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National Offender Management Service

Volume 454: debated on Monday 4 December 2006

3. What recent progress he has made on plans for the future of the National Offender Management Service; and if he will make a statement. (106792)

The National Offender Management Service is rolling out offender management in custody and the community. The Offender Management Bill, which will support the development of NOMS, was introduced in the House on 22 November.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware—as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary certainly will be—of the arrangements in Scotland that put statutory duties on the probation service to co-operate and work in partnership with other agencies. Why cannot we enter into such arrangements in England and Wales—I think everyone would welcome that, and it would go some way towards achieving the targets being set—rather than implement the current proposals, which, however they are dressed up, will mean that there are significant possibilities of the privatisation of core parts of the probation service?

There are lessons to be learned from Scotland, but there is a different legal system there that cannot apply to the UK. I certainly do not accept—I am thankful for the opportunity to say this—that the proposals under the Offender Management Bill are about privatisation; they are about providing the best value partnership for the public to ensure that we tackle reoffending, which everybody is committed to doing.

The proposals that we are bringing forward—which I am sure we will debate at length and in great detail over coming weeks and months—will give us all an opportunity to look at the real issue, which is that we need to do something different from now on. The status quo cannot continue, and we need to look into the probation service.

Is the Minister aware of the report published last week by the Responsible Authorities Group on the effect of local drug rehabilitation services in Weston-super-Mare, about which I have written to the Home Secretary? Does the Minister share my concern that it says that three people who were sent by the probation service for drug addiction treatment in Weston-super-Mare in the last year have died as a result of poor management of their cases by the national probation service, and will he undertake to visit Weston-super-Mare to understand what is going on there—and, potentially, to improve the service?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I am not aware of the letter to the Home Secretary, but I will look into that, and if it is pertinent for me to visit Weston-super-Mare, I will be happy to do so.

I tabled a written parliamentary question regarding continuing consultation with the National Association of Probation Officers—the representative body for probation officers—and I was somewhat surprised to receive the answer that there has been very little of late. Is it not still, at this eleventh hour, worth going back to NAPO to see whether it is possible to get a proper evolutionary change, rather than what might come forward next Monday?

I do not know where my hon. Friend got that answer, but I have certainly met NAPO on numerous occasions and will continue to do so. It is important that the style of our operation should be that we get to the core of the issues. Clearly, NAPO has its members to protect and it is prepared to stick out to protect them in all circumstances; that is its role. Our role should be to tackle reoffending. We need to look at the best ways we can achieve that.

I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) that this operation is not about privatisation. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) knows that organisations such as the NACRO and Shelter have great expertise in resettlement. Surely he is not arguing against such bodies being allowed to look into resettlement and doing work that the probation service currently does. These issues are important. If we are serious about tackling reoffending, we have to ensure that we get the best possible services for the public.

As the Minister has rightly said, cutting the reoffending rate is clearly of the essence. Given that the governor of Polmont young offenders institution has stated publicly on the record that his speech and language therapist is his single most important member of staff—in enabling boys to access education in order to express their needs, that therapist is vital to their rehabilitation—will the Minister look sympathetically at amending the forthcoming Bill to commit the Government to ensuring that a speech and language therapist is deployed by every young offenders institution in this country?

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject. In this regard, I agree with Lord Ramsbotham, who is also pushing the issue. During the Bill’s progress, I shall be happy to consider ways in which we can improve the situation regarding speech therapy. The hon. Gentleman will know that there are implications for the Department of Health and for the Department for Education and Skills, and I am happy to discuss the matter with other Ministers to see what progress can be made.

I share the Minister’s desire to open up the provision of probation services to a wider range of organisations, but does he share my view that, because many local authorities already have responsibility for housing, training, employment and community facilities, they are ideally placed to be providers of some NOMS services and to bring the different agencies together? Will he confirm that the NOMS Bill will enable local authorities to put themselves forward as new providers?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, for raising the issue of the role of local authorities. It seems to me that once someone becomes an offender, they are forgotten, or seen as something different, by our communities, and he is right to say that local authorities have a key role to play here. I was pleased to see that, two weeks ago, the Local Government Association produced a pamphlet called “Neighbourhood to Neighbourhood”. That is the first time in my memory that local government has accepted its responsibilities in dealing with offenders, including by using its expertise in housing, social services and many other areas. I agree with my right hon. Friend that this is a core issue, and I can assure him that we will look at it and that the NOMS Bill will give local authorities the opportunity to be involved.