Criminal Justice Board. He has 40 years’ experience working with and managing offenders.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer and recognise the experience and expertise of the director-general of NOMS. Is the Minister aware of the unease among the 22,000 people in the probation service that there is no one with present probation service experience on the National Criminal Justice Board who is able to feed into strategic policy at a national level? In the light of recent tragedies involving the probation service, will the Government be prepared to think again about how the National Criminal Justice Board is made up?

My Lords, Ministers have only recently taken the decision to slim down membership of the NCJB in order to facilitate discussions. That body is a high-level forum in which senior members of the three criminal justice departments and criminal justice agency heads come together. Phil Wheatley is the head of the new NOMS agency, which brings together the probation and prison services. He is responsible for representing the agency on the NCJB, a task he performs with great expertise.

My Lords, can the Minister explain, however, why the post of director of the National Probation Service was abolished? I am well aware of the expertise of Phil Wheatley, but, as the right reverend Prelate just said, a very important voice has been removed from the hierarchy of NOMS. After all, one of the chief aims of the board is to remove barriers to joint working. This seems to be going right against that, given that the probation service represents one of the most important agencies in the field.

My Lords, of course it represents a very important agency. The noble Baroness knows that the new arrangements for NOMS in no way discount the probation service. The NOMS agency is not a merger of the probation and prison services; nor is it a prison service takeover of probation services; nor vice versa. Both remain as individual delivery services with their different governance and employment structures. Indeed, on local criminal justice boards, both probation and prison are represented.

My Lords, the very differences that the noble Lord points out point, I would have thought, to the necessity of having a direct voice from the probation service on the board, which has the duty of directing strategic resources and achieving objectives. There are 42 probation boards employing 20,000 people in that work. Surely it is necessary to have someone with direct and current experience of that work to help the board in coming to its vital decisions.

My Lords, the truth is that the probation service is excellently represented on the national body by the director-general of NOMS, who is a most experienced person in the field. Every criminal justice agency has but one representative on this slimmed-down board. For example, ACPO and the Metropolitan Police have one representative, and the chief executive of the Legal Services Commission has one representative, as does the chief executive of Her Majesty’s Courts Service. It is the same with NOMS.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the report just issued by the Commission on English Prisons Today, a distinguished group chaired by Cherie Booth QC? It suggests that there is now a considerable case for abolishing NOMS. Those of us who fought the construction of NOMS less than three years ago, and who were not persuaded then, are very struck by the language in the commission’s report, which suggests that the creation of NOMS has been a mistake in many ways.

My Lords, I have not had the benefit of seeing the report, but we believe that arrangements to set up NOMS have so far proved to be a success. It is early days as it has run only since April 2009. It is likely to save £10 million this year, but that is not its purpose. The purpose of NOMS is to make sure that these two very closely related services, probation and prison, which both deal with the management of offenders, should work more closely together.

My Lords, under the Criminal Justice Liaison Committee, which preceded the board, prisons and the probation service were both represented because the probation service worked with courts and the police and the prisons did not and do not. Mr Wheatley has prison experience; he does not have probation experience. Is it not sensible to include both parts of the criminal justice system and the management of offenders system because they have different things to bring to the table?

My Lords, at the risk of repeating myself, Mr Wheatley is the director-general of the National Offender Management Service, which is responsible for both probation and prisons. He may not have been a probation officer, but he has huge experience of dealing with offenders, working with them and managing them. He represents the probation element extremely well on that board, and I repeat that on the 42 local boards, there are representatives of both probation and prisons.