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MPs debate new Sentencing Bill

MPs debated the new Sentencing Bill including some interesting points raised by Shadow Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood and Richard Burgon MP

MPs debated the new Sentencing Bill on Wednesday.

Interesting contributions included Richard Burgon MP who said: “I thank the Justice Secretary for giving way and very much welcome the introduction of the presumption against short sentences as a way, as he said, of cutting reoffending, cutting crime, cutting the number of victims and helping to turn lives around. However, that will mean greater pressure on probation services to do the job of rehabilitation outside a custodial setting. Lord Ramsbotham, who is sadly missed in this place and more widely, produced an excellent report, which I had commissioned, called “People Are Not Things”, about the future of a successful probation service. Will the Justice Secretary agree to meet me and representatives from the probation service to look at Lord Ramsbotham’s report and see how it could help to build the kind of probation service that we need?”

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said: “I am at pains to meet directly with the probation service—not just the leaders, important though they are, but frontline practitioners. They do an exceptionally important job. My mum trained as a probation officer and I know how much of a difference they make. I am speaking to them directly about the workload that they face and how they can target it to protect the public most effectively.”

Shadow Justice Secretary, Shabana Mahmood told MPs: “The truth is that the Government will not break the cycle of reoffending without a functioning probation service. It is therefore astonishing that there is nothing in the Bill or any accompanying document that prioritises or appropriately resources the probation service. Under this Government, we have seen the botched privatisation of the probation service. In fact, it was so disastrous that the Government then had to renationalise the same service. Only these Conservatives could manage to make an absolute mess of both.

“Today our probation service is understaffed, undervalued and overstretched. Workloads are soaring, almost 50,000 working days among probation staff have been lost due to stress and nearly 20% of the new trainee probation officers that the Government boast about recruiting have already quit. We have a probation service under huge pressure, and the problems of chronic understaffing point to a demoralised workforce and overstretched probation officers. In fact, the probation service is in such a poor state that in the 31 inspections since it was reunified in June 2021, only one has received a report of “good”. The rest were rated either as “requires improvement” or “inadequate”. The Government are simply failing to keep the probation service properly staffed, and these shortfalls could have dangerous consequences. Further pressures caused by the measures in the Bill and the end-of-custody supervised licence scheme have the potential to make matters much worse, and the Government’s strategy appears to be to take the pressure off the prison service, only to transfer it to the probation service instead. That is not good enough.

“The Secretary of State has previously claimed that he is giving an additional £155 million a year to the probation service, but he knows—and I know, and this House will know—that that is not new money. It was announced in 2020 as part of the reunification of the probation service, to help the service at that point to recruit staff, bring down caseloads and deliver better supervision of offenders in the community. It is fair to say that that money has not yet resulted in a service that is functioning as well as we would all, I am sure, want to see, and now there is to be a huge increase in its workload as a result of the measures in this Bill.

“The Government have provided no new funding, no new resources and no action plan to deal with the significant additional workload for the probation service. That is not credible, not reasonable and not safe. We will be tabling amendments in Committee to push the Government on their plans for the probation service, to ensure that it is working effectively and can deliver these new changes in a way that does not compromise public protection. We have all been witness to the tragic outcomes when the probation service fails, and it is paramount that the staffing and capacity issues in the service are urgently addressed before its workload is hugely increased by the measures in the Bill.

“We will not vote against the passage of this Bill today, even if we do believe that the Government owe it to this House and, more importantly, to all our constituents and victims of crime to be more honest about the real reasons why this Bill is before us. These are emergency measures dressed up as principled reforms, and the Government’s own failures have forced their hand. We have grave concerns that too many dangerous offenders have been kept in scope for suspended sentences and early release, and that the vital public protection work of our probation service has been overlooked, with potentially disastrous consequences.”

Rob Butler MP said: “I should also point out that it will, of course, be necessary to ensure that the probation service is properly resourced to support the additional offenders who will be serving their sentences in the community. Probation staff do an outstanding job, as I have seen for myself on many occasions. We must make sure that there are enough of them and that they have all they need to do an effective job in helping to reduce crime.”

Kevin Brennan commented: “Another day, another Department of Justice Bill before the House—or, as I call it, the Department of Justice Delayed. As our debate draws to a close, let us consider the gravity of the task at hand. This Bill is supposed to be rectifying problems in our criminal justice system, which is beleaguered by overcrowded prisons, an overstretched probation service and the dire consequences of the past 13 years of mismanagement. Over those 13 years under the current Government, we have observed the unfolding of what can only be described as a penal catastrophe. For over a decade, they have promised a robust and rigorous approach to law and order, but when it comes to justice it is the evidence that matters, and the evidence is clear beyond reasonable doubt.

“I will not detain the House much longer, because I know there is a statement to follow, but the Government’s narrative is one of a pivot towards rehabilitation and community sentencing. However, the reality is a narrative of necessity. The Government’s own impact assessment estimates an increased caseload of 1,700 to 6,800 cases due to more suspended sentences, and at least 850 due to the expansion of the home detention curfew, yet there is no corresponding increase in support for the probation service, which is already on its knees. How can we expect a system to rehabilitate people when that system itself is in need of urgent repair?

“Now we learn of the Government’s scheme to release offenders early on compassionate grounds, but it is a policy shrouded in secrecy, lacking the scrutiny of this House. This clandestine approach to justice is unacceptable. The British public deserve transparency, especially on matters that will have a direct impact on their safety and wellbeing. Let us not forget the Government’s botched privatisation and subsequent renationalisation of the probation service, which has done nothing but exacerbate the problems in our justice system. Probation is in such a dire state that of the 31 inspections by HM inspectorate of probation since reunification in 2021, only one has received a good rating. That is a damning indictment of the current Government’s ability to protect the public and rehabilitate offenders.

“The Labour party offers a different path—one of strategic foresight, and one that ensures that decisions about the running of prisons and probation services are driven by public safety, not political expediency. We take a different view from the Government. We believe in a justice system that is fair, robust and, above all, transparent. We recognise that to break the cycle of reoffending we must invest in our probation service and make it a beacon of rehabilitation. We understand that to truly protect the public, we must ensure that prisons are places where offenders can be securely housed and effectively reformed, within a justice system that stands as a testament to our values, not a monument to failure.

“The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon): The hon. Member went on to attack us over probation. She is right that some prison capacity measures will increase the demand for probation, but we are committed to ensuring that probation has the resource it needs to meet demand. This year we have already increased funding for the probation service by £155 million, to recruit staff, bring down case loads and better deliver the supervision of offenders in the community. We continue to focus on recruitment and retention, and we have accelerated the recruitment of trainee probation officers to increase staffing levels, particularly in areas with the most significant staffing challenges. As a result, we have increased staffing in the probation service by over 4,000 people since 2020.”

Read the debate in full here

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