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Probation Workforce Strategy

Volume 805: debated on Monday 21 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many probation staff will be needed to implement the Probation Workforce Strategy, published on 30 July.

My Lords, the Probation Workforce Strategy outlines our investment in the probation workforce, which supports its vital role in reducing reoffending. We are committed to recruiting 1,000 new trainee probation officers in 2021, with an additional 530 already in training. We will invest in the skills and professional development of our workforce as part of the Government’s efforts to make this country safer, alongside the recruitment of 20,000 more police officers and 10,000 new prison places.

My Lords, I sympathise with the Minister and welcome her to the Dispatch Box; she has not had much time to master the subject. I must admit that I find it simply amazing that the Government should publish what they call a “workforce strategy” document without stating the size of that workforce. Without knowing its size, how can anyone involved in recruitment or training know the size of the shortfall and therefore whether the strategy is working?

My Lords, as of 30 June 2020, the National Probation Service employed 9,383 staff in post, full-time equivalents. That included 3,613 probation officers and 2,546 probation service officers. So we do know how many people we employ; the 1,000 are over and above those so that we can deliver a safer country.

My Lords, it is a question not just of numbers, although they are vital, but of the qualifications of those who are coming in. At its best—it has a very distinguished past—the probation service was about helping people form friendships and feel that they are part of society. It takes a great deal of patience, understanding and skill to do this and build a real relationship with the people concerned. Can we be assured that the work being done to recruit these people is about not just numbers—although, as I say, that is vital—but the quality and type of person being brought into the service?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that it is not just about numbers. However, it takes two years to recruit and train a probation officer; they undergo job training and earn qualifications during their first 15 to 21 months of employment. It is also important that we recruit the right people. It is interesting that in the recent campaign to recruit probation officers, we have had 6,000 applications over the last four months. That has exceeded our target by 250%. More importantly, applications from BAME candidates totalled 27.4%, which exceeded the target, and in London we are attracting the highest numbers of BAME candidates, at 59%.

My Lords, in the case of the probation service, the outsourcing of the coercive power of the state, removing the Government’s direct responsibility for decisions about people’s liberty and physical control over their bodies, went predictably and disastrously wrong. Will the Government commit to not making that choice again in probation, prisons and immigration detention, and move to take full and proper responsibility for and control over their actions?

By moving to a National Probation Service, we will be taking full control of that service in future, as of June 2021.

My Lords, I am sure it is only right and proper that we should all be grateful to those working in the probation service. But does my noble friend agree that staff working for voluntary and community organisations across the country also play a crucial role in supporting offenders and turning their lives around? Will she explain how the Government plan to support this voluntary sector as part of their reforms?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. The expertise and commitment of the voluntary sector organisations are absolutely vital in helping offenders turn their lives around. Over 10,000 people are employed in the specialist criminal justice voluntary organisations. Our plan for the National Probation Service is to have a dynamic framework which will allow it to directly commission rehabilitative services in a way that encourages the participation of a range of suppliers, including smaller suppliers, which are often in the voluntary sector. These services must be responsive to the needs of the local areas in which they work. We anticipate eventually spending over £100 million a year on these services. I am delighted that at this time over 180 organisations have already registered to bid for contracts on the dynamic framework, and that 60% of them are voluntary organisations.

My Lords, while this strategy has all the hallmarks of a very modern, forward-looking strategy for the workforce, any workforce of this sort needs to have the resource to be able to do the job properly. Key to that is the financial lever. Could the Minister tell us whether there are plans, in the work that is being done locally, particularly with local authorities, housing associations, the health service and other voluntary bodies, to give a financial lever to probation officers so that they have some role to play in engaging with services and with their funding?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the probation service never does anything on its own. It is important that it looks to work with local authorities, the private sector and the voluntary sector to deliver those areas, and that it uses its money across those other areas to deliver the right services.

I declare my interests as set out in the register and welcome my noble friend the Minister. Could she explain how the Government plan to retain the talented staff currently in service?

We know that the workforce issues are about not just the recruitment but the retention, as the noble Lord says, of some really excellent staff. It is important, and we must admit that high workloads are an issue for probation officers at the moment. We have a workforce programme and we will develop a three to five-year retention strategy to find practical solutions to ensure that we keep the talent we already have—or have had and who want to come back. That is looking at things that are much more about the well-being of our staff.

Many years ago when I was a young barrister, I was advised that when defending a client who was about to be sentenced and wanting to persuade the judge to take a lenient course, I should first speak to the probation officer. If I could persuade him or her of my arguments, that would be the best way to influence the judge. Through no fault of the probation service, unfortunately that trust was undermined. I hope that the probation officers who are now being recruited will restore that trust and will have their attention drawn to the fact that it is very important that they manage to persuade the judiciary of their competence in their work.

My Lords, I do not know about the history that the noble and learned Lord mentions, but I know that we have committed and professional staff in the probation service who will work tirelessly to ensure that they put their points forward and do their work to make sure that our country is safe.

Sitting suspended.