Staff running Sherbourne House, the community centre for juvenile offenders, proudly told him about an 18-year-old burglar who had learnt Spanish and would soon be heading to Madrid to test his skills.
But far from being impressed, the Home Secretary exploded. 'This is quite extraordinary]' he exclaimed, and began a hostile cross-examination to find out how it was that a young criminal could get a foreign holiday. Then Mr Howard marched out.
Decisive action followed. Last Wednesday David Maclean, the Home Office minister, told the Commons: 'Community penalties should be just that - penalties. A cushy foreign holiday . . . is clearly an unacceptable response to offending.' He promised new national standards which would ensure 'offenders receive proper punishment'.
But an important flaw in the ministers' shocked response was that the boy was not going on holiday at public expense.
'He was applying to charities so he could get the money to follow a Spanish course,' said a probation officer at the centre. 'The money had no connection with the Home Office, probation service or any other public body. But Howard did not go into where it was coming from. In fact, the lad was unable to raise enough and cancelled the trip.'
Probation union leaders condemned the 'deep ignorance and prejudice' the incident revealed.
But they will not be able to stop a tough new approach to probation which will transform the service, senior sources told the Independent on Sunday last week.
Proposals on ministers' desks include diluting the training requirements for probation officers and encouraging the recruitment of large numbers of ex-servicemen.
The courts will be urged to send to prison three or four thousand offenders who receive probation at present.
Altered training is seen as the key, because ministers perceive probation workers as left- wingers out of sympathy with the Government's crackdown on crime.
At a recent meeting Mr Maclean said 'we've got to do something about the type of people we employ (as probation officers).'
Mr Maclean hopes for the recruitment of army sergeants and other non-commissioned officers who are being made redundant in the rolling programme of defence cuts.
He wants to see a disciplinarian culture instilled among probation officers instead of the two-year university social work course.
The first sign of the hard- line approach came last Friday, when the probation officers' union was told that spending on the service would fall by pounds 13m next year and by pounds 31m in 1995. Seven bail hostels will be closed. The number of training places will be cut by 25 per cent.
Michael Ward, spokesman for the Association of Chief Probation Officers, said: 'Any dilution in training would be a retrograde step. Probation officers have to be able to deal with all kinds of social and psychological problems and, with all due respect to the forces, a lifetime spent in the Army is not adequate training.'
Probation staff have responded angrily to the growing attacks. Union leaders pointed out that recent scandals - the case of the teenage Shropshire car thief who was sent on a pounds 20,000 trip to Portugal - were the responsibility of local authority social service departments, not the probation service.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'The fact that we have Mr Howard exploding with rage about a boy who wants to go to Spain under his own steam, and never even makes the trip, shows that ministers are basing their policies on prejudice and ignorance.
'We supervise 120,000 offenders each year,' he added, 'and are far more successful in diverting them from crime than the prisons.'Reuse content