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Probation Service: Chief Inspector’s Reviews into Serious Further Offences

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2023


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 24 January.

“Today the Chief Inspector of Probation has published his independent review into the probation service’s management of Jordan McSweeney, who brutally murdered Zara Aleena as she walked home after an evening out with friends. Today’s report follows another independent review into the management of Damien Bendall, who murdered an entire family, killing pregnant Terri Harris, her two children, John Paul and Lacey, and Lacey’s 11 year-old friend, Connie Gent. Bendall also pleaded guilty to rape.

The thoughts of us all are with the families and friends of the victims. They have gone through and continue to go through the most unimaginable suffering, and the passage of time will never diminish the magnitude of their loss. Immediately upon learning that first Bendall and then McSweeney had been charged with murder while subject to probation supervision, Ministers asked the chief inspector to undertake independent reviews. Both reviews set out clear and serious failings by the probation service. I am profoundly sorry for those failings, and the Deputy Prime Minister and I are seeking opportunities to make apologies in person. It is incumbent on us now to do everything we can to ensure that those failings do not and cannot happen ever again.

The chief inspector’s report is very clear: the level of risk posed by McSweeney and Bendall was not assessed properly by the probation service. If McSweeney had been assessed as posing a higher level of risk, he would have been more closely monitored by senior staff under more stringent licence conditions. If the report to the court had taken account of Bendall’s known risks to women and young girls, he would not have been recommended for an electronically monitored curfew to the home of Terri Harris and her two young children.

These basic but fundamental flaws meant that the plans drawn up by the probation service to manage each offender’s risk were not robust enough, and people were not properly protected. We are determined to make sure that those failings are not repeated. I will set out for the House the action this Government have already taken and the further action we will take to keep the public safe and to ensure that similar tragedies are prevented in future.

Jordan McSweeney sexually assaulted and killed 35 year-old Zara Aleena on 26 June, having been released from prison on licence on 17 June. At the point McSweeney was released, the probation service assessed him as presenting a medium rather than high risk of harm. The chief inspector finds that that assessment was flawed, based on the clear information and intelligence available to the probation service at the time.

A long criminal history showed offences escalating in severity and levels of violence. McSweeney had been in and out of prison on multiple occasions, including for breaching licence conditions after attacking a female acquaintance. At the time of Ms Aleena’s murder, McSweeney was unlawfully at large after failing to attend three probation appointments, his licence having been revoked.

Had all of the information held on McSweeney been properly considered by the probation service at the time, his risk would have been set at a higher level. In particular, his risk of violence towards women would have been flagged as a concern. He would have been under more stringent licence conditions and monitored by a more senior member of probation staff. He would not have been given a third opportunity to attend an appointment with his probation officer but would have been recalled to custody after his second missed appointment.

The chief inspector’s review into Damien Bendall highlights similar serious failings. When Bendall killed Terri Harris and her unborn child, her children, and their friend Connie Gent, he was serving a 24-month suspended sentence order for arson and had previously been in prison for violent offences. As with McSweeney, the chief inspector found that the probation service’s assessment and supervision of Bendall were unacceptable, with critical opportunities to correct errors missed at every stage.

Bendall’s risk level was miscategorised at the point when he was sentenced for the arson offence. Indeed, the report produced for the courts to inform the sentencing decision was flawed. Given the known domestic violence concerns, the report should never have proposed that Bendall be curfewed to the home of Ms Harris and her children. The poor risk assessment meant that his case was handled by a less experienced member of staff who was inadequately supervised by a senior manager.

These were appalling crimes. In response, the Chief Probation Officer has apologised to the victims’ families for the unacceptable failings in these cases, and two members of staff involved in the Bendall case, and one in the McSweeney case, are subject to disciplinary proceedings. Apologies will not bring those loved ones back, but it is right that the probation service acknowledges and learns lessons from its mistakes so that they will not be made again. The probation service has accepted all the chief inspector’s recommendations in each case and put in place robust action plans, which will strengthen probation practice to better protect the public. That includes better information sharing between police, probation and courts, and improving the quality of court reports and support for senior probation officers to manage complex teams and case loads.

As of April last year, probation service staff must now gather domestic abuse information from police, and child safeguarding information in all cases, before making a recommendation to the court that an offender may be suitable for an electronically monitored curfew. Probation service staff are also required to ask for information from children’s services in every case—regardless of the sentence—in which the offender has children, is in contact with children, is seeking contact with children, or presents a potential risk of harm to children.

We are providing an additional £5.5 million a year to recruit more probation staff who are specifically responsible for accessing domestic abuse information held by the police, and children’s safeguarding information held by councils. We have introduced a new child safeguarding policy framework, setting out clear requirements and best practice to support staff. We have introduced a section on the offender management system that considers solely the well-being and safety of children, and senior probation officers must now record why they have allocated a case to a particular probation officer. That must include evidence that the senior probation officer has fully considered the complexity of the case, the risk that the offender poses, and the experience and workload of the probation staff member taking on the case.

More broadly, we have unified the probation service to raise standards. We recognise that the probation service needs more staff, and that is why we have invested heavily by injecting additional funding of more than £155 million a year to deliver tougher supervision of offenders, reduce case loads and recruit thousands more staff to make the public safer. That has helped us to boost our number of trainee probation officers by 2,500 over the last two years, and we plan to recruit a further 1,500 by the end of the year ending in March.

Beyond our changes to probation, our parole reforms have public safety at their core. Our root and branch review of the parole system, which was published last year, set out changes that will increase ministerial oversight of release decisions for the most serious criminals. That will ensure that public protection is at the forefront of all parole decisions, so that the British people can have greater confidence in the system. We are making the release test more prescriptive, so that it is absolutely clear that prisoners should continue to be detained unless it can be demonstrated they no longer present a risk of further serious offending. For the most serious offenders—those sentenced for murder, rape, causing or allowing the death of a child, and terrorist offences—we want Ministers to have the power to refuse a release decision made by the Parole Board if they believe that the criteria for release have not been met. We have introduced greater scrutiny of Parole Board recommendations on open prison moves, and a more stringent test to be met before transferring a prisoner to open conditions. The Parole Board recommendation will be rejected if the criteria are not met.

Finally, I will address the issue of offenders who refuse to attend court for sentencing. I am sure that the whole House would agree that it is entirely unacceptable for criminals such as McSweeney, and Koci Selamaj, who murdered Sabina Nessa, to cower in court cells and refuse to come up for sentencing. That denies victims and their families the opportunity at least to look offenders in the eye as they deliver their victim impact statements and to know that those statements have been heard. To that end, we are looking at measures to make sure that criminals show their face in court for sentencing.

The first duty of any Government is to keep the public safe. Our reforms of probation and parole have that principle at their heart. Nothing can bring back Zara Aleena, Terri Harris, John Paul Bennett, Lacey Bennett and Connie Gent, but it is absolutely vital that we do everything in our power to make sure that that kind of tragedy can never happen again. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, last Tuesday, the Minister Damian Hinds gave a Statement commenting on the Chief Inspector of Probation’s independent review of the probation service’s management of particular cases. In that, he referred to murders in the most distressing of circumstances. While the report rightly draws attention to probation failures in process and practice which led to these deaths, I want to ask the Government how we got to this position.

In 2014, the Government embarked on their disastrous privatisation of the probation service. In 2020, they abandoned this experiment and brought it back under state control. For 100 years, probation had benefited from local connections, a degree of local autonomy and professionalism. Unfortunately, in 2020, instead of reinstating local links, the probation functions were squeezed into the Civil Service. The independence and ability to speak out about local issues has gone. On-the-ground contacts with voluntary organisations and essential services such as housing have gone. The very things that are proven to prevent reoffending are gone. Heavy workloads, high vacancy rates and newly recruited, young and inexperienced staff who lack managers to guide their complex work are all factors that lead to mistakes. Ultimately, they endanger the public. This deterioration only makes more pointless deaths likelier. Does the Minister agree that we should reinstate the links to local government so that housing, health, the police and voluntary organisations can play their part?

I agree that strategic direction and inspection must be a central government responsibility, but local management is the best chance for reviving the probation service. Information sharing across services would improve if data about any individual offender were held in one place. This would allow better-informed risk assessment and supervision. Why have the Government still not introduced this centralised database?

The fact is that the Government knew about the problems highlighted in this report but failed to act on them, so they must shoulder their fair share of responsibility. It is right that the chief probation officer has apologised. Will the Minister accept responsibility and apologise not just for the service’s failure but for the Government’s failure to tackle the severe staff shortages and excessive case loads that contributed to what went so tragically wrong?

My Lords, these two appalling cases have shocked and horrified us all. Our deepest sympathies go out to the families of the innocent victims. These reviews record a catalogue of mistakes, miscalculations and failures to act. In view of the Lord Speaker’s ruling, I shall not go into the detail of McSweeney’s case.

In Bendall’s case, against a background of domestic abuse dating back to 2016 and a clear risk of sexual abuse of girls dating back to March 2020, he was assessed in a pre-sentence report in June 2021 as a medium risk of serious harm to the public and, incredibly, as a low risk of harm to partners and children. The so-called fast delivery pre-sentence report was described in the review of his case as “inappropriate”—an understatement, I suggest. As a result, for an offence of arson Bendall was given a suspended sentence order with an electronically monitored curfew requirement that he reside with Terri Harris and her children. The probation service had made no contact with Ms Harris before Bendall’s sentencing and no assessment of the risk to her and her children. In September 2021, he murdered Ms Harris, who was pregnant, her two children and an 11 year-old friend of theirs, raping one of the children.

We can date the parlous state of the probation service to its disastrous privatisation in 2014 and the inevitably challenging attempt to reverse the damage in 2021. However, it is still plagued by a lack of resources and dismally low morale. Of course, we welcome the extra £5.5 million per year for more staff to access domestic abuse and child safeguarding information, but why is it so late? How will the Government ensure that this new investment addresses poor information sharing and the lack of consideration for the welfare of children?

The extra £155 million per year for more probation staff will help, particularly if it really does yield a net extra 4,000 probation officers over three years. However, Andy Slaughter MP pointed out in the House of Commons that more than 50% of probation officer posts in London are vacant. Does the Minister agree that filling the vacancies with suitable candidates is a huge challenge? Retention of experienced officers is also vital; as is high-quality training and building confidence that officers are fully informed and that their decisions are not impossibly pressured. In the other place, Sir Robert Neill, the chair of the Justice Committee, pointed out that these issues had all been highlighted by his committee in April 2021. Will the Minister explain how the Government now plan to tackle all these extremely difficult issues?

My Lords, I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing once again our deep condolences and sorrow to the victims in these two cases. I will not, if your Lordships permit, go into details which have already been set out in the House of Commons and have been mentioned today. However, I repeat unreservedly on behalf of the Government the profound apology for serious failings in probation supervision in these two cases already made by my right honourable friend Damian Hinds MP, Minister for Prisons and Probation, in the House of Commons on Tuesday 24 January. The chief probation officer has also made that apology to the families concerned.

As the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord Marks, have already said, the primary duty of the Government now is to do all we can to address these failings and ensure, as far as possible, that this kind of thing can never happen again. As the Chief Inspector of Probation found in his highly critical reports, the central problem in both these cases was that the level of risk was not assessed properly. Both criminals concerned were assessed as medium risk when they should have been assessed as high risk in light of their long and often dangerous criminal histories. However, the questions we have to address, which have rightly been raised, are: what are the Government doing about it and how we can move forward from here?

First, at a very high level, the probation service has been reunified with a view to raising standards. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, mentioned the history of this matter and mention has also been made of the privatisation of the service. The Government believed it right to bring that arrangement to an end, and are currently engaged in restoring, reinforcing and improving the service.

The Government recognise that the probation service needs more staff, and an additional £155 million has been invested in that endeavour. This has led to an increase of 2,500 trainee probation officers over the last two years, and a further 1,500 officers are to be recruited by the end of March 2023. I am advised that that is on track.

More specifically, in relation to the circumstances of these specific cases, the Chief Inspector of Probation has produced two detailed reports which in turn have engendered two action plans by HMPPS published on 17 and 24 January respectively.

In the case of Bendall, the report made 17 recommendations, all of which have been accepted, and most have already been actioned. I will briefly run through the steps that have been taken so that we can understand what is in progress.

First, domestic abuse inquiries must be routinely carried out in all cases where an electronically monitored curfew is being considered, with a detailed assessment of any risk of harm.

Will the Minister give way on that point? He said that there would be domestic abuse inquiries, and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, mentioned the £5.5 million for them, which was in the Statement. What exactly are the inquiries? Are they checking what I would call “call-outs” and social service records? I am talking not about convictions but about call-outs by the police to domestic situations, which are recorded, and the wider social service records, which are sometimes used in courts in different contexts. Is that the information that he is referring to?

My understanding is that this covers relevant inquiries by the police and children’s services and any history of restraining orders or other similar court action in the past relating to domestic abuse, but I will write to the noble Lord to confirm how far it reaches. I do not know whether that answers the noble Lord’s question.

Not quite. The practice in family courts, domestic abuse courts and criminal courts is to get more information than the Minister has just alluded to—namely, call-outs. That is when the police are called to a situation. There may be no action taken, but the record of the call-out is kept and passed to family courts in some circumstances, and sometimes to criminal courts as well. I am just checking that that is the information that will be available to the probation service.

I cannot confirm it at this moment. My understanding is that such information should be available if it is recorded in the police record, and not just if there was a consequence—so if a call-out had occurred, even if there was no further action. I ask the noble Lord to allow me to confirm that to be absolutely sure that I have understood the question and given the correct answer.

I am terribly sorry to interrupt again but, to follow that up, because it is a very important point, the Statement talks about this money being spent

“to recruit more probation staff who are specifically responsible for accessing domestic abuse information held by the police,”—

with which the Minister has dealt—

“and children’s safeguarding information held by councils”.

When he goes back, it is important that he finds out whether information held by councils on domestic abuse would also be researched, because that can also be very valuable to the probation service.

My understanding is that that is the case but, again, I will confirm it to make absolutely sure that we have the right information for your Lordships. As the noble Lord rightly emphasised, one of the further recommendations is that a child safeguarding inquiry be carried out in all cases where the person concerned either lives with or is likely to have contact with any relevant child, and there are new training and procedures to achieve that.

There are further specific measures to ensure the safety of children, involving a separate section in the OASys—the offender assessment system; a new child safeguarding policy framework; revision of training in producing pre-sentence reports to improve the quality; more support and mentoring for trainee probation officers, with new learning tools and opportunities; and a better framework to guide senior probation officers when allocating cases to more junior probation officers.

Those recommendations are complemented by the report relating to the case of McSweeney, which has 10 further recommendations. It proposes first a thorough review of the processes for assessing the risk of harm, because what went wrong in these two specific cases was that the risk was underassessed. As I understand it, that was partly because not all the information that was on the system was properly assessed or accessed by the relevant staff. It was also, particularly in one of the cases, partly because relevant information was not properly shared between the various elements, particularly the Prison and Probation Service in the community. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, rightly made the point about how important it is that we have a consolidated system in which all information is available to everyone, so that nothing falls through the cracks or is missed.

That is essentially part of the recommendations, particularly in the McSweeney case, for improved processes to ensure that all information on past behaviour and current risks while in prison is shared in a timely and effective manner, particularly between the prison offender manager—the probation officer looking after the prisoner in prison—and the community offender manager who will be responsible for managing the person concerned in the community. That includes better procedures and allocation of cases before a prisoner is released, so that there is proper communication between the relevant prison offender manager and the relevant community offender manager so that there is continuity and overall management when a prisoner is released. It also includes the tightening up of all recall decisions being signed off by a senior probation officer within 24 hours, which was one of the problems in one of the cases, and close monitoring of the licence conditions. So a range of steps are being taken.

I will briefly turn to the questions that your Lordships quite understandably posed. In his reports, the inspector does not make a link between the effect of the previous privatisation arrangements and these particular cases. I do not think I am revealing any secrets if I say that the Government came to the view that the earlier arrangements were not working properly and the situation had to be reformed, which is why the probation service was reunited.

On the local links question, I have every reason to suppose—but, again, I will clarify this with the service and write appropriately to your Lordships—that, although the emphasis has perhaps moved to more central management, as is probably inevitable in the present modern circumstances, one should not underestimate the importance of local links, particularly with the voluntary sector. I will ascertain and obtain further information on how that particular important aspect is being addressed, in answer to the question of how far the links to local government agencies are being reinstated or used—this is an important question, and your Lordships need to know the answer, so I will endeavour to give more detail on it.

I have addressed the importance of the information on an individual offender being held in one place and combined, which will improve information sharing. In the brief time available, I have done my best to explain how the information sharing will be improved. It is true that filling the relevant vacancies is a large challenge, and it is particularly so in London, where some areas have had particular difficulties—I am sure that noble Lords are broadly familiar with the situation. Some senior management has had to be replaced, and various remedial action plans are in force to address this; it is all taken extremely seriously. I hope and trust that we will see significant improvements as the increasing staff gradually gain experience and come through the system. There has been a remarkable increase in the number of recruits in the last two or three years.

All in all, the Government’s position is that a great number of positive actions are being taken. I have apologised deeply and sincerely for these particular incidents involving these victims, to whom our hearts of course go out. I do not think I am in a position to give a wider apology than that but I will put one matter in perspective. I am sure it is your Lordships’ experience that, within probation services and prison services, we have many dedicated professionals who go the extra mile to ensure our safety and look after their charges. When things go wrong, they are as devastated as the rest of us. I would not want it to be thought that the front-line staff, whom I personally salute, are under undue criticism in these cases. I hope I have explained the steps being taken to improve the system at all levels and to avert future tragedies of this kind.

My Lords, I hesitate to stand up, although things are getting better now, as the formidable yellow flashing time constraint of 20 minutes was before us, but it seems that it has been recognised that the time allocated to this business is 40 minutes. Before I ask the Minister a question, I associate myself with the words of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and those of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and the questions that they put. I would also like to recall what it was like working with the probation service long ago, when I was a young barrister. In those days, it was in the Quarter Sessions and the Assize Court, not in the Crown Court. We all had a great respect for the probation service then. It was under fewer constraints than it has recently been, and it was then part of the government service. When I was practising at the Bar those years ago, the responsibility of the probation service did not extend to the post-prison time. It is quite clear that responsibility has now been placed—and I notice the Minister nodding—on the probation service. That, of course, requires that information be passed from the prison service to the probation officers so they can take on that new responsibility. Does the Minister think that this a good system?

I too have a fond memory of that probation service, as it was then. As I appeared only once at the Quarter Sessions before they were replaced by the Crown Court, I bow respectfully to the seniority of the noble Lord, who has clear recollection of both Quarter Sessions and, of course, the magistrates’ courts. It is completely right that, in those days, the probation service dealt very largely with people who were put on probation. Those were, generally speaking, the lower-level offences, where you still had some chance of not imposing a custodial sentence and some hope of avoiding it. At a point—I would be hard pressed on the hoof to say exactly when, but it is quite a long time ago—the probation service was given the further duty of managing prisoners who had been released in the community. Systems have been developed —in some cases, very sophisticated systems—for managing that risk. The view of both Governments has been that we now have to manage the progressively more dangerous, difficult and chaotic released prisoners, who are very often drug users or have alcohol problems—they need support and that is provided through the probation service. In specific answer to the noble Lord’s question—is this a good idea?—the Government’s view is that, yes, it is a good idea. We cannot do without it, in effect, but it does need particular skills and training, especially with the higher-risk offenders, for whom there is a special system called MAPPA. Matters have moved on since our joint recollection of the past, and, in today’s conditions, there is no alternative.

Sitting suspended.