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Offender Management Bill

Volume 454: debated on Monday 11 December 2006

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Cutting crime, ensuring justice for victims and preventing reoffending is at the heart of the Home Office’s day-to-day work, but our work must do more than simply meet targets or provide jobs for people. It must be the route to security and opportunity for individuals, communities and our whole society. Preventing crime is but one part of that, but it is an essential part, and this Government have had considerable success: crime is down by more than a third in a decade. That is the result of our focus on tackling crime on the one hand and the causes of crime on the other.

In tackling crime, we have put more police on the streets than ever before and we have gradually introduced neighbourhood policing teams. We have also extended the powers available against antisocial behaviour and we have jailed dangerous offenders for longer for the protection of the rest of society. However, we have accompanied that by tackling the causes of crime, as we promised to do, including, among other elements, mass unemployment, social deprivation, lack of education and poverty.

Tackling crime and its causes has led to a 35 per cent. reduction in crime during the lifetime of this Government—as opposed, of course, to a 100 per cent. increase in crime in the final years of the last Government. Central to this has to be penal policy, of which prisons are of course an essential part. They protect the public, provide punishment and act as a deterrent, but they must also be the start of a process of rehabilitation. That process ought to be a continuum, which is why the supervision of offenders in the community after they leave jail is so important. This must be aimed ultimately at reducing crime and protecting the public through reducing reoffending.

Is it not a matter of concern, however, that some two thirds of prisoners reoffend? Should there not be a change of mindset? When in prison, the loss of freedom is the punishment. Should we not do more in our handling of problems such as solvent abuse in prison, and to improve and enhance literacy, education and training while people are in prison, so that they leave with more skills than when they entered and we can get the reoffending rate down? A two-thirds reoffending rate is a matter of grave concern to everyone.

I shall deal with the reoffending rate in a second, but—along with issues such as protecting the public, punishment and deterrence—education and rehabilitation in prison is of course an essential part of prison life. More than 50,000 offenders are completing unpaid work in the community this year alone—a 30 per cent. increase over the past two years. This year, four times more offenders are being taught basic skills than were taught them four years ago, and this year, five times more offenders are subject to accredited offending behaviour programmes than five years ago. Treatment for drug addiction in prison is up 973 per cent. since 1997. I would not claim for one moment that we are achieving all that we ought to achieve on rehabilitation, but I contest the view sometimes expressed that we are doing nothing or not increasing the amount of educational and rehabilitative course work going on in prisons.

Has my right hon. Friend had time to look at the work being done in Thorn Cross prison, in Cheshire, where the Cheshire fire brigade is working with young offenders? Early indications suggest that the recidivism rate has dropped dramatically as a result of this exciting attempt to rehabilitate young people. Could that be considered as a possible model for other young offenders institutions?

I am familiar with that case, which my hon. Friend has raised before. The relationship that has developed is commendable and has been to the benefit of all involved. Part of the philosophy behind the Bill is to open up rehabilitation and offender management in its widest form to the widest possible contributions from all the sections of society that can contribute. I commend my hon. Friend’s local authorities on developing that scheme, which is representative of what we are trying to achieve across the country through the Bill before us.

Some of the assertions that the Home Secretary has just made are matters of “fact” whose veracity is open to debate, shall we say. Would it not be a good idea for the Committee examining the Bill in the new year to be able to follow the new House of Commons procedure, which allows such Committees to take evidence? The programme motion in the Government’s name does not permit the Committee to take evidence, but many issues could be resolved if the Home Secretary advised his friends operating in the usual channels to permit it to do so, as the House now permits.

I will come to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s first point—the assertion—in a moment. On the second part of his contribution, which was a question, I can say that the provisions of the Bill are neither new nor have gone undiscussed, in any way. The Government’s consultation paper on proposals for reforming probation, “Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-Offending”, was issued in October 2005. The Government response to that consultation, “Working with probation to protect the public and reduce re-offending”, was issued in March 2006. The proposals for involving alternative providers, “Improving Prison and Probation Services: Public Value Partnerships”, was issued in August 2006. The Home Affairs Committee held an evidence session on the matter in November 2005, and there will be discussions during the Bill’s progress. Many things could be said about the Bill, but lack of discussion is not one of them. At some stage, we need to move forward.

It was claimed that I was making questionable assertions. I invite the hon. and learned Gentleman to tell me which of them was inaccurate. More than 50,000 offenders completing unpaid work in the community this year—does he question that?

If the Home Secretary wants me to make my Second Reading speech now, I am happy to do so. If he has concluded his remarks, I shall respond in due course. If he has finished, I am happy to allow him to keep his seat.

As we do in these debates, I am merely allowing the hon. and learned Gentleman the opportunity to substantiate the serious allegation that he has just made. I think he said that, at the very least, the facts that I gave at the Dispatch Box could be disputed in their veracity, which, in my understanding of English, is another way of saying that they could be disputed in their truthfulness. Does he dispute the fact that the figure for unpaid work is up by 30 per cent. over the past two years? Does he dispute the fact that this year four times more offenders were taught basic skills than four years ago, or that five times more offenders are subject to accredited offender behaviour programmes than five years ago? [Interruption.] I take it that, as usual, there is an unsubstantiated—

Order. Please take your seat, Home Secretary. This is a debate. The right hon. Gentleman can put rhetorical questions, but there is no point in his pausing or inviting a Member to intervene. He should get on in the time that is allotted for him.

In the course of the debate, Mr. Speaker, the House will have noticed that not one of the facts I mentioned—the veracity of which was apparently doubted—has been challenged. That is an elementary matter in debate.

Pursuant to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), may I put to the Home Secretary a point that I have raised before, but the importance of which has not yet, in my opinion, been fully understood by the Government? Given that the governor of Polmont young offenders institution is on the record as stating that his single most important member of staff is his speech and language therapist, who, by enabling boys to access education and express their needs, can be vital to the rehabilitation process, will the Home Secretary tell me whether he is open to the idea of constructive amendments in parts 2 and 3 of the Bill, to ensure a Government commitment to deliver such a therapist to every young offenders institution in the country?

I recall that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter before and, yes, I am open to that suggestion. My view is that among the many causal factors we should address inside prison are low literacy and numeracy, which lead to a range of frustrations—anger, the inability to get and hold down a job, and so on. Outside prison, housing is another problem we have to deal with, so I give him a guarantee that we will at least consider his suggestion during the debates. I cannot promise him that a commitment will be given instantaneously because there are resource implications, but I do not dispute the evidential basis for his assertion—unlike the last one made from the Opposition Benches.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that this debate should be rooted in fact and evidence-based, to use his favourite phrase. Can he confirm, with reference to the consultation that took place earlier on the main outline of the Bill, that of the 798 responses received, 788 were opposed to the National Offender Management Service proposals in so far as they affect the so-called contestability of the probation service?

Well, let me give him some of the quotations from the responses. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations said:

“We welcome these proposals for change. The Third Sector has an increased role to play in reducing re-offending.”

I could also mention the Social Market Foundation and the CBI, as well as Paul Cavadino, the chief executive of NACRO—the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders—who is not normally associated with privateers or the right wing. He said that

“the involvement of charities in rehabilitating offenders would improve law and order much more than toughening sentences or fining the parents of badly behaved children.”

I could go on by citing Turning Point and any number of other organisations. Last week, for example, I talked to young offenders at the Prince’s Trust about what the voluntary sector has to offer.

My hon. Friend suggests that there is a mass lobby against the Bill, and we all know that some oppose it. We have all received communications from people, but we should not underestimate the strength of support for the proposals across the charitable and voluntary sector and from those concerned with the rehabilitation of offenders. There is a great groundswell of support.

The Home Secretary may not have the figures in front of him, but perhaps the Minister who winds up the debate will be able to tell the House how many people in prison are detected as using illegal drugs each year. The figure used to be about 20,000. Secondly, is it still true that every week 2,000 people commit a serious criminal offence—one for which, if caught and convicted, they could be sent to jail for six months or more—for the first time?

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman with that information. On drug use in prison, my memory is that we have reduced the figure from 24 per cent. to around 12 per cent., but I may be wrong. I will certainly write to him on that and the other point that he raises.

I noted what my right hon. Friend said about the various organisations that sing the praises of the Bill. Could it be because they stand to gain from it? Why are the proposals predicated on competition when, as a Member representing a Scottish constituency, he knows full well that the Scottish model is based on inter-agency co-operation? What does he find distasteful about that model, if he does so find it?

On the Scottish model, first, I have no vote in what the Scots decide. Secondly, from time immemorial, the Scots have had a completely different legal system, based on Roman law rather than case precedent. Thirdly, I do not always agree that the Scottish Executive choose the best way even for Scottish conditions. Laying those points aside, my hon. Friend’s main point is whether the proposals are based on contestability or partnership. The truth is that they are based on both, because we are looking for a partnership not only with organisations that are seeking a profit, but voluntary and charitable organisations, many of whom do not seek a profit but bring a particular expertise to particular areas. Now that my hon. Friend is back, may I say that we have missed him? We have missed the whips and the stings that he brings to harnessing the Government in partnership or contestability, depending on how one views it. If my hon. Friend bears with me on this, he will see that I am trying to supplement the probation service by releasing the energies of other sectors in support of what probation is trying to do—not to replace it or just introduce contestability.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman who speaks for the Welsh nationalists, but then I want to make some progress before coming back to my hon. Friends.

I am obliged to the Home Secretary. Given what he said about contestability a few moments ago, will he offer a definition and explain how it differs from part-privatisation? May I also ask him why public sector workers in the prison service are unable to compete for some of this work?

On the hon. Gentleman’s second question, the answer is that they do and sometimes very successfully. One of the great things about introducing a degree of contestability is that the performance of the public sector often improves sufficiently for it to start winning, even against competition. As to privatisation, let me give the hon. Gentleman two examples. The Prince’s Trust is not a for-profit organisation and neither are some of the voluntary organisations that I read out earlier. It cannot be regarded merely as opening probation up to private concerns, some of which make a profit, because there are voluntary and charitable concerns as well. I do not believe that those operating with some effect through the public sector probation service have anything to fear from this. Indeed, in the long run, they will have seen their efforts supplemented by it.

If I can make a little progress, I shall come back to hon. Members again later. I also have to make some progress because I am under your careful eye, Mr. Speaker.

I was talking about the fact that protection, punishment and deterrence are no use without rehabilitation and that rehabilitation ought to be a continuum—in other words, from inside to outside of prison. That is why the supervision of offenders in the community after they leave jail is so important. It must be aimed ultimately at reducing crime, which is one of the main benchmarks of our success, reducing reoffending and thereby protecting the public.

It is right that we have invested heavily in this area. The probation service has received a 40 per cent. increase in the last five years and something like £900 million more has been spent on the probation service this year. As I said, we are talking about a real-terms increase of 40 per cent. What we are doing has not been done against the background of any starvation of resources for the probation service. No one should believe that that is the case. Having said that, it is also right to point out that there has been a great deal of improvement in the results, so we should not believe that no progress has been made in probation. More than 50,000 offenders completed unpaid work in the community this year, which is an increase of 30 per cent. on two years ago. I also mentioned a fourfold increase in teaching basic skills this year and five times more offenders being accredited with offending behaviour programmes.

There is, however, a limit to the progress made and, as hon. Members have pointed out in today’s discussion, that limit that has remained with some obstinacy. The truth of the matter is that, regardless of the colour of the Government—and almost regardless of the amount of resources—the reoffending rate has stayed obstinately high in recent decades. About 60 per cent. of offenders go on to commit another crime within two years and Members will know of cases where dangerous offenders have been poorly supervised. Let me say this in simple terms. That is not a tolerable position to continue with. It does not help offenders and, more importantly, it is a poor deal for communities and for the vast majority of hard-working, law-abiding citizens whom we seek to protect.

That is the main purpose behind the Bill.

The failure to reduce the reoffending rate cannot be explained away simply by blaming a lack of resources. As I have said, the budget has increased by 40 per cent. in five years to more than £900 million—a record. Although I concede that case loads have risen, the amount spent per offender has gone up. In addition, we have increased probation staff by 5,000 since 2001. Indeed, we have increased probation staff by 50 per cent. since 1997, while case loads have increased by 30 per cent. We have made a great deal of investment over the past 10 years.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the kind of work that he has just outlined to deal with offenders is best based at a very local level? Has he heard from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), about the success of the prolific offender management scheme, which he helped to launch some two years ago in Brighton and Hove? How will the move towards a more regional organisation for managing offenders in the community help in dealing with those very local problems, which is where the success is often found?

I agree that much of such work is better commissioned locally, but that is not the question. The question is whether it should be provided only by a local monopoly. We are creating the circumstances whereby it can be commissioned locally, but its commissioning will not automatically depend on an existing local monopoly, which will both commission and provide the service that the commissioners are commissioning. We are opening it up. In some cases, it will not be provided locally; it will be provided in a larger area. However, for the foreseeable future—for the next several years—the specific management of offenders, particularly serious ones, as opposed to intervention to provide educational programmes, will be done by the probation service. We will try to make the changes in stages, so that we open up and break the monopoly in a cautious fashion that relies either on the best of the existing probation services or on giving assistance to improve them to provide offender management.

No one would deny that my right hon. Friend and his predecessors have invested very substantially in the probation service or, indeed, that they have fully consulted members of the probation services, not least the union that represents probation officers, which is based in my constituency, but does he not share my concern that it has been impossible to get more support for these reforms among probation officers? Does he not see any way in which it would be possible to proceed on the basis of a greater consensus?

Of course I want the maximum support from our probation service and our probation officers. As I was going on to say, I understand that there is nothing as painful as the birth of a new idea. There is nothing as difficult as change, especially when it is intended to create a partnership not only with those who might help but others who might do part of the job better in some circumstances. Therefore, we ought to have at the back of our minds our gratitude for those who work in the probation service for all that they do. We also ought to say to the public that there is no way in which we can have a no-risk life. There is no position where we can promise anyone that there will be no risk. Having said that, our primary concern must be the protection of the public.

The fact that we have thrown money and various improvements at the issue in recent years and still had an obstinately high—60 per cent.—reoffending rate suggests that we at least ought to be open to asking how we do this better on the back of our present probation service, by supplementing its effort and by addressing the complexity of some of these problems with a comprehensive range of complex provisions, drawn not only from the private sector, but from the voluntary sector and the charitable sector, as well as our public sector.

The Home Secretary has set the yardstick for judging the success of the Bill: a drop in the stubborn and wholly unacceptable reoffending rate. The Government’s case is that increasing competition will achieve just that, but given that probation boards already subcontract, in effect, 2 to 3 per cent. of their budgets to the private and voluntary sector, what hard evidence is there from that outsourcing to support the Government’s case?

First, this is not just a matter of competition. It is a matter of allowing ourselves the assistance of a diverse range of providers, with expertise that is particular to particular areas and that could help—in other words, a panoply or reservoir of people who can assist in trying to reduce reoffending. Secondly, I think that the hon. Gentleman is asking me, what evidence is there that the present position, which is voluntary—opening up to bringing in the voluntary, the charitable or the private sector—is bound to be less successful than the Bill? The truth of the matter is that, at the moment, the rate of giving access to other than the publicly provided probation service is very low indeed, although it is not so low as to mean that the Bill is a change in principle.

In the prison and probation service, about 25 per cent. of the services are already provided from other than the public sector, so there is no great step in principle in the Bill. Within that, however, the figure is very low as regards the local probation boards themselves. The total amount of non-public-sector provision in the probation service has fallen in the past few years from a height of about 5 per cent. to the present 2 or 3 per cent. That is since we withdrew the central targets. The element that has been commissioned from outside the public sector has largely been commissioned by central Government. That should not surprise us. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is more than 200 years since one political economist wrote of the tendency of monopolies to preserve their own monopoly. That is true in all walks of life. We are trying to provide the legal framework that allows others to come into that partnership.

Although many of us will have good examples of the probation service working—indeed, we have many probation officers in our constituency parties to remind us of how effective they are—may I give the Home Secretary an example of an incident that occurred today in my office? An individual phoned about a mentally ill prisoner who has been released early—no doubt because there is pressure on places. The person made contact with us because the ex-prisoner’s mother used to live in Birkenhead. The prisoner is homeless. We phoned the probation service and were told that not much could be done. We asked what actions would be taken. The probation service thought that there would not be much joy before Christmas. Although we are mindful of the probation service working well, when he is crafting the new reforms, will he make sure that, when they are complete, the buck stops on somebody’s desk and action has to be taken in circumstances such as those?

That is one of the reasons we are trying to carry the Bill forward and institute some reforms.

May I make a little progress? We have put in a great deal of resources and we have increased the number of staff considerably. We have put in 40 per cent. more money—£900 million this year. Earlier, I may have said £900 million additionally this year. I correct myself if I did. It is not quite as much as that, but it is a huge increase. There has also been a huge increase in effort. I would like to pay tribute to the probation service’s dedication and to its improved performance. Its effort means, for instance, that in 90 per cent. of breaches, enforcement action is swiftly taken. That is down to some of the improvements that have been made.

We have increased resources and effort, but the situation is still not good enough. No one can just accept what we have with any degree of complacency or fatalism. We need to countenance reform, and that is what the Bill is about—the reoffending rate does not have to stay this way. The measures in the Bill are urgently needed. They remedy problems that for far too long have been allowed to erode confidence in both the justice system and, in many ways, the probation system. They supplement the investment and effort with reform and with new resources being opened up from the private, charitable and voluntary sectors.

I will try to make a little progress, but I will give way later.

I accept that some of the measures in the Bill require substantial reform for probation officers and that change is never easy. Some of the measures might be unpopular with those who have to implement them, but it would not be the first time that that has happened when we are trying to carry through reform in the public services. We need a debate about how to work together to protect the public, not one based on an outdated, a priori, dogma concerning inputs and who delivers them. Good probation services and good probation officers have nothing to fear.

Let us also be truthful about the fact that there is no simple solution. The causes of reoffending are hugely varied and multiple, which is why our response must be equally comprehensive, and capable of being tailored to particular circumstances. They cannot be tackled adequately by any one agency alone and they certainly cannot be preserved due to a matter of dogma when there is the opportunity to tackle some of the obstinate reoffending rates that have not changed. There is no room for monopolies. We need a broad coalition of effort that allows us to tap the reservoir of capabilities inside and outside the public sector to address this major problem.

Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, may I just say to him that

“Profound problems require politicians to accept that we need an approach of shared responsibility—combining the skills and resources of government, the voluntary sector and business. In the case of prison and crime, we all suffer from the consequences of failure, and so we should harness everyone’s ability to achieve success.”

Those were the explicit words of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition. He has supported this all the way—apparently until tonight. On that note, I will give way to an Opposition Member.

The Home Secretary is being very generous. I was wondering why I agreed so much with the statement that he just read out. I hope that this intervention will help him. Does he recall telling the House that young black men are about five times more likely to be in prison than young white men? We therefore need to tackle that problem by ensuring that no prejudice at any point in the criminal justice system causes that, and that young black men have the same life chances and opportunities as others in the community. Will he tell the House which agencies could focus on the problem, and how we can find a solution to it?

We are concentrating our minds on that, for the very reason that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), is working with the Commission for Racial Equality on this matter. One of the benefits of opening up to the voluntary sector and charitable partnerships is that many of them have built up specialisations, expertise, a history and relationships in tackling some of these problems.

I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and then I will make some more progress.

My right hon. Friend is persuading me that there is an issue to be dealt with and that we should give the Bill its Second Reading. Is he willing to meet a small group of my constituents who have concerns about possible fragmentation, not all of which have emerged in the national debate up to now?

I am glad that my speech is persuading some of my hon. Friends. This weekend some of the voluntary organisations wrote to hon. Members and we know from the response that that persuaded some of my colleagues. I am glad about that, because I do not think that there is no ground for debate. The topic is a serious one that people approach in a serious fashion and I think that people are prepared to be persuaded, as I am by one or two of the comments that have been made. We will consider such points as the Bill proceeds. I say to my hon. Friends that if we put the protection of hard-working people first, which requires the reduction of reoffending, and we put in considerably more resources and considerably more effort, it is not open to us to say that we will not consider improving and reforming the way in which we deliver the service. That is what we ought to do.

More embarrassing is the Opposition parties’ apparent opposition to the Bill. I do not know how the Liberal party can countenance opposing an extension to bring in the voluntary and charitable sectors to assist the public sector, or how the Conservatives can oppose the Bill, in view of what the Leader of the Opposition wrote in The Guardian, no less, just beneath Polly Toynbee’s column. The right hon. Gentleman wrote:

“The jolt provided by competition to provide services and the fresh thinking from new operators has meant that everyone has had to raise their game.”

Subsequently, on BBC “Breakfast”—after discussion with Polly, no doubt—he said,

“let’s find the voluntary bodies and the charities that are doing the great work, and give them more power and responsibility.”

It is beyond me to understand how the Opposition can contemplate voting against the Bill’s Second Reading tonight. They are facing different ways to different audiences.

Let me make a little progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) has been very patient.

It seems to me to be sensible to provide greater flexibility. We need to be able to commission services across geographical and organisational boundaries. Although, of course, we want to look to local commissioning, it may be sensible to commission on a wider geographical basis for some purposes. Some programmes currently delivered in prison could also be delivered across the prison gate, thus helping to bridge the gap between custody and the community. We need an element of choice to ensure that we have the best provider for the job and to maintain the pressure on existing providers to continue to improve.

I will, if my hon. Friend lets me make a little progress, but I have two hon. Members lined up to intervene.

The Secretary of State, not the probation boards, will be responsible for ensuring service provision by entering into contracts with the public, private or voluntary sectors. With that burden lifted, the public sector can play to its strengths while others play to theirs. Consequently, local probation boards will be replaced by probation trusts as the public sector provider. Trusts will employ their own chief executive and will act with greater independence.

A few myths have been raised tonight to which I may return, but at this stage, I shall let in some hon. Members who have been waiting some time to intervene.

Does the Home Secretary accept that it is not what is written in Polly Toynbee’s column that worries us, but the track record of some of the private security companies that are seeking to take over parts of the probation service? That is what is worrying Labour Members and Members who are traditionally supportive of the Home Office team. Is he happy to see the American firm Kalyx, whose appalling management of Harmondsworth detention centre has been roundly condemned by Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons, or Group 4, which has consistently failed to tag dangerous offenders properly, taking over part of the management of offenders in the community?

If my hon. Friend is suggesting that the way to avoid having disturbances or problems in prisons, or shoddy provision of prison and probation services, is to put such services entirely in the public sector, he is ignoring the events at Lincoln prison in 2002, Wealstun prison in 2003 and Stoke Heath prison earlier this year, and the reports on Pentonville prison, Leicester and Belmarsh, all of which are in the public sector. That merely tells all of us that, whoever runs the prisons or the probation services, mistakes will be made and the highest quality has to be demanded. Neither the public nor the private sector has a monopoly on virtue, or the lack of it. Before we start our debate, I ask that we approach the subject without that dogmatic division. We should ask, “How we can best get the outcomes?” and “How do we best put together the services available to us in the public, private and charitable and voluntary sectors to achieve those outcomes?”

I will give way to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), and then to my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), and for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), but after that, I shall have to finish my remarks rapidly.

Is the Home Secretary aware that, several years ago, the Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a report on the alternatives to prison services? Three Home Secretaries later, the prison population is at record levels. Will the Bill take into account the Committee’s recommendations, which were decided unanimously, on a cross-party basis? They would have resulted in a reduction in our prison population, which is the largest in Europe. In particular, will the Bill consider the concept of weekend prisons, which, in Finland, have resulted in the prison population being almost halved?

Of course we try to bear in mind all contributions, particularly—and most importantly, I would think—those from the Home Affairs Committee. In the past, I have had to remind hon. Members that we ought to be careful with international statistics. If we compare the statistics for the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the population, we see that the figure is very high; for England and Wales, it is 142, compared to 96 in Germany, Italy and so on. However, the number is very low compared to that in the United States, where the figure is 726. If we ask a different question—what the prison population is, relative to the number of recorded crimes—our figures are very low, even when compared to those for Europe. We have 12 people in prison per recorded crime. The European average is 17, but in Ireland it is 35, in Spain it is 46, and in Sweden, it is only 5. Of course, that indicates that there could be a number of variables, including the level of criminality and the way in which crime is recorded. Things are not as easy as stating one simple fact, and then claiming that our prison population is out of all proportion to every other country’s—and it is not, depending on the statistics that are available.

The Home Secretary has twice used the word “monopoly” in relation to the professional performance of a trained official. I would like to hear him give some factual basis for the ideas that are to be introduced in the Bill. Frankly, I would like to know of any system in the world that can rely on the mix that he proposes, and that can produce a more effective probation service than ours, because many of us find the idea almost impossible to believe.

The simple fact that we are considering—and it is substantiated by all the evidence that we have—is our reoffending rate. It is higher than that for any other country in a comparable situation of which I am aware, and that is despite our having increased staff by 50 per cent. in 10 years, having increased resources by 40 per cent. in five years, and having increased the number of people working in the probation service by 5,000. We are suggesting that, cautiously, over a period of time, we should ask ourselves whether it would be right to try gradually to open up the intervention programmes—not, in the first instance, offender management programmes, but the programmes for re-education and so on—to those with expertise in dealing with reoffenders from the charitable, private and voluntary sectors. It would be a brave person who claimed that the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders did not have any experience from which we could benefit. It would not be sensible to tell the Prince’s Trust that it does not have anything to teach us about rehabilitating young offenders, as it has done so very successfully in many cases. We want to involve organisations from the voluntary and charitable sector, but we want to do so gradually. I have already said that for the foreseeable future—the next two or three years—the management and supervision of offenders will be undertaken by the probation service. We have adopted a gradual approach in an effort to tackle a very obstinate problem indeed, as the evidence suggests that to do otherwise by throwing money and staff at the problem does not improve the position.

I endorse my right hon. Friend’s comments about the creativity and flexibility of the voluntary sector. In my own constituency, Community Service Volunteers has worked effectively with long-term, persistent offenders, with a positive success rate of over 90 per cent, so I certainly welcome a greater role for that organisation in the management of offenders. Many people, including some of my hon. Friends, are concerned about the monitoring and regulation of the training and skills offered by the new providers. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that that will be in place so that organisations that fail to provide services do not remain in the system?

Absolutely. I hope that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will be reassured to learn that we do not intend to get rid of the inspection regimes or amend them significantly. They will stay the same. Having inherited a plan to amalgamate the inspection regimes for prison and probation, one of the first things that I did in my early months in post was to acknowledge opposition to that plan and allow the continued separation of those inspection regimes, as long as they provide a continuum in their programme of work. I hope that that provides the reassurance that my hon. Friend seeks: there has not been any attempt to diminish the effectiveness of the inspection regimes, and standards will be maintained. If that is not the case in any given area, that will be made public.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is growing evidence from the education field that former military personnel who deal with disaffected young people in schemes similar to day release from school have achieved success? Organisations such as Skill Force, with which he will be familiar from his days at the Ministry of Defence, and the advanced skills academy in Liverpool, which is run by former military personnel and which I visited last Friday, command more respect from many young people as methods of dealing with offenders than certain other organisations.

I am familiar with some of those courses as a constituency MP and as Armed Forces Minister and Secretary of State for Defence. My right hon. Friend is quite right, but that is only one area in which we have prohibited incorporation or partnership. We want to make a common effort to tackle the problem, and try to open up the system so that there is some competition. We will not do so in the first instance in offender management—we envisage that that will remain a publicly run service—but there is a vast reservoir of talent in the voluntary and charitable sectors. I hope that such a reservoir will develop in the private sector, as it can provide courses and education, as well as advice on relationships, mentoring and role models, that can be used to supplement the efforts of the probation service. May I tell my hon. Friends that I realise that that can be portrayed all too easily as diminishing the efforts, energy and professionalism of the probation service? It is not meant to do that. It is meant to supplement those efforts by bringing in the talents of people out there. In many ways it represents a return to the roots of the probation service and the values of our party, by bringing people in from the voluntary sector for the purpose of self-help.

I must make progress and draw my remarks to a conclusion. By being courteous to Members, I am being discourteous to my Opposition counterpart in the time that I have taken.

To sum up, although the Bill contains a range of measures, the main idea is to liberate and harness in partnership the talents of those in the voluntary, the charitable and the private sectors who can contribute to partnering our public sector probation service in tackling rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. Government investment will continue. We will not rush the reforms in overnight. We want a measured approach, not because of objections from colleagues, but because it is sensible to take a measured approach that balances the obvious need for urgent improvements with the system’s ability to cope with that change.

The Bill is the product of a hard look at current systems. I recognise that it means taking tough choices, especially for those who work in our probation service, but it brings the probation service into a new world, where we supplement the efforts of our traditional probation service with the talents and expertise of the voluntary and charitable sectors. That is vital to our work in cutting crime, reducing reoffending and protecting the public. That is the primary purpose of the Bill. I commend it to the House.

Order. I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the reasoned amendment in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

I begin by expressing my apologies on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), the shadow Secretary of State, for his unavoidable absence this afternoon. Secondly, I declare an interest as a member of the Bar, although my practice is entirely at the civil Bar. However, I am a Crown court recorder and in that capacity make good use of the services of the probation service, which is very much the subject of the Bill.

The Government have been thrashing about this area of public policy for some years. They have been doing so without achieving anything of value in terms of crime reduction or reduction in the amount of repeat crime committed by offenders released from custody or on community sentences. They have failed to produce from the criminal justice system people who complete their sentences better able to play a worthwhile part in the life of our country, fathers who look after their families—most crime is committed by men—citizens and taxpayers able to take responsibility for themselves, for their dependants, and for their actions and decisions, or people aware of their responsibility towards others for how they behave.

It is worth noting that in the 100 years before the Government came to office in 1997, only 48 Bills to do with criminal justice were enacted. There were about 15 in the century before that. This is, if not the 60th Bill, very nearly the 60th to come before Parliament since 1997 purporting to be an answer to the actual and perceived wrongs in the criminal justice system. Do our constituents feel any safer as a result of this avalanche of legislation, and are they in fact any safer? Do they believe the Government have done anything for them in a practical and effective way? The answer to all those questions is no.

It is surely no longer controversial to say that the criminal justice system in the widest sense of that phrase is in a parlous state. Those who work in the police, the courts, the probation service, the parole system and the prison service, and victims of crime as well all suffer from low morale and from inadequate political leadership and poor strategic management from Ministers in the Home Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Over the past decade we have seen this Government repeat the classic error found in organisations in crisis led by people in a hurry with no sense of direction: they have fallen into the habit of reinforcing failure and of issuing orders followed by counter-orders and then disorder. “Do anything rather than do what’s right, but make sure you get a headline” is the Department’s motto. If they have any claim to fame or notoriety, it is for their insatiable appetite for passing Bill after Bill and for claiming that each one is the flagship that will lead to the ending of all that is wrong with whatever the various Home Secretaries have said is wrong. Enacting a new statute is not the same as implementing the provisions in it, and still less the same as implementing a considered policy. Far too often, we have seen other flagships launched. Take the Criminal Justice Act 2003—that particular year’s Ark Royal of the Home Office fleet—which before long was shown in large part to be no more than copy for headline writers. It is full of holes, many of which were put there by the Government as they failed to bring its provisions into force or repealed them before implementation or afterwards through yet more legislation.

There has been a mad and thoughtless rush to legislate in order to give the impression of command, but there has been none of the necessary thinking, preparation, consultation or staff work to test ideas, many of which should have been tested to destruction, to see what is appropriate or will work in a genuinely practical way. The Government confuse noise with authority, movement with productivity and headlines with delivery. This Bill is no different.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the more sustainable solutions to recidivism would be the provision of more full-time accommodation places for drug rehabilitation in the community?

Yes, I do.

In early 2005, the Government introduced in another place a Bill that bore many similarities to this Bill. Mercifully, the general election intervened before the then Home Secretary could do more damage to the supervisory service than he and his predecessors had already achieved through their constant fidgeting with the probation service, the parole system and the community sentencing regime. Most of us who wish to keep some hold on our sanity have stopped trying to count the times that the Government have uprooted the management and organisation of the probation service since they came into office. They have had no positive effect on morale, on performance or on recruitment and retention of probation staff; indeed, quite the opposite.

In April 2001, the probation service was restructured to create a national probation service with 42 local probation boards. Less than three years later, in January 2004, the Home Secretary announced the merger of the Prison Service and the probation service to form the still uncompleted National Offender Management Service, or NOMS—now more commonly known as “Nightmare on Marsham Street”. In October 2005, the Home Office published its consultation document, “Restructuring Probation to Reduce Reoffending”. I appreciate that the expression, “Government consultation”, is now an oxymoron, but this proves it beyond all reasonable doubt: they received 748 submissions but only 10 were in favour of the Government’s restructuring plan.

Further disruption will do nothing to drive up standards and to improve operation. On the contrary, reforms to any organisation need time to bed in. The probation service is still reeling from the Government’s last shake up. It is surprising to no one except the Government that the London probation service, for example, is 150 staff below establishment and that the service nationally is 1,000 staff short.

The Government are setting up the probation service to fail. They need to justify their shift of policy, which was done for intellectually and politically dishonest reasons and which is contrary to the Labour party’s long-held opinion on the contracting out or privatisation of aspects of the justice system. They want to shed responsibility for their own failure to lead and to manage, and they want to get the cost of offender supervision off the Treasury’s books. By making it increasingly difficult for the probation service to operate as an agency of justice, by reorganising it to death, by imposing on it and, for that matter, on the Prison Service, an expensive and pointless bureaucracy—NOMS—whose own staff have little idea of what they are employed to do, the Government are making it dysfunctional. They are blaming it for failures to supervise repeat offenders and to prevent the crimes that have led to such terrible tragedies for many families throughout the country, when it is the Government who have put their boot—or is it their clunking fist?—on to the probation service’s windpipe.

So keen is the Home Secretary to denigrate the probation service before the very people who are most in need of supervision that in November he went to Wormwood Scrubs to make a speech about its inadequacies to an audience of inmates. For this Home Secretary, leadership means trashing the people who are doing their best in difficult circumstances in front of the very people—criminals—whom he expects those people to supervise. Lions and donkeys come to mind. The Home Secretary is the latest manifestation of the Ratner school of management.

The Government are also trying to hide their blushes behind invented new Labour words such as “contestability”. Some, like the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who is in his place and with whom I shared a platform, together with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), at the National Association of Probation Officers annual conference in Eastbourne this October, have maintained their allegiance to the tenets of the Labour party, which opposed, as a matter of principle, contracting out the supervisory work of the probation service at any time, but even more vehemently in the service’s centenary year.

I am interested that the hon. and learned Gentleman is considering the principles of privatisation. Has he now decided that it was wrong to introduce privatisation into the Prison Service, as his party did?

No. I was discussing the Labour party’s principles, to which I do not adhere, but I salute the hon. Gentleman for maintaining his allegiance to the principles of the party to which he belongs but from which others appear to have moved away.

The Liberal Democrats, too, judging from the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam in Eastbourne and from their amendment on the Order Paper, have a rooted aversion to contracting out or the provision of such services by non-state organisations. We have no such objection. We support opening up the supervision of offenders to non-state providers, just as we championed, in the teeth of Labour protests, setting up privately run prisons. The public service has no monopoly on the public service ethos, nor should it disparage private sector disciplines.

However, the manner in which the Government have set about mending what they have broken is wrong headed, counter-productive, unnecessary and incompetent. The Opposition want rigorous and effective supervision of those sentenced to community sentences. We want the effective management of offenders from end to end, as the Government claim that they want. We want judges and magistrates to be provided with accurate and relevant pre-sentence reports in good time. We want the public’s confidence in community sentencing to grow rather than worsen. We want those subject to drug rehabilitation requirements, unpaid work requirements, activity requirements, curfews, residence requirements, alcohol treatment requirements or attendance centre requirements imposed under community orders to be positively supervised and encouraged to comply and reform. However, if the Government so manage the system that probation staff leave the service or feel undervalued and cannot perform to the standard that we have a right to expect, the public’s confidence in non-custodial sentences will diminish even further.

Far too many offenders not only breach the terms of their community sentences but commit further offences—on an industrial scale. I do not blame the people who work in the probation service for that, although, of course, every large organisation contains variation in calibre. However, it is unreasonable, as the Government publicly demand but privately do not believe, to expect offenders on community punishments or those released from prison on licence or on parole to be under the 24-hour-a-day control of the probation service.

When, as happened 98 times in the past two years, a serious crime such as murder is committed by an offender on licence, the Government’s reaction is to blame someone else—indeed anyone else—but never to analyse or explain why the probation service is unable to guarantee 24-hour-a-day supervision. The Government’s cutting of face-to-face Parole Board interviews and requiring it to read tick-box assessments on long-term and violent criminals is their doing and no one else’s.

The supervisory services need encouragement, support and leadership. In our view, they also need the assistance of the private and third sectors. We want better public protection, not more Government abdication. Early release of dangerous criminals has gone too far, and the Government should take responsibility.

We have no political or philosophical objection to the private or third sectors carrying out the supervisory services that are currently and exclusively carried out by the probation service. There are many examples of excellent work, which assists in rehabilitating offenders, in privately run prisons—and in the Prison Service, as I know from visiting many prisons and young offenders institutions in the past 12 months.

There are many examples of charities and faith-based groups, large and small, working with offenders in and outside prison, as I know from having met the people who work in them and with offenders and ex-offenders in all parts of the country. They should be encouraged. Those non-state organisations gain their strength and understanding of the issues and the individuals with whom they have to deal from the localities where they operate. They will not be assisted by the imposition of a Whitehall-directed bureaucracy called the offender management service, whose chief executive, under the direct control of the Home Secretary, will tell regional offender managers how and what to commission from probation trusts, which are answerable to those up the chain of command rather than accountable to local people. They know how many prison spaces and what kinds of supervision, rehabilitation, education and training are needed in their localities, and will be far more responsive than central or regional officials.

In this Bill, we see a Government addicted to control and centrally devised models, fascinated by tinkering and wholly lacking any understanding of human nature or the need for services that do things for the public rather than to them. Why will the Prison Service, its personnel and buildings be better run by NOMS than by a dedicated director of the Prison Service with well trained and professional staff?

Why will offenders be better supervised by NOMS, ROMs and probation trusts micro-managed from the Home Office than by locally commissioned and provided services, be they in the public, private or not-for-profit sector? We do not know, because the Government do not know. What evidence proves the Government’s policy of micro-management is right and will work? Where is the evidence to show that this Government’s legislative equivalent of St. Vitus’ dance will add to public safety or public confidence and improve offender supervision? We do not know, and they do not either.

The Government are in trouble; they have lost their way and have absolutely no idea what they are supposed to be doing. However, all is not lost—even this side of the general election. The official Opposition are here to help. We will improve the Bill in Committee and on Report; we will make the provision of the necessary supervisory services more relevant to the needs of the public and offenders; we will ensure that the probation service in the public sector and the other providers from the private and not-for-profit sectors work together as a complementary whole for the public good.

We will ensure that the public’s needs are served through local participation and local commissioning and that the sterile battle involving those who believe that public services can be provided only by state organisations directed from Whitehall by “here today, gone tomorrow” Ministers, and those who believe that the private sector is the work of the devil, is finally and usefully brought to an end.

To that end, my party and its supporters in and out of Parliament will harry, chase, chivvy and argue with this desperate Government to ensure that the Bill delivers solutions that reflect and respond to, rather than ignore, the public’s needs and expectations. Our support for the Bill tonight is not open-ended, but conditional on the Government’s responding to us and acknowledging where the public good lies. If they work with us and improve the Bill, the Government will have a new regime for the supervision of offenders that works. If they ignore us, we will, with others who share our aims, defeat this Bill on Third Reading and in another place.

The Government have a choice; I suggest that they make the right one.

It will be difficult to follow the farrago of nonsense that we have just heard; it is difficult even to understand its conclusions. I took it to mean, “We don’t like the Bill; we are embarrassed by it because of our support for the voluntary sector. We are not going to oppose it tonight,”—given the number of Members on the Conservative Benches, it would never have been a vigorous opposition—“but we will probably vote against it later.”

What sense can we make of that? I cannot even follow the speed at which the hon. and learned Gentleman delivered his speech. It precluded me from properly writing my own speech, a brilliant and incisive demolition of the Government’s arguments. I will find it difficult to read, as it has been written down at such speed.

I am not happy with the notion, although it is fairly typical of our approach to government, of getting bright ideas from the team of geniuses who form a kind of nimbus around the Prime Minister. In this case, one such genius, Mr. Carter—now Lord Carter—an expert in health service privatisation had the bright ideas. He said that there should be a coherent structure of offender management, which is a good idea, nominated offender managements, another good idea, and a follow-through from prison to the probation service, an excellent idea. Incidentally, I do not see why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has not followed the Scottish precedent and required statutory co-operation between the prisons and the probation service in the Bill. That would be an excellent development of Lord Carter’s original idea.

However, with the good ideas came the bad one of contestability, which seems more important in the eyes of my right hon. Friend and the Government who are pursuing the issue than community, caring and co-operation—the principles on which the probation service currently runs.

Contestability, in my view, means bringing in the private sector. The private sector will no doubt be pushing the voluntary sector ahead of it as protective cover, but this is really about making profits from a caring service, and I do not think we should embark on that. My hon. Friends and I have organised half a dozen debates in Westminster Hall—I think I was responsible for two of them—in which, interestingly, no one spoke in favour of contestability except the junior Ministers who replied. The junior Minister replying to the last debate was kind enough to approach me privately at the end. She said “I have only two words to say to you, Austin.” I thought she was going to say “You’re right”, but the two words were an invitation to go forth and multiply. I thought that that was possibly the essence of the Government’s case.

No satisfactory case has been made in the submissions. Of the 748 received, only 10 were in favour of the measure. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary quoted lovingly from those 10, but did not quote at all from the 738 that were against it. I do not know where the pressure is coming from. Perhaps it represents—I hope that it does—a Machiavellian desire to embarrass the Conservative party, given its adherence to the voluntary sector. The Conservatives are going to use the voluntary sector to solve all social problems, including those of the health service, education, caring and community. They are going to thrust it forward in order to save money. Perhaps our objective is to nail them to their own ambiguities, a very difficult anatomical feat to perform. I can think of no other explanation.

Could it be that there is pressure from the private sector, from the big correction companies that want to muscle in on the market? Could it be that it is merely a question of prejudice on the part of my right hon. and hon. Friends in favour of the private sector against the public sector? I cannot see how a service that is about rehabilitation and caring for people would be run better for profit than for human motives, such as a desire to improve, help, support and sustain.

No business case has been made. The regulatory impact assessment said that there would be savings of between 3 and 8.5 per cent., but there was no indication of how the figures were arrived at. The assessment also spoke of savings of £625 million. How are those savings to be made, other than by cuts in the numbers and organisation of the service? There has been no rational argument, and there is no rational evidence, that the private sector can run the service better, and virtually no statistics have been offered. The few that have been offered have been disproved.

In the other place, my noble Friend Lady Scotland said that the system was failing because 60 per cent. of people were reoffending. It turns out that 66 per cent. are reoffending on leaving prison and 53 per cent. are reoffending after being sentenced to community service. But the reoffending rate among those under the management of the probation service includes offences committed before the original sentence. If those are taken into account—and they cannot be part of redemption, can they?—the figure is only 44 per cent.

We all share the Home Secretary’s concern to improve reoffending rates, but does my hon. Friend share my concern that in this debate we seem to be placing the blame for reoffending solely and squarely on the probation service, and that we are perhaps not seeing it as a consequence and symptom of our approach to prisons in their entirety? Does he also share my concern that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I cannot see in these measures any evidence-based delivery mechanism that will improve reoffending rates by imposing an arbitrary level of contracting out on a service such as the probation service?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I only wish I had been able to include a list of services while writing my speech during the fast and gabbled contribution from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman. It is wrong to create, as we have been doing, a climate of fear by suggesting that we are releasing psychologically disturbed people who then go out and kill other people, and that offenders are not being properly looked after and sustained by the probation service and that the result is that they will reoffend yet again. That implies that the streets are thronging with people who are intent on murder, burglary and reoffending and that the redemption services, the reform services and the probation service are not achieving anything. We are in a sense attacking the probation service by creating a climate of fear. That is wrong, because the service is working well.

It is a service that was reformed only four years ago—in 2001, when we developed the national probation service. It is meeting all its targets; I will not go through the long list of them, but it has 30 targets and they are all being achieved in substantial part. That case has been made by the relevant trade union. If there are failures in the service, they are because the service is still undermanned despite the increase in numbers that there has been, and underpaid, and because it has had too much pressure put on it, and too many duties given to it, it has been unable to cope in the fully effective fashion—the 100 per cent.-effective fashion—that we would want. Therefore, the failures are problems to do with strain and limited resources.

In view of that record, the attitude should be, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I do not think that Ministers are saying that it is broke—I hope that they are not saying that. They are certainly not saying that any improvement can be effected by bringing in the private sector or the voluntary sector. I agree that we can all learn from the voluntary sector. It has been said that we can learn from the Prince’s Trust, and that is absolutely right; it might have a contribution to make. We can learn from the boy scouts as well. As has been suggested, we can learn by bringing in ex-Army men. We can even learn by bringing in mercenaries returned from Africa to run the probation service. There are many organisations we can learn from and many things we can learn, but if the organisation is working well, we do not have to learn those lessons—we do not have to invoke such new experiences. So, to repeat, my point is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

It is also a local service that works by local co-operation. We will weaken that local co-operation if we replace the management board by a trust dominated by businessmen that does not include—at least not in the same way as is currently the case—the magistrates, the judges, the local authorities, the police and the voluntary sector. They are included in the existing structures and that is a valuable feature of them. It has been very important that all such sectors co-operate. The local authorities and the voluntary sector have got a vital role to play, but we are about to centralise, regionalise, bring in the private sector and create not a vibrant mixed economy, but a patchwork quilt. That will make it difficult to provide career structures and career development, and it will provide a baptism of fear for existing services that they do not deserve.

At a time when the Government are preaching in one Department a new localism and the transfer of power down to local people, which I think is absolutely the right thing to do, we are in this crucial service transferring power upwards to regional and national structures, and taking it away from local sectors in co-operation with each other. That is wrong in principle—and it is even more wrong to bring profit into this.

I hesitate to take the Government’s side on this point, but the effect of the legislation would be that regional offender managers would be responsible for contracting-out services themselves, and therefore in that sense we would not be centralising anything; we would be giving further powers to local people to decide what they wanted to do.

If that is an example of the kind of poppycock that the Conservative party is thinking, I am happy for it to be made public.

Who will provide these services? Big national correction companies that want to get into this market will provide many of them. Local services will be provided by national organisations, which will come in for the contract period and then leave, thereby disrupting local continuity and the training of staff, and making the staff insecure. Such a service will no longer be a local service involving the co-operation of all the various bodies. Currently, local authorities, magistrates, judges and the voluntary sector all co-operate in pursuit of the common purpose of the redemption of those who need support and sustenance. The simple purity of my argument is that such support will not be provided on a cash basis by a profit-making organisation. In that regard, the argument advanced in the previous intervention is absolutely wrong.

What can the private sector offer? It is certainly true that it can cut costs—and it can reduce numbers. It has to make a profit, and efficiency and economies of scale will not be achieved without weakening the local basis and depersonalising the various structures. What is our experience of the private sector? When Morrison took over the running of hostels for the probation service, costs rose by 62 per cent., so the private sector is not necessarily much more efficient. It certainly cannot provide the same service to the courts and community as the existing structure provides.

Conflicts of interest could also arise, as was pointed out in a Westminster Hall debate. A probation officer employed by the private sector could say, “I recommend that this person be committed to a correctional institution. It just so happens that my company runs a marvellous institution, called Dothelags Hall, just down the road. I have a video and a brochure showing what a wonderful service they will get there.” Or a probation officer might say, “As it happens, your honour, I also represent a tagging organisation, called McTagits. We can provide automatic tags and supervision—all through the same company.” All manner of such possibilities exist. Someone might say, “I represent CharitableDrainsRUs, which digs drains for charities, churches and other voluntary organisations”, and the person before the court could be committed for community service. In pursuing this approach, we are hitting the morale of a devoted and overstretched service that is working better than it has worked for a long time. The 2001 reforms are coming through and yielding benefits—and just at that moment, we choose to destroy the service’s morale and to create uncertainty. Probation officers in Grimsby have made representations to me, and I am sympathetic to their case. They are a devoted and concerned bunch, and the case that they are making is absolutely right. I could not explain to them why we are creating this uncertainty and fear, disrupting their careers and making their jobs uncertain. I could not explain why the only way to improve the service is to create the fear that they will lose their jobs, and that some other organisation will be brought in. Psychologically, that is an impossible way to approach what is a devoted service.

I do not want the atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and betrayal that is being created in the probation service by the threat of these measures. The effect is uncertain, because we are not sure how many private sector and voluntary organisations will be brought in, but there is no point in people talking about the benefits if they are not going to be brought in—assuming that the Bill is passed—on a considerable scale. It is clear that that is what will happen. The probation service does not deserve this proposal, which will undermine it.

My hon. Friend should not run away with the idea that the Bill is about privatisation. Does he honestly believe that NACRO and Shelter should not have the opportunity to provide extra support for probation and resettlement?

I would ask whether those organisations should be allowed to use their expertise on such a scale as to threaten and endanger the existing service and structures. To fully utilise their expertise, that is what would have to happen. In any case, Shelter is unlikely to bid for a large number of contracts, but provides the figleaf for the powerful private sector correction companies to which the service will actually be transferred.

I regret the Minister’s intervention, as he made it at psychologically the right time to destroy my moving peroration, which would have reduced the House to tears and an inability to produce any arguments in favour of the Bill. I shall therefore skip the peroration and say only that this Bill is wrong and I cannot support it.

I shall start with the aspects on which we all agree. We all agree that the high levels of reoffending now constitute the biggest challenge facing our criminal justice system. Since 1997, reoffending rates have increased by some 20 per cent. and, for young male offenders aged between 18 and 21, they are as high as 78 per cent. Repeat crime costs some £11 billion and, of course, leaves in its wake thousands of needless victims.

From the tenor of the debate so far, we also all agree that the objective of the Bill—to create a seamless system for offender management, in which offenders are supervised and managed both in and out of prison—is laudable. Most observers would agree that in dealing with the scourge of reoffending, the priorities are a combination of the following. We need a manageable prison population, in which prisons have the space, time and resources to do the crucial rehabilitation, education and training work to reduce reoffending. We need properly resourced, specialised facilities for offenders who have acute mental health and drug addiction problems. Any early-release provisions should be coherent and based on a risk assessment on an individual, case-by-case basis, and should not lead to the release of offenders at an earlier stage than desirable because of automatic, blanket deductions. We also need visible, credible community sentences, which—as we know from experience—reduce reoffending when well developed and implemented. We also need institutional clarity. In a system in which offenders are managed inside and outside prison, we need a clear division of labour so we know who does what. It is also important, and germane to the debate on this Bill, that there is clear co-operation and collaboration between the different agencies dealing with offenders at various stages of their incarceration and post-release reintegration into the community. Finally, we need local accountability and local knowledge in the system, because without that it is nigh impossible to do the difficult work of reintegrating offenders into their local communities.

It is against such benchmarks that the Bill should be judged. Does the Bill significantly and materially improve the delivery of all those crucial tasks that are the key to reducing reoffending? The honest answer is no. The danger is that the Bill, while laudable in its intentions, will be a highly disruptive distraction from those real challenges. By chopping and changing the organisation of the probation service yet again, the Government are in danger of ignoring the bigger issues at stake, which go beyond the managerial fiddling with the service.

No, of course not, but the private and voluntary sectors are already involved in those activities, as the Minister knows, which is why I was perplexed by his earlier intervention and when the Home Secretary spoke on that point. That work is being aggressively boosted by the Home Secretary, even on the existing legislative basis. As he made clear in his speech at Wormwood Scrubs, in this financial year he is insisting that the 3 per cent. of the total probation service budget that is contracted out should be doubled, and doubled again. That is even before the Bill has made its way on to the statute book. I shall deal with that point in greater detail, but we are certainly not arguing that the present arrangements are perfect; nor are we arguing against the mixed economy, inasmuch as it already exists. However, dogma is being attached to the headlong rush to much greater contestability.

The Bill provides the Home Secretary with open-ended powers to reorganise the probation service. The probation boards will be abolished, even though they were established only five years ago. They will be replaced with trusts, even though the Bill gives no detail about how the trusts will be organised, who they will be staffed by, their geographical scope or their mandate. All is left to the whim and wishes of the Home Secretary at some unidentified time in the future.

The Home Secretary will enjoy wholly open-ended powers to give responsibility for delivering probation functions and services to almost anyone—private or public. There will be no caveats or qualifications. No criteria whatever will be established in the Bill. It seems to us that such constant, almost Maoist, institutional revolution as the probation service struggles to do its work is hardly conducive to raising professional standards.

The measures come on top of the existing institutional churn, which has already unsettled and, in many respects, undermined the front-line work of probation officers. The central budget for the National Offender Management Service is almost £4 million. Some of that expenditure is difficult to justify; for instance, we learn that in 2004-05 the Home Office spent £46,000 on

“Identity creation, production of artwork and branding guidelines”

for NOMS. As Lord Ramsbotham recently noted, there are 300 fewer probation officers in the probation service, yet 1,500 more bureaucrats than five years ago. The probation service has 1,000 vacancies; at the same time, the NOMS bureaucracy is ballooning and growing day by day. As all Members can testify from conversations and discussions with probation officers in our constituencies, it is extremely difficult for probation officers to understand why they seem to be bereft of the front-line resources that they need to do their job when they see Whitehall bureaucracy taking shape on an ever more gargantuan scale.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the National Audit Office has pointed out that the Home Office does not know how many people it employs and that, owing to a technical oversight, it has an overdraft with the Paymaster General of £246 million?

I was not aware of those points, but the hon. and learned Gentleman makes an extremely helpful intervention that serves to underline the point I was making: if bureaucracies are provided at the centre, especially when, as in the case of NOMS, the bureaucracy has been provided in a legislative vacuum without meaningful debate in the House, the danger, which many people predicted, is that they grow and grow for no obvious purpose. They are not hemmed in by a clear political mandate.

I want to speak about the all-important and controversial issue of contestability. I understand that the Home Secretary is a busy man, but it is a pity that he is no longer in the Chamber. I am not making a debating point about his presence here or elsewhere, but he made a barbed remark about whether it was possible for Liberals to oppose something that he thinks is an act of de-monopolisation.

The principle at stake is not whether there should be private or voluntary sector participation in the provision of probation services, particularly non-core services. That happens already. As I said earlier, local probation boards already contract out to private and voluntary sector operators. On Thursday, I visited an excellent drug rehabilitation project in Newport, under a contract from the local probation board, which provided outstanding services. That already happens, although there is then an argument about whether it is happening enough. The Home Secretary is already putting considerable pressure on probation boards, as I said, to raise the amount contracted out in the next financial year from less than 3 per cent. of the total budget to somewhere near 10 per cent.

The problem with the Bill is the artificial enforcement of greater contracting out and privatisation from the top. In my view, privatisation can work and has worked when private sector operators compete with each other in the pursuit of consumers who are free to choose in a commercial environment. In that case, most private sector operators are accountable to the custom given to them by those consumers. The Bill, however, would erect a totally distorted, rigged market in which contracts are dished out to private contractors at the behest of the Home Secretary via the new quangos—the so-called trusts. Even if one is an advocate of privatisation, this is daft and monopolistic privatisation, because it is the worst combination of administrative monopoly and centralisation in Whitehall and unaccountable, fragmented, private sector activity at local level. Far from being a blow for a liberal vision of a de-monopolised probation service, it is arrogating new powers to the centre and increasing the monopoly of decision-making power given to the Home Secretary to chop and change the probation service at will.

Why has the Home Office not produced any data or study empirically to prove the virtues of open-ended contestability? In particular, what calculations have been made of the transition costs of such disruptive change? We have discovered over and over again in the past nine or 10 years that, under the so-called rubric of reform in the public services, Ministers tend to forget that the very act of introducing such reforms creates enormous costs that prevent those public services from accruing all the benefits that the reforms purport to bring to them. How do we know that the transition costs will not outweigh the so-called benefits?

There are alternatives. The Scottish example was alluded to earlier and it is close to our heart because it was the Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Executive who pushed for plans for a centralised single probation agency in Scotland to be dropped, adopting instead through legislation introduced in November last year a model of community justice authorities. That legislation imposes a statutory obligation on the community justice authorities to co-operate with all agencies on an localised, area-by-area basis to provide that elusive goal of a seamless probation service.

That model combines the statutory compulsion to co-operate—to create that seamless service—with the freedom to innovate according to local conditions. Importantly, it allows—in fact, it actively encourages—the further expansion of the voluntary sector, but it does so according to clear, locally driven demand, not top-down diktat from the centre. Surely it would make more sense to advocate that approach, based on collaboration, but with a mixed economy of public probation officers and the voluntary sector and, most importantly, driven by local demand meeting local circumstances in the context of what is best for offenders as they reintegrate into their own local communities.

I am not advocating a total standstill in the arrangements. For instance, I strongly believe that the present distribution of responsibilities for the oversight and implementation of the unpaid work of community sentences needs to be looked at again. We need to be as radical as we can to boost public confidence in visible, credible and rigorous community sentences, which most observers accept is absolutely essential if we are to build up a stable of alternatives to custodial sentences and ever more overcrowded prisons.

The Bill seems to us a missed opportunity, which is why we will vote against Second Reading. I urge Opposition Members not to chivvy and chase but, having articulated such profound objections to the Bill, simply to do the right thing: not to score debating points about whether one is for or against the private sector, but to recognise that this is a flawed Bill, which does not deserve a Second Reading, and to join us in voting against it.

The Bill risks creating disruption to a service that needs clear, steady direction, not endless managerial instability. It risks diverting attention away from the bigger issues that affect reoffending rates. It risks overlooking the more pragmatic approaches that are being developed elsewhere, notably in Scotland. It certainly risks imposing target-driven centralisation, exactly when the national debate on the organisation of all public services is increasingly suggesting that what we need in the future is less, not more, centralisation. In short, it risks exacerbating, not curing, the problems of chronic reoffending that we all seem to agree must be tackled urgently.

This is an important debate, so I hope that my cold will not mean that most of what I say is unintelligible. Despite the Home Secretary’s emollient words earlier in the debate, I am very concerned about many aspects of the Bill, for two reasons: it will not cut reoffending; nor will it give the public greater protection—rather the reverse.

John Colvill, the chair of my local probation board, said in a letter to me recently:

“Offender provision would be fragmented and risks to the public would only be increased by a web of contracts put together in the futile hope that they might fit together like the proverbial jigsaw. They might not. It is a dangerous risk to take.”

It is my view that the Bill will fracture the probation function in detriment to the public, offenders and the courts. It will centralise and privatise, against the wishes of the vast majority of those consulted by the Government. We have heard several references to the Home Office’s consultation of 2005, when 788 of the 798 respondents were against the plans. The Home Secretary said, “Well, this is a lobby.” Of course we can say that, but it was a consultation exercise and the result was an absolutely universal rejection of these proposals. There is no support for these proposals in the country, and the debate so far has shown—

Perhaps I can make some progress before my good friend the Minister interrupts me.

As the debate progresses, we will hear that there is very little support for the Bill in the House.

I will not let hon. Members say that there is no support for the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend has read the letters from West Yorkshire probation service and from Turning Point. I hope that he has seen the various material that has come in from the voluntary sector. It is not true to say that people wholeheartedly oppose the Bill.

It is not true to say that those voluntary organisations are wholeheartedly in favour of these proposals. Of course they recommend themselves to some of those voluntary organisations, because such organisations will be the beneficiaries of some of the profits, but that is quite different from saying whether the proposals have any support in any other profession or in the country more generally—they do not.

Extending the hon. Gentleman’s argument, turkeys do not vote for Christmas, so it is unlikely that the probation service will give its support to something that will open its monopoly to competition.

The hon. Gentleman makes an obvious point, but I hope that I can perhaps deal with it in more detail as I continue my speech.

The Bill has so little support, because of its innate weaknesses, that the Government have recently chosen to malign the probation service and to misuse their own reoffending figures. The Government have not justified the proposals, other than to restate their belief that the introduction of the market will, by definition, improve matters—the idea that private is good and public is bad. That comes from a Government who told us that ideology was dead and that the only thing that matters is what works, and after they have seen the chaos and the abuses in some private prisons. Only last week, the prison ombudsman’s report on Harmondsworth showed that a vast number of its detainees had alleged assault, harassment and intimidation by the staff employed by the private company that runs it.

Those are precisely the same companies that the Government seek to involve in the supervision of offenders by means of the Bill. We are told, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not going to happen straight away”, but we know that that is where things are going. We know that NACRO, Crime Concern and the Prince’s Trust may play a fuller part around the margins, but when we talk about the amount of work and money involved, we know who is being encouraged to bid.

I have many concerns about the Bill and its results if it is ever enacted in its present form. My concerns revolve largely around clauses 3 and 4 in part 1, but I find much of the Bill objectionable. I am thinking, for instance, of the removal in part 2 of the last impediments to staff in private prisons having complete control of prisoners—from personal searches to extra punishments and restrictions in the prison. There is even the ability to hold members of the public captive for up to two hours if they are suspected of introducing contraband into the prison. Most importantly, in view of the record in privately run establishments such as Harmondsworth, Doncaster and Park prisons, is it really the time to enable prisons not to employ a medical officer, as in clause 20? The medical officer is exactly the person we would expect to pick up first on abuse, assaults and the like.

Clauses 3 and 4 enshrine the purpose of the Bill. They enshrine the requirement and the wish to centralise and privatise the probation function—to take control of the work that is undertaken with offenders and in servicing courts away from locally accountable people, and to vest it in the hands of the Secretary of State and his regionally based commissioners. Committed and professionally trained staff will often be replaced with untrained and unsupported workers who are not adequate to the task. Just look at the conditions of staff in private prisons—and the pay. It is less than 50 per cent. of that in state prisons. Is it any wonder that the turnover is 25 per cent.? We are told that those companies have been pressing the Government to bring forward the Bill. They will approach the probation task in exactly the same cost-cutting fashion that they have approached their work in prisons.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in a system that is based on case management, the insertion of contracts, particularly if they are cheap contracts, runs the risk of worsening the offender management system? As we found out in many private finance initiative hospitals, the private company will insist, “No, we can’t do that. That will cost too much money.” The system could be depersonalised.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. In fact, we are being offered the ending of the probation service, after 100 years of professional service and commitment, and its replacement by a hotch-potch of competing companies and organisations. It is interesting to look at the recent experience of the probation service in passing to private companies services such as catering, cleaning and electronic tagging. We have heard that only 2 or 3 per cent. of the budget goes to such companies and organisations, but that is a false figure. We know that a lot of the money that was previously used for that purpose is top-sliced. The figure is probably 7, 8 or 9 per cent. Let us look at the experience of contracting out those services. That was an absolute disaster. As we speak, the contracts are being renegotiated.

On top of all that evidence and the complete lack of support for the proposals anywhere in the country, the Government have another impediment to the introduction of the proposals: the probation service itself, which has greatly increased its productivity over the past few years. I am interested that there was a suggestion from the Dispatch Box that massive extra resources have gone in and that that all relates to probation officers. In fact, we are talking about 1,600 staff employed by the National Offender Management Service. Nobody knows what they do. NOMS was created to align and unify the probation service and the Prison Service. What happened to that? That was what it was supposed to be for. Some 1,600 staff are being taken from the sharp end and away from the work that needs doing. Extra resources have gone in, but certainly not in the form of probation officers; as we have heard, the number is reducing, not increasing.

The service has considerably increased its productivity over the past few years, and it meets or more than meets more Government targets than ever before. Some 220,000 offenders in this country are being supervised in the community, including 14,000 who are deemed to be dangerous or highly dangerous, yet only 0.6 per cent. of them reoffend. The service meets or more than meets 27 of the 30 targets set by the Government.

Let us consider my own area of west Yorkshire, whose probation service I visit on a yearly basis at its invitation. In the first six months of this year, it met its target on the assessment of high-risk cases in four days in 92 per cent. of cases. That was an increase from 85 per cent. Its assessment of prolific and priority offenders has increased from 89 per cent. to 93 per cent., and its unpaid work completions have increased from 104 per cent. to 106 per cent. I understand that in some areas progress is even better than that.

As Diana Johnson, the assistant chief in west Yorkshire, told me when we met most recently, innovation, end-to-end management of offenders and partnerships are the order of the day. We do not need privatisation or a massive reorganisation to bring this about. This is the bread and butter of the service at the sharp end now.

I appreciate that my hon. Friend is struggling with a cold and I wish him a speedy recovery—I shall pass some Lemsip on to him shortly. I acknowledge, in no negative way, his role as a former probation officer. I know that he has a great deal of expertise in this area and that he feels passionately about it. Nobody is criticising the performance of the probation service, although he says that it is the Government’s intention to do so. I want to place on record our tremendous thanks for the work of the probation service. The difficulty is that the reoffending rates are still high and public confidence in the service is lacking.

Just as the offer of Lemsip is not totally convincing, nor are the Minister’s reassurances to the probation service. We heard earlier that nobody disputes that the reoffending rate is high. It has been a problem ever since the probation service was instituted 100 years ago. However, the probation service is not the only responsible party. The Government should look at themselves and at some of their policies before they start casting around for somebody to blame for what they say, using phoney figures, is an unacceptably high rate of reoffending.

On the evidence that I have adduced, what possible justification could there be to risk this success and to move to an untried and unwanted new system so soon after the introduction in 2003 of the national service and probation boards, which have not yet bedded in? Lord Ramsbotham pointed out how constant change endangers the morale of the service when he said on 3 November:

“The service started life 100 years ago. Its raison d’être was very much the aftercare of offenders in the community; now it is told that its first priority is punishment. It was told that it was going to be a national service; then it was told that it was going to be merged with the Prison Service; then it was told that it was going back to being a county service; then it was told that it was going to be a regional service; and then it was told that parts of it were going to be privatised. It really does not know whether it is coming or going.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 November 2006; Vol. 686, c. 555-56.]

In my view, despite all that, the probation service is coping well, and therefore the Government obviously have a problem. As so many targets are being met, they have to undermine the service—notwithstanding what the Minister has just said—and doctor their own reoffending figures. How is the service being undermined? My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is no longer in the Chamber, mentioned a climate of fear. We see that when the uninformed media attacks that are made on the service are not met by any positive or supportive response from the Government. In fact, the Home Secretary—I am sorry that he has had to leave—recently felt it appropriate to agree with the producers of “Panorama” that community supervision should amount to 24 hours a day surveillance. How on earth could it?

We can see no more shameful an example of the undermining of the service than the fact that the Home Secretary chose the inmates of Wormwood Scrubs to hear his views on the failings of the probation service. That was a calculated, gratuitous provocation designed to destroy the morale of the service, which his own figures prove is performing brilliantly.

Because the figures are also a problem, they too have to be undermined and rubbished. Here, the term “dodgy dossier” comes to mind. Even accepting that there are lies, damned lies and statistics, not least in the field of crime and crime prevention, how can the Government make their case on reoffending only by cooking the books and contending that reoffending rates are the same for those with and those without the support of a probation officer?

We know how the Government have done it: by conflating several sets of statistics and comparing like with not-like. In fact, the adjusted figures for reoffending by those on orders with the benefit of a probation officer is 44 per cent., compared with 58 per cent. for those without—or, if we are to believe a recent article in The Times, 41 per cent. for those with the benefit of a probation officer and 66 for those without. Not only are the rates not the same, but there is a massive difference. A huge improvement is gained by those who have the benefit of a professionally trained probation officer.

For months, the false figures have been given credence. Baroness Scotland, a junior Minister, even wrote to all Labour Members repeating them. I say that they are false figures not only because the Government figures are at variance with those provided by NAPO, of which, as the Minister mentioned, I am a former member, but because they have been ridiculed and challenged by the writers of The Times article, leading academics and a considerable number of experts working in the field ever since they were first trotted out.

I have great misgivings about the proposed legislation and the way in which it has been introduced. If the Government were really interested in reducing reoffending, without too much recourse to the mantra, “tough on the causes of crime”, would they not be working with the probation service on, for example, the actions proposed in 2002 by the social exclusion unit as major ways of lessening reoffending? Should we not be examining sentencing policy, especially as it affects the 50,000 prisoners a year who serve short sentences—six months or less—with whom no work is done, either in prison or outside, and whose reoffending rate is in excess of 70 per cent.? The Government, rather than work to overcome that, have recently cancelled their custody-plus plans, which were aimed specifically at that problem.

Should not the Government be working with the probation service on employment on release, which reduces the risk of reoffending by up to a half, or stable accommodation, which reduces it by up to 20 per cent.? Should they not be working on offenders’ education, family contact and health care? Perhaps we might even get them to change tack and challenge the nonsense of “prison works”, and instead follow the Scandinavian model of sending far fewer people to prison and spending far more on them—not because of some liberal over-identification with the offender, but to make a major contribution to reducing reoffending.

A prison place costs taxpayers £37,500 a year. It costs between £2,000 and £8,000 for the same individual to be dealt with by a probation officer in the community. On those figures, probation is not only good sense, but good business sense. What makes no sense is to entrust probation clients, as varied and as difficult as they are, to those groups that have shown themselves to be incapable even of organising the catering and cleaning in probation offices.

I end my speech with a few words from the Probation Boards Association, which says:

“Running like a fault line through the Bill is the failure to recognise that the probation service is much more than the sum of the parts of these ‘functions’”—

it had previously listed the functions of the service. The PBA goes on to say that the probation service

“is the glue which holds the criminal justice services together working as it does with every other agency involved in crime prevention, pre-court work, in court, during and post-sentence and life licence.”

The probation service has invaluable knowledge and expertise to share with local authorities, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, courts, prisons, those involved in the parole system and youth justice, health and education services and partners in the voluntary sector. Once the service is broken up, that will be irretrievably lost. That is what is at stake, and that is why we should resist the Bill in its totality.

Following on from the speech by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood), as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) is getting a bit of a mauling from hon. Members in his own party at the moment, he will no doubt be pleased to hear that the Member of Parliament described as the most right-wing in the House is about to ride to his rescue, in part, on the main proposals in the Bill. Before I do that, I must take him to task on clauses 24 and 25, which have not yet been mentioned today.

The Minister may have to help me out, because I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject, but my understanding is that young offenders who are sentenced to between eight and 16 months in a young offenders institution are automatically released halfway through their sentence, but they will usually be released exactly one month before that halfway point is reached, provided that they conform with certain measures, which I think—I am not sure—include testing negative for drugs. Similarly, young offenders serving a sentence of more than 16 months will automatically be released halfway through their sentence, at the eight-month point, but if they conform to the requirements, they will be released exactly two months to the day before that halfway point.

Clause 24 would remove the necessity on the prison governor to keep such offenders in prison until the halfway point, if they fail to meet those requirements. If I understand the provision, that is a retrograde step, because it means that more people will leave detention centres earlier. That is in contradiction to what the Government like to say that they are doing, which is keeping people in prison for longer. The fact that people are automatically released halfway through their sentence is a travesty of justice, but if the clause is agreed to, it will effectively be a get-out-of-jail-earlier card. Clause 25 gives me, and anyone who has been a victim of crime, even more concern, because it is a get-out-of-jail-free card—in fact, it is a do-not-even-go-to-jail card. Let us be truthful: very few people are sentenced to detention these days, particularly if they are young offenders. Usually, young offenders must have been convicted on many occasions of many different crimes before they face any sort of custodial sentence. However, even if a young offender is sentenced to detention by the judge, under clause 25, the authorities can send them not to a detention centre, but to what is described as an open children’s home, and that is a gross injustice.

Recently, I dealt with the case of an elderly lady who was burgled in her bungalow at night by a 17-year-old. She has suffered a life sentence because of that event—it has absolutely ruined her life. The person involved, who already had a string of convictions for house burglaries committed at night, was sentenced to slightly more than 16 months, but he will spend considerably less than that in detention. Had he been sentenced according to the provisions of clause 25, instead of serving six months in a detention centre—that is what he will get at present—he would not go to a detention centre at all. He would be whisked off to a comfortable children’s home with all mod cons, and would not spend any time whatever in detention. Quite apart from the fact that that would not result in justice for the victims of crime, it will inevitably result in further crimes.

I recently took part in the police parliamentary scheme, and I came into contact with a children’s home—I do not want to say exactly where it is. One night, as we went out looking for someone who had walked out of that home, I was told by the police that there is absolutely nothing that the authorities can do to stop young people walking out of that or any other children’s home, even if the staff know that that young person is off to buy drugs, to commit further crimes, or even to prostitute themselves—and all those things are sadly all too common among the disturbed and unlucky children who find themselves in such homes.

All that we are proposing in the provision on children homes is the use of that facility for young offenders who are seeking gainful employment or training. That environment may be a better option than a custodial sentence. It is certainly not about giving people free rein, as they will be properly risk-assessed.

The judge who decides the sentence can already determine that it will not involve detention. If, however, he decides that detention is appropriate, the clause permits other authorities—probably the regional offender managers—to overrule his decision and put the person into a children’s home. It will no longer be in the judge’s hands.

The Minister will know that one argument often deployed against prison is that it is a university of crime. An innocent person goes to prison—it is unlikely but, nevertheless, that is the argument—meets all the old lags, and suddenly becomes a criminal. If there is any truth whatsoever in that argument, how much worse is it to put hardened criminals—that is what they will be if they are sentenced to detention—into a children’s home with vulnerable young people?

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to hear the views of my old criminology teacher, who pointed out that the “university of crime” argument had to be supplemented by the fact that people in prison were incompetent criminals, so the people whom they taught were more likely to be caught.

Unfortunately, that is not true. Many criminals are caught, because they commit crimes so often that, statistically, they will be caught sooner or later. They take a fairly intelligent view, because they know that if they are caught they are unlikely to be prosecuted. If, however, they are prosecuted, they are unlikely to be convicted. If they are convicted, they are unlikely to be sentenced to detention. If clause 25 is accepted, even if they are sentenced to detention, they will end up in a children’s home for a few months.

I cannot give way to everyone, so I shall give way to the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove).

I thank the hon. Gentleman for provoking me into making an intervention. I am listening to his entertaining speech with interest, but I wonder how it squares with the policy of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) of hugging hoodies and being nice to people who have committed a crime? How does the hon. Gentleman’s traditional Conservative view sit with those of the Leader of the Opposition?

I have no idea—the hon. Lady will have to ask my right hon. Friend. The last time that I hugged a hoodie was when I put my arms around one on the police parliamentary scheme, holding him until an officer came and put cuffs on him. That is the only time that they should receive a hug of any sort.

I think that this is a thoroughly bad Bill, but I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about clause 25. One of the faults of the system is that we fail to rehabilitate people who serve custodial sentences. If the provision enables young people to be allowed out for training so that they can re-enter the mainstream when they come out, that is a good thing, preventing them from becoming recidivists.

The hon. Gentleman has far more legal experience than me. As a practising barrister, he will know that young people are already allowed out, as they can be released on temporary licence to undertake work in the community. However, clause 25 will put into a children’s home people who have been sentenced to detention—and, in this day and age, they are not given such a sentence for nothing. I have given the issue a good airing, and I sincerely hope that those two clauses are not included in the Bill on Third Reading. I shall certainly attempt to address the matter again on Report.

Turning to the Bill overall, I commend the Carter report, which is well written. It is certainly much better than the usual literary behemoths that come crashing through our letter boxes every day, as it is clear, concise and readable. It is short, sharp and to the point, which is very good stuff indeed. I cannot be quite as complimentary about its content. In fairness, Carter provided some useful information, but he ignored a great deal of important evidence, and that failing clouded some of his conclusions. He began by stating as a given fact that people are now serving longer sentences. I do not accept that at all. People are given longer sentences in court than they receive in other European countries, but they do not serve them. The sentences that they serve bear hardly any relation to the ones that we read about in the newspapers. For all their talk of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, the Government have extended the availability of early release. Previously, people were allowed out halfway through their sentence if they were sentenced to less than four years, but now everyone on a fixed sentence is let out automatically, whether or not they have been well behaved.

The Government have extended tagging, which has been a disaster. Does the Minister know, for example, that many people refuse to allow the tagging authorities entry to their home, and are not recalled to prison? In some cases, it takes up to eight days to find people so that they can be tagged. Not content with that, the Government have brought the same principle to bear on community service. We may read that someone receives 160 hours of community service, but that is not what they serve. If they turn up a few times and paint the walls that they have been told to paint, the probation service goes back to the court and says, “They are doing very well, so we would like the sentence to be reduced.” Once again, the public are led up the garden path, as they are not told what sentences people really serve.

Carter went on to state that more people go to prison in the UK than anywhere else in Europe. The Home Secretary made quite a good defence, as he pointed out that in a comparison of crimes that attract sentences, Britain is much more lenient than most other European countries. Unfortunately, however, we have more criminals. Carter did not state that of the 80,000 people in prison, 11,000 are foreign nationals, so they should not be included in the results. Of those 80,000 people, 20,000 have been recalled to prison, either while serving a community sentence or after committing further crimes on early release. If they have been given that many chances, what else can we do? There are 6,000 lifers, which is a pleasant surprise, as since 2000, the Government have released 53 people who were sentenced to life imprisonment. Some 13,000 people are on remand and are deemed to dangerous to walk the streets, so they certainly should not be included in the 80,000 total.

That leaves about 30,000 people whom judges choose to send to prison. If we compare that record with that of the rest of Europe, we do not appear to be harsh at all. In their response to the Carter report, the Government say that only serious, dangerous and persistent offenders should go to prison. Does the Minister consider council tax protestors to be serious, dangerous and persistent offenders? Personally, I would not mind living next door to a council tax protestor, yet when such a crime is committed against them, the Government seem to think that prison is a deterrent that works, and are happy for council tax protestors to be locked up.

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen said that prison is an expensive option. I am not a statistician or a probation officer, but the evidence in the reports does not suggest that that is the case. The Library notes state that a 5 per cent. reduction in crime will lead to a £1.7 billion saving. A Home Office report estimates the cost to society as £60 billion. We can extrapolate a cost to society of about £34 billion, and agree that the cost of crime to Britain is £34 billion to £60 billion a year on Government figures. We spend about £3.5 billion a year on prisons. Carter, like many people, says that if we imprison 85,000 more of the most persistent offenders, we could reduce crime by up to 50 per cent. If we double the prison population, we can reduce crime by 50 per cent. If we spend an extra £3.5 billion on prison, the net saving to society is £17 billion to £30 billion, depending on which set of Home Office figures we want to believe. Either way, it is a bargain. Build more prisons—they are a bargain. At £20,000 to £30,000 a place, let us get as many people in as we can, and we will save ourselves billions and billions of pounds.

Yes, that is exactly what I am doing, based on page 15 of Carter’s report, which states:

“Estimates suggest that of the 100,000 persistent offenders who commit 50 per cent. of all crime, around 15,000 are held in prison at any one time.

If we could identify and incapacitate the 100,000 offenders, crime could fall dramatically.”

That is what I am suggesting. We could easily identify them because the police know who they are.

May I direct the hon. Gentleman’s attention to what Carter concluded in 2003 in the “Managing Offenders, Reducing Crime” strategy unit paper? He stated that

“there is no convincing evidence that further increases in the use of custody would significantly reduce crime.”

I am sorry, but that is not what Carter says on page 15, which I am looking at. I suggest the hon. Gentleman looks at the third paragraph of chapter 3, which states that if we can imprison the 100,000 persistent offenders, we will reduce crime—Carter says “dramatically”, but his earlier comments imply a reduction of 50 per cent. That makes my original point: Carter ignores some of the evidence in his own report.

Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that the only way to stop prolific offenders reoffending is to incapacitate them by locking them up for the rest of their natural lives? Does he not accept that a longer-term solution entails some measure of rehabilitation to reduce the number of prolific offenders and to avoid the revolving-door process whereby they go to jail but the moment they are back on the streets they reoffend?

I am not quite as bad as I sound. I do accept those points, and I am glad that the hon. Lady has given me a chance to revert to my eminently reasonable self. Although I strongly believe in everything that I have said, we need to take a look at prisons. Let us start by examining the reoffending rates.

We are constantly told that roughly 60 per cent. of people leaving prison and 53 per cent. on community sentences will reoffend within two years. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen pointed out that 70 per cent. of people on short sentences will reoffend. Although that figure is not quoted in the report, we all accept that people going into prison for short sentences are far more likely to reoffend. There is no argument about that. Unfortunately, the conclusion of Carter and the Government seems to be that our response should be not to send people to prison at all.

People on short sentences are usually moved around a little at the start. If they are likely to be released halfway through their sentence, and if they are to be in prison for only six months, the authorities take the view that there is not much they can do with them, so they will keep them quiet and make their cells as comfortable as possible—I am all in favour of that, by the way—but they will not give them the education and the vocational skills which we all agree they need. I have two prisons in my constituency, which I have been visiting for about eight years as a Member of the Assembly.

I am the first to accept—you see, I do have a social conscience—that many of those who find themselves in prison are people whom we would recognise from school as the ones who spent their time behind the bike sheds smoking cigarettes, while the rest of us were doing some work. They are always quite pleasant when one goes into the prison. They have usually been dealt a few bad hands—they often come from broken homes, got in with the wrong crowd and into drugs.

There is much that can be done to help such people, but we will not help them by putting them in a comfortable cell with a PlayStation and a colour television for six months and then chucking them straight back on the streets again. We must first give them vocational skills, and secondly give them the skills and the impetus to go out and find work for eight hours a day.

Longer prison sentences work. None of the speakers in the debate have pointed out that people serving four years or more in prison have a reoffending rate of about 30 per cent., which is almost twice as good as the probation service’s figure of 53 per cent., and those serving 10 years or more have an even lower reoffending rate of about 10 per cent., although I accept that many of those are people who committed a one-off murder and cannot necessarily be included in the figures.

The point is still a fair one: statistics show that the longer someone serves in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend. Part of the reason for that is that if they are in prison for a few years, the prison authorities will try to work with them and put them on the anger management courses, the drug treatment courses and the education courses that they need in order to try and tackle the habits that got them into prison in the first place.

Because Carter has not addressed any of these aspects, the conclusions that he has reached are, if not fundamentally flawed, slightly erroneous. He is saying that we can solve all problems by bringing in the private sector to deal with the probation service. I am a Conservative, as the House might have guessed, and a fairly traditional one. I will not say that we need to protect the public sector at all costs. I will not say that we need to protect the probation service at all costs, because I know some of the cases in which it has been involved and in which there has been a horrendous lack of supervision of people in its charge.

One of the most shocking cases that I have dealt with over the past few years was that of a man called Craig Sweeney, who was a paedophile. He raped a child under the age of 10, for which he was sentenced to a wholly inadequate term in prison, which I think was about six years. He was then let out of prison into the care of the probation service and, while he was still in a probation hostel, he went out and committed an identical crime on another child. It was only by the grace of God that he was found in a car with that child before some worse disaster befell her. He has been given another sentence, incidentally, which means that he could be out of prison in less than six years, which says a lot about the justice system in this country.

I will clarify my remarks. Sweeney could be out in six years; he could serve a maximum of 12. Either way, he will be out far too early, but that is not the point that I am making. When the case first arose, everyone said that the probation service had failed yet again. I went to see the local probation service about the matter. What they said was interesting, and the Minister will have to address the point if he wants to make his case. They said, “We didn’t want this person out. We had him in our care, but we accept that there are people being released from prison who shouldn’t be released to us.”

The Minister will have to explain to us how the private sector dealing with such people will be any more effective than the not very effective efforts of the public sector. I support the principle of enabling all sorts of other providers to come in. We heard earlier about the military personnel offering courses. There is a good scheme in Wales called Outreach which is also run by the military, more for people who are going down that road than for ex-offenders. There is a great deal of expertise out there in the private sector.

With regard to religious providers, we should be careful that they will not try to impose their view of society on others. Many of the religious organisations in my constituency that work with drug offenders do a tremendous job. I pay particular tribute to the Teen Challenge organisation in south Wales, but there are people out there who are not so benign. We must be careful of that.

The overall question is whether the Government’s proposals will lead to a reduction in crime or to a reduction in costs. I have nothing against reducing costs. On that basis it would be possible to support the Bill, hopefully without clauses 24 and 25, but I fear that unless we get serious about ensuring, first, that people serve the sentences that they are given by a judge and, secondly, that while they are in prison they get all the help they need to get off drugs and to get the vocational skills that they require in order to find gainful employment in the outside world, the Bill will do nothing whatsoever to reduce crime. The best we can do is to give it a slightly half-hearted welcome.

Apart from the first part of the speech of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), whom I shall not follow down some of the roads that he travelled, the debate has concentrated on only two or three clauses—the clauses dealing with probation. In the nearly three years since the Carter report was produced, this is the first time that we have debated the matter on the Floor of the House, although there have been a number of Adjournment debates. Throughout the debates and statements since Carter, the contentious issue has been contestability—although we have occasionally had discussions about other matters such as what on earth we were doing appointing on some inflated salary regional offender managers who did not, and still do not, have any regions to manage.

Opposition Front Benchers have clearly stated that they are perfectly happy with privatisation, their only concern being who is providing the service and whether it is provided nationally or locally. I wish that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) had been as clear at the probation officers’ conference a few weeks ago, when he made every effort to fudge the issue and not to clarify where the Tories stand. We have been told time and again that this is not about privatisation, and we heard that again today. Nevertheless, however Ministers try to dress it up, there is no doubt that the Bill allows for the privatisation, at some point in the future, of any part of the probation service. Clause 3 states:

“The Secretary of State may make contractual or other arrangements with any other person for the making of the probation provision.”

It is not just about bringing in the voluntary sector or what is done about providing accommodation, drugs rehabilitation, education or all the other things that are part of dealing with reoffending. Those of us who oppose this are painted as dinosaurs who do not want anything to change. It has been falsely suggested that we object to the idea of the voluntary sector being involved in some rehabilitation work with offenders. We are not saying that there is no place for the voluntary sector, but we question the opening up of the core work of the probation service to privatisation. Nothing in the Bill would prevent any part of the work of the probation service from being privatised at some point.

We are told that change is necessary because performance is not good enough, reoffending rates are too high, and not enough work is going to the voluntary sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) said, it does not help the debate when Ministers put the worst possible gloss on reoffending rates by taking the highest figure that can be found—the 66 per cent. that applies to people coming out of prison—and try to portray it as representing the performance of the whole service. Most people who have been supervised by the probation service have lower reoffending rates, particularly if one takes out offences that they committed before the probation order came into effect. Such juggling of the figures does not improve confidence in these proposals. It is easy to say that the reoffending rate is too high, but I have yet to hear from Ministers any suggestion of what they think might be achievable. The targets for the national probation service no longer include reoffending rates. The regulatory impact assessment says that

“a reduction in re-offending of 10 per cent. by 2010 is dependent on the Bill”.

However, it does not say why the Bill will lead to a such a reduction, what is the evidence that the proposed structural changes are necessary to reduce reoffending, or what the alternatives are.

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work as chair of the criminal justice unions parliamentary group in considering this issue, in which he has a long track record of involvement. The Bill allows for extra resettlement providers, who are essential in reducing reoffending. He says that he is not against the voluntary sector being involved. We want to extend its involvement, which is currently limited and decreased when we took away the target.

I thank the Minister for his comments. As with the reoffending figures, we must be sure that we are comparing like with like. Before 2001, there was a specific target whereby the probation service was asked to spend 7 per cent. of its revenue on voluntary organisations. The Home Office removed that target when the national probation service came into being after the reorganisation in 2001. Another change took place in 2001, when the national probation service’s budget was top-sliced so that money could be used directly by central Government on skills training and on accommodation through the “Supporting People” agenda, which has done excellent work. Since property management was taken to the national level, there has been a pretty poor record in respect of some privatisation of some properties.

Given the probation service’s increasing budget, there is plenty of capacity to expand some of the work that the voluntary sector does through drug rehabilitation projects, resettlement projects and education. I have no problem with that, and I have not spoken to anyone in the probation service who has any problem with the idea that there should be greater co-operation and partnership with the not-for-profit sector. However, these proposals go far beyond that. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that a couple of weeks ago he wrote a letter to the general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers in which he said that he wants to improve the performance of the whole service and that the public sector cannot do everything on its own. He went on to make this important point:

“Where we differ is that I do not accept that there should be a public sector monopoly on any area of service provision.”

That implies that any part of the work done by the probation service will be open to competition at some point in the future. Ministers say, “We think the probation service is doing a great job”, yet, bizarrely, the Home Secretary chose to go to Wormwood Scrubs to make a speech in front of prisoners in which he ran down the performance of the probation service. He said, “To be frank, the probation system is not working as well as it should. There are areas where performance isn’t good enough” and went on about how we would pass the necessary legislation, go further and make, on a compulsory basis if necessary, a much larger proportion of probation service work—services with an annual value of up to £250 million—competitive.

Two hundred and fifty million pounds is a fair slice of the probation budget and there is no way in which one could compete at that level without starting to eat into the core work. It does not help the probation service if such comments are made to an audience of prisoners. It is like walking into a doctor’s surgery and saying to the waiting patients, “By the way, you know this bloke you’re going to see is rubbish.” Prisoners will be supervised by the probation service. It will not help probation officers to be reminded of the Home Secretary’s comments.

My hon. Friend said that the probation service was reorganised only four years ago. Does he agree that, to reduce reoffending, the service currently needs a period of stability so that it can consolidate the changes, which, I understand, are working well? I have had talks in my area about that. Does my hon. Friend agree that a period of stability is the way forward?

My hon. Friend is right. We know from other services that continual reorganisation and restructuring causes problems. It has happened often and it is a problem now. If people’s morale is undermined, good people go. They decide, “I’m not going to do this any more. I’m going to find another job where I don’t have the same pressures.”

At one point, the Home Secretary said that the offender management work would be safe for several years. At another, he said that it would be safe for two or three years. The Bill means that none of it is safe for any guaranteed time. One cannot have it both ways. It is no good saying to probation officers, “We value your work and want you to do the offender management work,” yet simultaneously say, “Ah but, at some point—maybe in two or three years—it’s going to be privatised and out to competition.” Who are those people out there who are supposed to be trained and able to undertake offender management and the work that probation officers currently do?

When I consider the privatisation that has happened elsewhere in the criminal justice system, it does not fill me with confidence. The inspector of prisons said that the report on Harmondsworth was undoubtedly the poorest that the inspectorate had issued on an immigration removal centre. It is privately run but, when the problems occurred a couple of weeks ago, who was brought in to retake the place and regain control? It was the Prison Service, not the private sector. The pattern in the prisons system means that the private sector gets the nice, new modern prisons to run, not the tough stuff. It does not get the old Victorian prisons.

Precisely. It does not bid for them because there are no profits to be made—that is what the private sector is about.

The probation boards are to be turned into trusts with the Home Secretary appointing the members. Any semblance of local accountability will thus disappear from them. At least some members of the boards are local magistrates and councillors, and there is, therefore, some local accountability, but it will disappear. That happened with other trusts, for example, in the health service. When one considers the membership of trust boards, one wonders what accountability the members have to anybody. Indeed, they are accountable to no one.

The obvious alternative has been mentioned several times. In Scotland, there is a statutory responsibility on those involved in protection work and dealing with reoffenders to work together. I appreciate that the legal system in Scotland is different but the basic problem of the way in which one should deal with reoffenders is no different, whether one works in Scotland or in England and Wales. Nobody would have a problem with an approach that increased partnership.

Community safety partnerships involve the police, local authorities and other local agencies. They are having a positive effect. However, not an ounce of responsibility is being removed from the police for law enforcement. We could do the same sort of thing and improve partnerships. I appreciate that, over time, it may mean some shifting in the balance of work in, for example, the supervision of unpaid work or education.

If the Bill provided guarantees to ensure that the core probation responsibilities would not be privatised, we could go a long way towards agreement. However, as it stands, it provides that anything can go out to privatisation. That is unnecessary and the case for delivering results is unproven. I am not prepared to support the measure this evening.

One of the best and earliest decisions by the new Home Secretary was to scrap plans to reform Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, presumably on the basis of if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I wish that the Home Secretary and his new team had spent more time pondering the other inheritance—that of the Offender Management Bill—simply to test how much value it adds to the fundamental challenge of reducing reoffending rates. Whether those rates are 60 per cent. or 40 per cent., they are too high. The statistics reek of failure and financial and human cost.

We are discussing a fundamental reform of a service that is vital for public protection and is clearly under great pressure. I was struck by the number of people passing through the system. In 2005, 180,000 entered into probation service supervision and the number has grown by 30 per cent. since 1993. Is the service failing? The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) was passionate and eloquent about the fact that it meets most of its Government targets. However, the public perception is of failure, not helped by media treatment of some high profile, emotive and tragic events. There is also a feeling, which the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) powerfully articulated, that matters are not helped by Government intervention and the Home Secretary.

More important, the probation service is another public service that is subject to the culture of permanent reform. The previous reform took place four years ago. When I speak to representatives of the big public services—for example, those who run schools and hospitals—in my constituency, I am struck by the common sentiment of, “Leave us alone. Stop piling on additional reform before you let the last one bed in.” That voice is being heard throughout the public services. Against that backdrop, the House should be tougher in pushing for hard evidence of the case for reform.

Is the Bill worth further disrupting a vital public service? There is only one yardstick: how will the measure contribute to reducing reoffending, thus helping protect the public better? An enormous prize is attached to that, not only the financial prize, which runs into billions of pounds if reoffending is reduced by 5 or 10 per cent., but a massive human prize in helping more of our fellow citizens get their lives back on track.

The issue does not appear to be about the principle of end-to-end management, which has hardly been debated this afternoon. The meat of the discussion is contestability—the principle or the threat of competition, which can be a powerful driver of change. As a Conservative who worked in business for 18 years before entering politics, I know full well the value of competition. I would normally support it because it focuses minds, raises standards of service and tends to drive down cost.

I am also a passionate believer in the value that the third sector adds. I recently visited a prison in Bovingdon to see the Sycamore Tree project, and I was struck by the extent to which the service depends on volunteers. That project, which aims to bring offenders face to face with the consequences of their crimes, was enormously powerful.

I need no lectures on the merits of competition or the value that the third sector can add. However, given the huge sensitivities about offender management and how we release back into the community people who might represent a risk to our fellow citizens, we must be sure that the Bill, which is highly centralist in driving increased fragmentation of the service, will make a difference.

My question for the Minister and the Home Secretary is: where is the evidence? I have not heard any. I was very disappointed by the response to my question—that as 2 to 3 per cent. of the market is already subcontracted outside the public sector, in the private or voluntary sector, there ought to be a body of evidence that supports a causal link between increased competition and reduced offending. The fact that the Home Secretary could not come to the Dispatch Box and make that case with any robust data was extremely disappointing.

In the absence of new evidence, one begins to listen to the voices of concern, which are out there on a very big scale. About 90 per cent. of responses to the public consultation opposed increased competition, a point made strongly by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. The responses come from some very respectable sources. The chairman of the Probation Boards Association said that the overriding criterion was whether these proposals were likely to reduce reoffending. He contended that a multiplicity of providers being promoted in a confused marketplace and regional offender managers commissioning from the regional level and not the local level could only militate against the achievement of a reduction in reoffending.

The Prison Reform Trust is concerned about local accountability and a move away from community solutions to crime prevention and resettlement. The Howard League for Penal Reform considers that the current proposals “sound the death knell” for a publicly accountable probation service.

Usefully, the National Association of Probation Officers points to the maintenance of training standards. Today, apparently, it costs £70,000 to train in the probation service. That makes sense, given the need for qualifications and the high level of training. How can we be sure of maintaining those training standards in a more fragmented marketplace in which the private sector is more dominant? The Local Government Association warns that the new model would hamper local partnerships working together at a time when the Government appear to be encouraging just that.

I am all for strong leadership in the face of opposition and dug-in vested interests, as long as it is supported by good, hard evidence. We have heard none today. In its absence, it is not encouraging that the Government’s mind has changed so much in the past few years—although perhaps that is not surprising, given the revolving door at the Home Office.

I come again to the National Association of Probation Officers. It pointed out in its criticism of the proposals that the Bill is a complete reversal of the Government’s position in 1998 when in a consultation paper, “Joining Forces to Protect the Public”, it recommended that the national probation service be established. At that time, the probation service was perceived, it said, as a fragmented organisation with only limited local accountability. The danger is that that is exactly what the Bill might reproduce.

The case for reform and further disruption of a major public service has not been supported by evidence of a link between increased competition and reducing reoffending rates. The Bill reeks of centralisation, when one intuitively feels that the solutions are likely to be increasingly local. Personally, I regret the lack of emphasis on the bigger picture. There is an urgent need to make prison work more effectively for those inside it. That lack is particularly disappointing, given the excellent work done in 2002 by the Government’s social exclusion unit in identifying the key factors that influence reoffending. Those pathways to support the rehabilitation of offenders include accommodation, education, training, employment, mental and physical health, drugs, alcohol, finance, benefits and debt, maintaining relationships with children and family, attitudes, thinking and behaviour.

Since then, not enough has been done to make prison work more effectively. The Bill feels like a missed opportunity to get to grips with one of the most stubborn and unacceptable facts on the political landscape: two thirds of people who pass through our prisons will reoffend within two years. That statistic reeks of failure and carries with it a huge sense of waste—both of money and human lives.

Many other speakers have talked in detail about the impact of this legislation on the probation service and have expressed serious concerns, which I accept, about the involvement of the private sector in offender management. I hope that the House will forgive me if instead of concentrating on those points, I talk about the impact of the legislation on the voluntary sector organisations with which I have worked as a Member of Parliament during the past 18 months.

I also want to talk about something that has not come up in the debate so far: the offenders themselves. We have talked about the structures, systems and details of the legislation, but not about the people out there whose lives will be affected by the changes—I hope for the better, although some Members will have different views. I want to talk about those people.

My interest stems from when I spent several years working in the criminal justice system. I worked for a firm of legal aid solicitors, most of whose criminal clients were young offenders. Before that, I worked at a magistrates court, where I saw the same young men come before the courts time and again. If they were not in the dock themselves, they were usually at court anyway, as their mates or brothers were there.

Turning up each day was a way of life for them. Each time they came back before the magistrate, their offences were more serious and their sentences became longer. They swiftly moved from being antisocial nuisances, to career criminals, to hardened convicts. Perhaps one or two of them stepped away from a life of crime after their second brush with the courts, but we could more or less guarantee that their first appearance would not be their last.

In later years, when I had stopped working in the law, I would read reports of the same individuals in the local press. One had been found dead in a ditch in mysterious circumstances; another had died of a heroin overdose. Another had died from glue sniffing and yet another was in court for a bank robbery. It was clear that, whatever their experience of the criminal justice system—from cautions to convictions, from community sentences to custody—nothing had stopped them offending, and doing so in more and more serious ways as their lives progressed.

No doubt, some would say that such prolific offenders will always be with us, that some are simply beyond help and that the best we can do is incapacitate them by locking them up for longer and longer periods. We heard some of that argument from the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) earlier. However, I argue that we cannot afford to give up on such offenders because the cost to society is too great. The social exclusion unit’s report calculated that in 2003-04 the cost of reoffending was £11 billion—nearly a third of the total cost of crime, estimated at £36 billion.

The Home Office estimates that 10 per cent. of active offenders are responsible for half of all crime. I have been told that in my local area there are 110 prolific offenders who generate 63 per cent. of acquisitive crime. Most, of course, have serious drug habits to feed. It is estimated that those offenders are responsible for about 25,000 crimes a year. Avon and Somerset police say that the socio-economic cost of each to the taxpayer is £225,000 a year, which includes the cost of their crime, policing, convicting them and trying to clear up some of the mess that they have caused.

We have two alternatives for those 110 offenders: we could lock them up and throw away the key or make a serious attempt to rehabilitate some of them. Lots of figures have been bandied around in today’s debate, and those for rehabilitation are not encouraging. Some 66 per cent. of those who serve a custodial sentence go on to reoffend, and 58 per cent. of offenders reoffend. Of most concern is the fact that up to 85 per cent. of young offenders go on to reoffend. The only conclusion that I can reach is that prison clearly does not work. It is also clear that in many instances the probation service does not work either; there are people whom the probation service has not been able to reach. They need a different kind of focus and structured, sometimes very intensive, support.

That brings me to the role of the voluntary sector, particularly that in Bristol, which has been doing excellent work with offenders and young people who are seen to be at risk of offending. There are organisations such as Restore, which engages with young people on a south Bristol housing estate, involving them in a furniture recycling project. Those young people are learning skills, being kept off the street and away from other young people in the community who are committing crime. That organisation does really good work. Another organisation called Amber looks at offenders’ education, training and employment needs. And there is one called RAPt, the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust, which provides a structured residential drug treatment programme for offenders.

Research that RAPt commissioned from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies shows that two years after release, more than 50 per cent. of those who have graduated from the RAPt programme are still clean of drugs, compared with 20 per cent. who have not been through the programme. Only 16 per cent. of RAPt graduates have been reconvicted since their release, compared with 43 per cent. of non-graduates.

Last month I hosted the parliamentary launch of Believe, an organisation that has worked with prolific offenders in Bristol for the past two years. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) for speaking at the event. We heard from an ex-offender who had spent most of his adult life and much of his youth in custody. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the way in which his life had been transformed by support from Believe. He is now mentoring other offenders who have been released from custody more recently.

Over the last two years Believe has worked with 150 offenders, half of whom are deemed to be prolific offenders who are almost 100 per cent. certain to reoffend. The organisation calculates that its work is currently preventing reoffending at a rate some 20 per cent. above what the probation service would achieve. It costs £5,000 a year to put an offender through Believe’s programme. That should be taken in conjunction with the £225,000 figure given by Avon and Somerset police. Believe reckons that in the two years for which it has been in operation it has saved the taxpayer some £4 million, and it says that with more resources and wider partnership work—which the Bill will facilitate—it would be able to do much more.

Why do I think that Believe could succeed where the probation service may have failed? I think that its success may be partly due to the fact that it works with offenders in a much more intensive and motivational way. It builds consistent, long-lasting and trusting relationships. Many of the offenders with whom I have dealt in the past know full well how to play the probation service. They see it as part of the establishment—something that ought to be challenged, tricked, conned and worked around. They do not have the same relationship with the people with whom they work in the voluntary sector.

Another thing that voluntary organisations seem better placed to do is allow offenders themselves to play a part in determining strategies that would work for them as individuals. Rather than operating a set programme, such organisations have long discussions with offenders. They tolerate the occasional lapse. When they work in partnership, which is happening increasingly in Bristol, they can provide an integrated package of interventions and support dealing with addictions in prison and on release, accommodation and employment problems, family relationships, mental health and debt—all factors that contribute to the revolving-door lifestyle, which NOMS has already identified in its action plan as being particularly important.

I mentioned family relationships. Over the past year or so, I have had some dealing with Action for Prisoners’ Families, and I commend it for its work. I think most people would agree that an important element in the prevention of reoffending, particularly among those who have served short sentences, is the maintenance of a stable and secure family life to which offenders can return. If an offender’s family has not disintegrated or turned its back on him, that will be a key factor in putting him back on the straight and narrow.

I recently visited Ashfield young offenders’ institution, which is just outside Bristol. I talked to very young men from broken homes, who were due to be released within the next two or three weeks and had nowhere to go. They did not even know which city they would be going to. Some had come from as far away as London. As for their family homes, they were the last places in the world where one would want them to go. If there were more organisations working with young offenders and giving them a helping hand when they leave such institutions, they would stand a better chance of not becoming involved in crime and not falling in with the wrong people again.

Those who read the “Society” section of The Guardian—I am sure that that now includes many Opposition Members—

Apparently it does not include all of them. Anyway, last week “Society” announced the “public servant of the year” awards. One of the awards was won by a Bristol-based community liaison officer from Avon’s fire and rescue service, Allan Middleton. He has set up a fire cadets’ scheme at Ashfield. He said that the scheme was not so much about teaching youngsters firefighting skills—although that too is important—as about building respect and establishing positive role models. He said that all the young offenders with whom he had worked had poor self-esteem and low expectations of life. That is just one example of an imaginative approach to working with young offenders that is not provided through the established channels.

Each year that passes, however, sees good initiatives like that fail through lack of Government funding. That is why the voluntary sector does not consider the current regime sufficient to meet all its aspirations, and that is why bodies such as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, NACRO, Turning Point and Crime Concern welcome the Bill so much.

When we talk of the voluntary sector, we talk of professionalism in that sector. While volunteers are important and it is great that we have them, many people in the sector are professional in terms of their careers and in terms of what they do.

It is not just that they are professional. Believe, for example, is run by a former Army officer with a lengthy history of working in such projects, but people are also incredibly passionate and dedicated. The caricature that presents people as embarking on such work solely for profit is completely wrong.

The voluntary sector has notified me of some concerns which I hope the Bill will address. There is, for instance, a fear that the commissioning process may favour larger charitable organisations, which are seen as less of a risk. Some of those groups do excellent work, but it has been suggested to me that some may have lost the desire for innovation and the passion that I mentioned earlier, and may not create genuinely new solutions. There is also a fear that funds will be given to quasi-voluntary sector organisations emanating from probation or to the private sector, which might also be seen as less of a risk.

If a commitment is made to funding a voluntary sector organisation, the funding must be on a sufficiently long-term basis to ensure that the organisation is given a chance to succeed. Small organisations simply do not have the reserves to survive constant changes in commitment. It would be hugely damaging if they started to work successfully with groups of offenders only to have their budgets cut, so that they could not continue their work. There needs to be a clear commitment to funding innovation. The acceptance that there will be some risk must be accompanied by the understanding that profoundly better solutions to seemingly intractable problems will emerge.

I myself feel that it is important for voluntary sector organisations not to become completely absorbed into the mainstream. I think that one of the key reasons for their success is that offenders do not see them as part of the establishment.

Finally, I want to mention a family with whom I came into contact many years ago. I have kept in touch with their progress over the years. There were nine boys in the family. Both their parents were alcoholics, and anyone would describe their home lives in a tiny council house as dysfunctional. Only one of those nine boys remained clear of crime and drugs throughout his life. The other eight, one by one, grew up to acquire lengthy criminal records and hard-drug habits, fathering children and wrecking the lives of young women along the way. Two are already dead through heroin overdoses.

I cite that family not as an example of something that has gone wrong—although something has obviously gone incredibly wrong throughout their lives—but because two of the brothers eventually got their lives together. One is actually studying to become a probation officer. It would have been easy to write off the whole family and dismiss them as a lost cause that the criminal justice system could only punish, not rehabilitate. But two of them managed to pull themselves out of the depths into which they had sunk. The reason they give is not anything that happened to them during their passage through the penal system or their support from probation, but the support that they received from others outside the establishment—people who they felt really cared about how their lives turned out. I believe that many such individuals could be helped in a similar way through involvement with the voluntary sector, as opposed to state institutions.

This is not about being soft on crime or criminals. It is not in any way about excusing their actions, or giving greater priority to them than to the victims of their crimes. It is simply a hard fact that if we want to bring down crime rates, protect the public and make our streets and communities safer, the temporary incapacitation of criminals is not the solution. Protection of the public is best achieved by ensuring that those who are released from prison will not offend again. We must look beyond what we have tried to do in the past, and think of imaginative ways of achieving that aim.

I do not welcome the Bill at all, but I do welcome much of what the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) said about the work of the voluntary sector. My initial question is this: if we are to broaden the partnership between the probation service and the voluntary sector, do we need this Bill? I do not think that we do. The Minister referred to resettlement, but I am unsure whether we need the Bill for that either. Let me give him an example why. The National Assembly for Wales has made those who have just come out of prison the No. 1 priority in the allocation of public sector housing. That is not primary legislation; it is subordinate. Although I am talking about a part of the proposed legislation that I might be able to accept, I do not think that a justification for the Bill lies in the resettlement point, as that can be done by subordinate legislation in any case.

I have another question: what do classroom assistants, police community support officers and voluntary bodies delivering legal advice have in common? The answer is that each of them is an attempt to provide a service on the cheap. If that is what the Bill seeks to do, its outcomes are doomed to failure. We heard from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), among others, about the savings that are envisaged in the regulatory assessment—some £625 million. We also know that contestability is nothing short of privatisation. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head, but I heard the Home Secretary talk earlier about more voluntary sector involvement. That is fine, and I dare say that every probation officer would be happy to have more involvement with the voluntary sector. What the Minister said in a recent intervention is right. It is also my experience that the voluntary sector is very professional and has a high degree of expertise, and that is all to the good, but people are gravely concerned that the large companies that are now involved in this area will sweep up the market.

The key question is whether profit-making organisations deliver the best possible service—in the prison sector, I do not think so. I will not go on about that, although I could give plenty of examples. I shall, however, point out what has happened since the carriage of prisoners from prisons to Crown courts was privatised. In the old days, if a prisoner arrived an hour late, the judge would go spare and would ask to see the senior officer, and the senior officer would then report back to the prison, and that would not happen again. Let me tell Members what can happen nowadays, by recounting an experience that I had last year. A prisoner came half a day late to the Crown court, and the officer concerned would not even present himself in chambers to be questioned about what had happened. That is the level of accountability now in that area, and it is absolutely disgraceful. If the Bill is enacted in its present form, it will only make matters worse.

There is another question that must be asked: why are the workers in public sector prisons not allowed to tender for some work on an equal footing with those in private organisations? I was told by the Home Secretary that there is no impediment, but, with respect, there is. I am not saying that the right hon. Gentleman meant to mislead, but I am putting on the record that there is such an impediment. That has been raised with me by the Prison Officers Association—by no less a person than Colin Moses, the chairman. Therefore, I ask that question.

In common with many Members, I have over past months tabled reams of questions about the National Offender Management Service—about how it will pan out and how it will look on the ground. Half, if not three quarters, of those questions are unanswered, because we simply do not know. We are treading on dangerous ground, particularly with such a justice forum, as Ministers do not yet know how things will pan out.

I listened intently to the comments of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood). He has experience in this field, and he is greatly concerned about the evidential base for the legislation. I do not understand why probation boards have to be abolished and replaced by trusts. The Home Secretary said in opening the debate that the trusts will be made up of people from business. I am unsure whether people from business are aware of the needs and other issues involved in resettling criminals—in assisting their rehabilitation and so forth. People from business look at the bottom line—at the costs. I repeat what I said earlier: the measures under discussion cannot be implemented on the cheap; otherwise they will be doomed to failure from day one.

I am listening intently to the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The probation trusts will not be made up only of business people. We are trying to get a wide representation of the local community. The membership of the current boards is quite narrow, in that members must be magistrates or from specific areas of the criminal justice system. We want to broaden that out, because we think that tackling reoffending is a matter for all parts of our communities, and not just the narrow criminal justice sector.

I accept what the Minister says, but my understanding is that it will no longer be necessary for sentences, for example, to be a matter for trusts; they can be, but I would have thought that they jolly well should be a central and core element, in respect of both Crown court judges and lay magistrates alike. Departing from that could be a recipe for disaster.

We know that there will be contracting out of probation services, and—to repeat something that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said—I am not averse to greater involvement of the voluntary sector, many of whose staff are experts and are well versed in many aspects of the work required. However, I do not see why we need such a wholesale series of measures as are in the Bill in order to achieve that.

I cannot address the issue that we are discussing without raising sentencing policy. I echo something that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said: we cannot discuss this issue without looking at what is currently happening in the prisons. The first question I pose is whether we, the inhabitants of the British isles, are so intrinsically bad that we must lock up many more people per capita than our European neighbours. Some might say so, but it is a serious and proper question to ask. It is especially apposite since we have had prison overcrowding every year since 1994—that is according to Home Office figures. Over the past year, more than half of all prisons have been overcrowded—that is taken from the NOMS monthly bulletin from January.

I recall serving on the Standing Committee of the Crime (Sentences) Bill in 1997—some 10 years ago. I said then that as a direct result of that proposed legislation there would be a substantial influx of new prisoners, and that if the Bill was to make any sense at all it would have to be matched by a large increase in prison places. To many Members at that time that seemed self-evident, but very little provision was made and the situation was, indeed, exacerbated by that legislation.

As the hon. Gentleman will remember, shortly before then many of us criticised the former Administration for reaching the milestone of 50,000 prisoners. It is interesting to reflect on that today. That is what we used to criticise the former Conservative Government for. The fact is that the depth of the problem with this Bill lies in the fact that it is based on the foundation belief that building more prisons and more prison places is a proper system in a modern society.

I absolutely agree, and I shall come on to that point shortly. The current figure is just over 80,000, which is considerably higher of course.

A complicating feature is that criminal justice in general, and sentencing in particular, are, and always have been, political footballs. Every now and again, Conservatives and Labour get into a bidding war about how to be more beastly to offenders—and that is normally to the background of the tabloid drumbeat. However, if the whole question were depoliticised as far as one can imagine possible, the system could be greatly improved for the benefit of society and the taxpayer.

Mention has been made on more than one occasion of the figures produced by Government in support of this proposed legislation. I agree with what has been said by several Members in our debate: the figures are not accurate, and if they are inaccurate one has to ask how the Government will bring the proposals forward. The Home Secretary claimed on 7 November that about 60 per cent. of offenders on probation re-convict within two years, and that the figure is similar to that applying to those leaving prison. That is not true. The 60 per cent. figure was unadjusted—the true figure for probation reoffending is nearer to 35 to 40 per cent., which is very different from the one that the Home Secretary gave by way of justification. I do not want to go over old ground, but I should point out that past dossiers have contained inaccuracies. One of the core justifications for this measure has been proven to be inaccurate, and that really concerns me.

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that even the adjusted figure is not correct? Such figures take into account people who have reconvicted within two years, and the important word to bear in mind is “reconvicted”. There are many more people who commit offences within that two-year period, but who, because of the nature of the offences—which might well be serious—are not convicted of them within the two-year period. They are not classified as recidivists, so the adjusted figure will always be higher than the figure that the Government give us.

Except that the adjusted figure is the same across probation and non-probation, which tends to answer the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Many people throughout the criminal justice system have concluded that for a lot of offenders—clearly not all—prison simply does not work. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) mentioned part of the Carter report, and I referred to another part of it that was at direct variance with what he said; no doubt he and I picked up on what was convenient to us. However, the report concluded that a 22 per cent. increase in the prison population since 1997 is estimated to have reduced crime by around 5 per cent. It stated:

“There is no convincing evidence that further increase in the use of custody would significantly reduce crime”.

There we have it.

The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way; I appreciate that. The report does say that, but he must accept that it also says, on page 15, that if we could identify the 100,000 persistent offenders—85,000 of whom are not in prison—which we can, crime would be drastically reduced, by as much as 50 per cent.

I will refer to page 15 of the report, and I will also refer the hon. Gentleman to the conclusion; we will have to beg to differ on this one.

I ask Members to tell me who said this:

“More than half of all crime in this country is committed by people who have been through the criminal justice system. Prison does not work in stopping reoffending.”—[Official Report, 9 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 1033.]

The answer is the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who was Home Secretary at the time. In other words, surprisingly, that was an ex cathedra statement—one made by him during a debate in the Commons, when he was very much in harness. There we have it: the then Home Secretary says that prison does not work, so why are we stuffing prisons with people? That is a good question, and I do not know the answer. I should like the Minister to say whether there is a sensible answer, and if there is, may I have it?

If that was the Home Office’s thinking in 2005, what has happened since? Not a lot, to coin a phrase. Two contrasting factors continue to predominate: first, the political imperative to which I have alluded; secondly, the fact that the vast majority of prisoners—67 per cent.—are reconvicted within two years of release. Therefore, for the vast majority, prison simply does not work. Despite what the Home Secretary said in opening the debate, one problem is that prison’s rehabilitation element is being severely undermined. If people are sentenced to less than 12 months, they are unlikely to have any rehabilitation whatsoever. In such cases, the reoffending rate is 78 or 79 per cent.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the Education and Skills Committee looked at prison education only last year, it became clear that the instability that all these changes to NOMS is creating in our overcrowded prisons is making it impossible for very good people in and outside the prison system to deliver a rehabilitation and education programme that works?

I agree entirely. I have discussed the issue with prison officers, educators and members of the probation service, and all of them are in a state of flux. They do not have a clue what is happening. I mentioned earlier the many written parliamentary questions that have been tabled on this issue, a lot of which have been tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). We still do not know the answers to core questions about how NOMS will shape up. Heavens above—if those who actually work there are not told the answers, what hope is there for any kind of morale in the service? As the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) has just pointed out, it is absolutely vital and fundamental that rehabilitation be uppermost in one’s mind when someone is in custody. That is the only way to turn such people around.

There is a vast amount of work to be done, but NOMS—which is something of a fig leaf—and this Bill are not the answer. I hope that at some point we can deal with the following issues. First, can we not have an audit of all those in prison who should not be there? What about those with mental health or drug problems? After all is said and done, a drug addiction is an illness. It is not that such a person is intrinsically bad; they are suffering from an awful illness, and one exemplar of that illness is the criminality that feeds that habit. That is a terrible situation to be in, and we need to address the problem in a different way. We need to concentrate far more on assisting those people, so that they do not simply come out of prison and start again, thereby getting into an awful spiral—or stuck in the revolving door, as it has been referred to.

There are some beacons of good practice. Altcourse prison, in Liverpool, has a very good course for taking people off drugs, and so on. I hope that we can reach a sensible position, ignore the tabloids and the less progressive elements who are shouting at us Members of Parliament from the sidelines—[Interruption.] Actually, they are not on the sidelines; they are just behind me. I hope that we can have a mature, grown-up and sensible debate, because that is what this important issue needs.

I would point out to any member of the public who is listening that I am very much in favour of proper community penalties, which are cost-effective. They are a form of redress whereby the transgressor gives back to the transgressed, and they do work in dealing with reoffending.

The Home Secretary said earlier that 5,000 extra probation officers have been engaged in the past five to seven years. According to Lord Ramsbotham,

“there are 300 fewer officers and 1,500 more bureaucrats”.

I think it was the hon. Member for Batley and Spen who said that nobody seems to know what the NOMS bureaucrats are doing. I doubt whether they even have desks yet, let alone any tasks. They are no doubt being paid very well, but what they actually do nobody seems to know. Worse still, we do not know what they will be doing in future. This is change for change’s sake. Lord Ramsbotham said the following about the Bill:

“What would I do? It is difficult to know where to start but my first move would be to drop any move towards what is euphemistically called a national offender management service.”

I agree with that.

The Lord Chief Justice, who recently posed as someone doing community service, has entered the debate. Perhaps more importantly, in a paper entitled “Alternatives to Custody—the Case for Community Sentencing”, which was issued by Oxford university’s centre for criminology, he said:

“First and foremost we need the appropriate resources”.

Those very simple words actually mean that we need more fully trained probation officers on the ground. We need proper, structured, medium and long-term orders. They are not a soft option; they do work.

When I was a young solicitor in the 1970s, there were three or four probation officers based in the local town. There is now one, based 40 miles away. That is a snapshot of where we are now. The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) said that people often bond with representatives of the voluntary sector more than with probation officers. Well, if one person has to cover such a vast area of north Wales, with all the hours of travelling that involves, I am not surprised that she is less available to advise and befriend those on probation.

I recently attended a conference held by the Coalition on Social and Criminal Justice, which wholeheartedly endorsed more use of community penalties and, in particular, the local partnership approach, bringing in social services, the probation service, the health service and magistrates. That is a helpful contribution to the debate. Unfortunately, however, there will be no requirement to have magistrates on the new trusts. If the Bill has to become law—I would prefer it not to—I hope that the Government will consider how fundamentally important it is for sentences, in the magistrates and Crown courts, to be an integral part of the system. However, any movement in that area presupposes more investment in properly trained probation officers. I will not dwell on the Scottish model as it has already been mentioned, but it seems to be working. It involves a statutory duty for the services to work together and consult. I have no objection to that.

As a young, idealistic lawyer in the 1970s, I came across young people who offended time after time. I also defended some who had offended once or twice and were at a crossroads in their lives. I saw first hand dedicated probation officers working with them. I sometimes meet those ex-offenders, now respected members of the community and proud parents and grandparents who hold down good jobs and serve on town and community councils. I shudder to think what would have happened to them if they had offended now and not then. Would they have gone straight into a young offenders institution? Would they have taken the wrong turn at that crossroads in their lives? Sadly, I think that the answer is yes, but it gives me no pleasure to say so.

It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful, careful and expert analysis of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), but the key point in the debate came when the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. As he went through his critique of the centralisation that the Bill would involve, he had the rapt attention of no fewer than four Government Whips. The tension visibly drained from the Chamber as he announced that the Opposition would not oppose the Bill tonight. The day of reckoning for the Bill has therefore been postponed, but—in accordance with the spirit of Christmas—I wish to offer a few thoughts to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench on how we could be more united on the Bill by Report. It would certainly be good if the House of Commons could resolve the issue instead of sending it on to the other place.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), is not in his place at present, but I am keen to reach an accommodation with him especially as we share many core beliefs, not least in our football team, Bradford City, and our candidate for the deputy leadership. I therefore speak tonight in a spirit of good will.

The Bill has wider implications than just the probation service. It is all about the Government’s interaction with the private sector and the involvement of the private and voluntary sectors in the provision of public services. The Bill is so radical in its intent and scope that it disturbs many of the established principles that the Government have proclaimed in that area. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) said that what matters is what works, which was originally said by Lord Kinnock, when he was leader of the Labour party. We have moved a long way from that in the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to a gradualist approach, but there is nothing gradual about the Bill. The parliamentary Labour party briefing stresses that no less than £250 million of expenditure on probation will be put out to contestability within 15 months—in the financial year beginning in 2008. That is a lot of money.

The second principle—that of localism—that has so far influenced the Government’s commissioning of the voluntary and private sectors has been removed from the Bill. That is in contrast with what is happening in the health service, for which Lord Warner has recently said that decisions on commissioning private services should be made at a local level, because local accountability is important. That would not be the case for the probation service, for which the principle seems to be that the man from Whitehall and the regional commissioners know best.

The third principle is the inclusion of charities and the voluntary sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke movingly and with great conviction about the importance of that role. It has been interesting to note that whenever in doubt my hon. Friend the Minister intervenes, as he has done on at least three occasions, to ask whether the hon. Member concerned can possibly be opposed to involving NACRO, Turning Point and Shelter—that is his usual trio—in the provision of public services. He never mentions Serco, which is by far the dominant provider in the prison sector and probably in the probation sector. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister is now in his place again.

It is interesting that some parts of the voluntary sector have been more critical of the Bill than NACRO, Turning Point and Shelter. For example, the YMCA has said that the Bill has

“a narrow vision of the voluntary sector. The Bill simply places the sector alongside others for services to be merely transferred, neglecting the particular contribution that a voluntary relationship has on preventing re-offending.”

Pete Crossley, who is YMCA England’s prisons unit director, echoing the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East, said:

“If charities are allowed to offer optional support services, the chances of rehabilitation are far greater. This is because the relationship between the charity and the young offender is one which both have chosen. Take away the voluntary element and you remove an important degree of trust which could be disastrous for the charity’s effectiveness.”

The briefing continues:

“If the sector”—

that is, the voluntary sector—

“is merely seen as an alternative provider of public services the Government will overlook the distinctive characteristics of both sectors. The voluntary sector cannot absorb the state’s responsibility for public protection.”

That is a valid point.

The Probation Boards Association makes some similar observations. It says:

“Complex contractual arrangements go against the government Compact with the voluntary sector. A contract culture can be restrictive, creating boundaries and constraints and may alter the voluntary sector culture of commitment and innovation.”

In other words, if we are to preserve the innovation of the voluntary sector, we cannot have it replacing large chunks of the core probation service, because that risks losing the added value that it brings.

I have mentioned Serco and we should be sceptical about exactly what such non-specialist firms can bring to the public services. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that certain public services can also be criticised, but within the past few weeks Serco’s press record on the public services in which it is involved shows that it has been criticised for the closure of leisure centres in Leyland, because of widespread poisoning; in Walsall for the disappearance of £850,000 without proper audit, according to the internal audit service; in Cornwall for the near collapse of the out-of-hours health service; in Doncaster by the chief inspector of prisons for providing a squalid service; and in Bradford for missing 50 per cent. of its targets. Given that Serco is the major firm trying to grasp, or take over, a large proportion of the probation service, a greater degree of scepticism from Ministers is probably called for.

Finally, the fourth principle to which new Labour has held while developing voluntary and private sector participation is that there should be a core public service. It has been assumed that the state would continue to make some direct provision. Ministers have said that they envisage only 10 per cent. of health services being put out to the private sector, but there is no limit in terms of the probation service. It costs £70,000 to train a probation officer, for example, and there is a cavalier attitude to what might happen to training in the probation service; but a substantial core public service element is vital to maintaining professional standards in any public service. Earlier this year, Lord Browne, the chairman of BP, said that pseudo-markets risk damaging the professional ethos in academic institutions, hospitals and jails, which should give us at least pause for thought.

I began my speech in the absence of the Minister, but I am pleased that he has now returned to the Chamber. In the spirit of Christmas, I have been trying to suggest changes to the Bill so that it will command the support of the House when it returns here, probably in February. I very much doubt that it can command such support at present. Those changes would be based on a more localist approach, with more local commissioning, and wider recognition that the value of the core function of the probation service is irreducible. If we were to proceed along those lines, a majority could be commanded; if not, I suspect that the Bill will have a rough ride on Report and in the other place.

Before I commence my remarks, I apologise both to the Minister and to my colleague on the Opposition Front-Bench, the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), for not being in the Chamber to hear the opening speeches. I had to chair the draft Films (Definition of “British Film”) (No. 2) Order 2006 Committee, which was one of the more exciting 90 minutes of my life, so I had to miss the opening speeches. I apologise to the Chamber.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who raised several points and put some effective warning shots across the bows of his hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, which will probably make sure that he is not appointed to the scrutiny Committee. Some of his points may have been based a little on the old Labour tenet: everything private must be suspected but everything public is probably good. In the major tenor of debate, it is good to note that the two major parties have moved on a little from that position, so I am not over-worried about that aspect of the Bill.

The contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) was an effective critique of where the system is going wrong. Is the present system working? Clearly, the Government think not, nor do Opposition Members—even those who may not agree with the Bill. Most certainly, our constituents do not think that the system is working. In general, the British public do not believe that any deterrence is left in it, although of course they do not mean the deterrence advocated by The Sun or the Daily Mail, who would probably happily bring back the flogging wheel at all our penal institutions.

A survey about the element of fear found that people committing acts of violence do so more often for kicks rather than necessarily for material reward, which is part of the worrying problem that must concern the House. Reoffending rates are also worrying, and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who has immense experience at the Bar, spoke effectively about them in his contribution. I am not sure what we can do about those things. The problem is that no one knows.

We know that the system is not working, but we are not at all sure that the Bill is the answer. Part of the trouble is that our society is changing so rapidly. Are our offender institutions, our penal institutions and our centres of detention producing better citizens at the end of custodial sentences? No one believes that. In the political debate, it does not really matter whether one is on the far wing of the hang ’em, flog ’em and amputate limbs as a matter of discouragement party, or on the now-to-be-embraced by my party Polly Toynbee huggy-touchy-feely wing; neither extreme has the answer as far as the British public are concerned.

Is it simply that the probation service is useless? One would think so, if one relied on the tabloid media, but most Members who have contact with their local probation service find that that is not the case. I am sure that the service has moved on since the days of one of my uncles. He was a physical training instructor in the Army and when he left he became a probation officer. Not many youths would cross his advice. However, the days of people applying a bit of military brawn to such challenges have long since passed; now he would need a social work degree and a lot more Polly Toynbee compassion. Again, one tends to wonder which wing was right.

On balance, the probation service gets an unfair press. Probation officers I meet are undoubtedly trying hard to help produce better citizens. God knows, the job is dangerous and posts are not necessarily well rewarded. Perhaps higher up the management chain people are on good salaries, but those who are doing the job on the streets are not particularly well rewarded, certainly not in relation to the personal risks they face. I hope that those in the probation service who are following the debates on the legislation will not feel that society thinks them a completely useless bunch. That is not the tenor of the debate in the House this evening.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which we want to reinforce. It has been said during the debate that the Bill is an attack on the probation service. It is not; it is about ensuring that we make the best use of the professionalism and skills of probation officers in doing a dangerous job and enhancing that reputation. I agree that much of the media coverage attacks probation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the media should tell people about what probation officers do so that our communities can have trust in their work on our behalf?

The Minister makes his point effectively and I am sure that many people will agree. Inevitably, we read about cases of the probation service getting things horribly wrong but, fortunately, such cases are few. They obviously attract much interest in the more popular press, which is what worries people. Our more elderly constituents often tell us that they are terrified at the level of violence, yet—in terms of the age of most people in the Chamber—our children are more exposed to violent crime on the streets than many pensioners. However, to read some of the cheaper British newspapers one would think that that was a daily experience for every citizen in Britain.

Are people right to think that the situation is getting worse? I believe they are. We know from the figures that violent crimes are more prevalent. Is the situation likely to get worse in future? Perhaps my generation has a slightly tight and old-fashioned view about drug use. I notice that my children’s generation is a bit more relaxed—that is how society is now—yet few people doubt that the more widespread use of serious drugs has an impact on mental health. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy made a telling point about the number of people in custody who have mental illness problems, rather than just an evil personality or disposition that requires them to be locked up. The number of detained offenders with a drugs record who still have a drugs problem means that, sadly, we are dealing with a problem that will get worse.

Does the Bill mean the fragmentation of the service? It is difficult to argue that it will not. The question must be: is that a good or a bad thing? No doubt, that question will be considered as the Bill progresses through the House. The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy), who made an effective and genuine contribution, mentioned the role of the voluntary sector—to which the hon. Member for Selby paid tribute, too. We would be hard pressed to find anyone in the Chamber who did not welcome the contribution of the voluntary sector. I used to be on the board of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations—more popularly known as ACEVO—which has welcomed the Bill. In a letter to Members, ACEVO has urged Members to support the Bill, because it speaks for the voluntary sector.

I was involved on the board in a different capacity. The organisation had a heavy public services representation and I represented a more commercially oriented charitable sector, but ACEVO actually speaks for people who are doing effective work on the streets of Britain. It is effective because the voluntary sector has a flexibility and level of commitment that, even with the best intentions, is sometimes hard to match in the public sector. I think that the advice of ACEVO will be well taken in the House.

When the Minister examines the Bill in detail in Committee, he will have to engage with clause 10, which deals with the information provisions for the different sectors involved. One issue that will concern hon. Members is whether the inevitable fragmentation of the service that the change in the law will bring will actually improve the level of liaison, communication and co-operation between the services of detention, the prison service, the police and all the others. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy made a valid point about the involvement of the magistracy, which is very much at the sharp end of experience that Members, unless they are practising lawyers, are unlikely to see. They understand the level of challenge much better than we do, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s warning about the magistracy’s involvement will be accepted, as it should.

We have said not that this is a bad Bill going nowhere, but that it is a Bill for which the jury is pretty much out, regardless of whether Members vote for it on Second Reading tonight. I think that it will undoubtedly get its Second Reading, perhaps with not too many dissenting, but it is a Bill for which detailed scrutiny in Committee will be absolutely vital. It is not that the Bill causes great political unease in the different parts of the House, but that it poses solutions to problems that are not necessarily infallible.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth about clause 25 and the placing into open children’s homes of offenders under the age of 18. Not everyone in a children’s home is an offender and not everyone is there because they have an evil nature, yet many of them, if placed there, may become exposed to those who do have that disposition.

Many people believe that it is more common for Conservative Members to come from the public school sector, but I attended a secondary modern school. We frequently had boys sent to our school who had been to borstal. At one stage in my time there I was the head boy and we had a team of prefects who were there, on the whole, to try to keep the borstal boys under control, because the master sometimes found it a bit of a challenge. We all had minders and all sorts of complicated things that can happen at fairly rough schools. Whether the system was working then, I do not know. We frequently saw the headmaster attacked by boys who had come from borstal, so I do not think that the system failing is an invention of our modern society. Perhaps the Bill is the way forward, but there are many areas of doubt.

Above all, this is a Bill to be tested not only in Committee, but when it comes back to us on Report. I hope that the Bill will provide the answers, but for now, there is a lot of scepticism. Everyone will wish the Minister well because we must and it is right that he should have a fair wind, but he still has a lot of explaining to do. The House will be watching carefully to see what the Bill is like when it comes back to us.

I certainly agree with some of what the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) said, particularly in respect of mental illness, but I do not agree with what he said about the level of serious concern about the Bill. Among Liberal Democrat Members, there are some very serious concerns about it. I did not agree with him about the crime figures, either. He is right that some categories of violent crime are rising, but others are falling and it is important to take a balanced view of the overall situation.

The point of criminal justice reform must surely be to reduce the harm suffered from crime. I listened to the Secretary of State’s opening remarks and to subsequent ministerial interventions, but I am still far from clear how the Bill will effectively reduce the harm suffered by people as a result of crime. Indeed, until the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke—unfortunately, she is not in her place at the moment—we did not hear a single reason for believing that the Bill would do anything to reduce the harm of crime.

What the hon. Lady said was interesting, although I did not agree fully with it. She said that, if the voluntary sector is brought into the rehabilitation of offenders and associated functions, it would help in two ways: first, offenders would not see the people helping them as part of the establishment, which would help to encourage them to change their ways; and, secondly, it would allow a more flexible approach. I can see how that might occur on a limited scale with small-scale local projects, but not with a regional and national system of large contracts with big organisations. I feel that they themselves would become part of the establishment.

I would draw an analogy with housing associations, which started off as local voluntary organisations that were quite democratic and effective at involving people, and quite innovative. Following various reforms in housing finance, however, housing associations have become very large regional and national organisations, which I fear are now less flexible, less democratic and less innovative than local councils. Rather like the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), I fear that the Bill will change the nature of the voluntary sector for the worse.

Small-scale involvement is already happening, with about 3, 6 or 10 per cent. of total expenditure being devoted to voluntary projects. That is the right way to go. I am not against the involvement of the voluntary sector in the right way, but I fear that the Government’s method will undermine not only their own goals, but those of the voluntary sector itself.

Throughout the debate, Ministers have said that what they propose supplements the services provided by the probation service, but that approach has been exposed—again, by the hon. Member for Selby. Contestability works only if there is a threat or possibility that the core service will move to a different sector. Otherwise, there is no contestability. It was both important and interesting when the hon. Member for Selby pointed out that his party’s briefing said that £250 million of services would be put out to other sectors. That cannot be just supplementary; it has to bite into the core service.

It would not be a problem if the £250 million were new money—it would then be extra and supplementary as Ministers argue—but there is absolutely no sign of that in what Ministers have told the House tonight. In fact, the Home Secretary said that the problem could not be solved by throwing more money at it. That indicates that the money will certainly not be new. The problem with new money is precisely the old problem of where it goes. If it goes to 1,600 new bureaucrats, that is not the way to solve the problem with extra resource when, at the same time, there are still 1,000 vacancies for front-line probation officers.

The other problem with contestability—it has come out only once or twice in the debate and it is worth reinforcing the point now—is that it has costs. It costs to make bids and it costs to defend oneself against a bid. Periodically, in a contested system, the whole service has to adjust to the problem of making a bid. It is rather like applying for a grant: one could end up spending all the time applying for the grant and not much time doing the job. It is important to take into account the costs of bidding and the costs of enforcing the contract. What happens if the contract is not properly fulfilled? The costs can be substantial, as we know from other areas of Government activity such as the health service, and I have heard no proper assessment of them.

Another problem is that in running an area of Government service by contract, it is often quite unclear, particularly where personal services and subtle changes of attitude and approach to individual people are important, what should be in the contract. It becomes a very difficult contract to specify, and attempting to specify it can lead to a very rigid contract that cannot be adapted to individual circumstances. We can thus end up with a service that is not so good.

I am not sure about the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Is he arguing for the status quo? Is he saying that there must be no change? When I heard from the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman, I thought that there was agreement that the status quo cannot remain and that there must be opportunities for change. I should like the hon. Gentleman to say a little more. If he does not like the argument on contestability, how would he achieve that change—by spending more?

I am saying that there is sufficient room for change within the legislative framework as it stands. My problem with the Bill, as with many Bills, is that I cannot quite understand what it is for, except to be some kind of Government press release. I wish that the Government would not use the House as a way to issue press releases. They should issue press releases through their press office, not on the Floor of the House.

The other basic principle that should be raised—this is why my hon. Friends are against the Bill in principle, not just against its practicalities—is the centralisation that it involves. It means the end of a system of local accountability. It involves the introduction of a system whereby the Home Secretary decides the whole system. Yes, that might be done through regional managers, but it involves a management system, not an accountability system. With all power given to the Home Secretary, not only has he the power to reorganise the service at will, but there is no need, as far as I can see, for him ever to return to the House to ask for any further authorisation to make any further change.

One reason to oppose the Bill is that this could be the last time that we discuss the probation service on the Floor of the House, because legislation will not be needed in future to change the way in which the service works. What might that mean? The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) made a number of points that I did not agree with, but one of them made me prick up my ears: he said that, under the Bill, the Home Secretary could bring in faith groups to take over large parts of the service. The powers that we are giving the Home Secretary are so great that he could do that using the Bill. I would want further legislative discussion in the House before any such dramatic change in policy were to happen.

There has been a lot of discussion about reoffending. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup said that the problem is that we do not know what works and that there is a fear that nothing works. In fact, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), quoted the social exclusion unit study from a few years ago that showed what worked and what factors tended to help people stop reoffending. They were things such as having stable accommodation, attending to their mental health and to their addictions and ensuring that they had stable relationships. We do know about such things, and we do know what works. However, we also know that the 50,000 people on very short sentences—those of six months or less—have absolutely nothing done for them at all.

The obvious coincidence in the Home Secretary’s speech should be acted upon: he said that we have the highest imprisonment rates in Europe—not quite if they are counted one way, but certainly if they are counted another way—and the highest recidivism rates. It seems to me that that is no coincidence at all, and we should ask ourselves whether we should be talking not about changing the probation service’s management system but about introducing an entirely different approach to criminal justice in the first place.

I suppose that all this comes down to three points. First, let us give the present system a fair trial. We have only just reformed it. Further change and disruption will do no good and will certainly not help to fill those 1,000 vacancies. Secondly, this is a dangerous precedent. We are giving far too much power to the Home Secretary in the Bill, and we should not do that. Thirdly, this is the thin end of the wedge. It is quite possible under the Bill for a core service to be privatised without any obvious benefit to the public in ways that no hon. Member would agree with. I urge the House to reject the Bill.

I rise to speak in the debate because my interest stems from my constituency, which contains a fairly overcrowded prison in which a relatively high percentage of local people are incarcerated, a fair number of whom reoffend when they come out of prison—principally drug offences. About 80 per cent. of crime in my constituency relates to drugs in one way or another. For me, the issue with the Bill is how it might impact on that in future.

I want to explore a number of areas: first, why the Bill is necessary and, secondly, the role that the third sector—the voluntary sector—could play in the solution or in improving the situation at the very least. Thirdly, I will give an example of a project in my constituency that deals with the rehabilitation of drug offenders, that works very closely with the probation service and that has had some degree of success. I shall then try to draw some conclusions from our diverse debate.

As Ministers and other hon. Members have said, a 40 per cent. increase in funding has been made available over the past five years. More than £900 million is now spent—the equivalent of £3,800 for every offender under supervision. A significant amount of extra money has gone into the service. About 5,000 additional staff have also gone into the service since the Government came to power. What we need is a significant improvement in and focus on performance, so that reoffending can be dealt with because it is a major concern to many people.

The Bill is important for another reason. I have spoken to those in my local probation service, visited them and looked at the work that they have done and at the specific qualifications that many of them have, for example, in dealing with drug offenders. A fantastic job of work is being done. However, there is no doubt whatsoever that more, but perhaps not necessarily more of the same, needs to be done. Additional resources should be committed to innovative ways to tackle the problems that people face.

The Bill, once it becomes legislation, will reduce reoffending and better protect the public. It will deliver improvements. It will certainly allow the third sector, or the voluntary sector, to play a part. It has played a part hitherto—its involvement has been estimated at about 2 per cent.—but it needs to be involved much more. The voluntary sector is extremely keen to get involved—but not, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) suggested, because there is a huge profit to be made as a result of the Bill: there is not. We are, by definition, talking about not-for-profit organisations. The aim is that they are socially minded organisations that have aims and objectives over and above producing a profit. It is clear that the motivation of those organisations is social in nature.

I shall refer to the letter, to which other hon. Members have alluded in the debate, from the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations. In his letter to Members of Parliament, he notes the key advantages that the Bill will bring. First, on the question of innovation, it is clear that the organisations have a proven track record in providing effective work in prisons and preventing reoffending. Indeed, the probation service itself was pioneered by the third sector. Secondly, on the issue of focus, the organisations are not driven by profit. They are mission driven and therefore have little incentive to compromise on what they want to achieve. If the targets are set for a reduction in reoffending, reducing reoffending is what it is about, not the bottom line or shareholders’ interests.

Thirdly, as other Members have already said, there is flexibility in the context of a system that has developed over the decades of a probation service that provides well qualified people who do what they are charged to do well, but who nevertheless have not necessarily had the same freedom to innovate as those working in voluntary organisations. There will be that flexibility and vision that the probation service currently does not have. In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned, there will also be trust, born out of the fact that those organisations are not seen as the establishment. The establishment, whether it is the police, the Prison Service or the probation service, has always been seen as a system of them against us. The involvement of the third sector—some members of which will be extremely well qualified and, to some extent, well paid—and many skilled volunteers, will create an environment that will not be a replacement for the probation service, but which will complement it and improve its performance and the service it provides.

Finally, the chief executive points to the issue of social capital—that is, building and engaging with volunteers. Before I even became a political activist or joined the Labour party, I was a volunteer welfare rights worker. I provided a free service at weekends, on a stall in a market in my home town, at that time, of Salford. Many people wish to help people, not because they wish to gain anything or because they want to be part of an organisation that makes money, but because they feel that they have something to offer and skills and care that they can give. The involvement of the voluntary sector in that respect is important and I welcome the provisions for that in the Bill.

There are two areas where a particular emphasis can be given. First, as I have said, there is unpaid work. [Interruption.] Well, for many people unpaid work is very gratifying. I speak as somebody who spent several years doing that type of work. I had a professional job on the side and did the unpaid work in my spare time. Many people are willing to give their time because they care about what they are doing. That is in contrast to people who do things only when there is a financial aspect involved. The two things work well together.

Secondly, there is resettlement. I am sure that it will come as no surprise to many Members who represent inner-city constituencies that often the people who are best organised when it comes to resettlement are those involved in organised crime. Organised criminals often wait outside the prison gate when Mr. X or Mrs. Y is released. They will take care of that person and groom them for further crime and, when the time is right, they will lead them to reoffend. If we are serious about resettlement and really want to undertake it on a scale that will reduce reoffending, perhaps we should take a leaf or two out of the book of those well established resettlers—people involved in organised crime. That means making sure that, once people leave prison, they have opportunities, training and places to stay so that they can get back into a mode of life that does not lead them into criminality again.

I will use an example from my constituency. I have visited Preston prison, which is overcrowded. It has innovative education and training schemes and it works closely with the cable company, Telewest, which takes people from Preston prison and trains them so that they can lead decent, normal lives in society. It works hand in hand with voluntary organisations that work with the prison, as well as the probation service and, of course, the prison officers who are involved in the training before those people go out into the wider world again. There is a solution.

The alternative, in handing former prisoners over to those involved in organised crime for resettlement, is that the universities of crime, which is what our prisons have been in the past, will continue to turn out graduates. Those graduates will go out into the wider world and cause more crime. That is to the detriment of constituents such as mine in Preston, and up and down the country, who want to see people rehabilitated, back in proper jobs, being paid and becoming valuable members of society.

In conclusion, probation officers do a fantastic job. We need more in the way of voluntary organisations getting involved. We need additionality, not a replacement, and certainly not the spectre of privatisation that one or two colleagues and Opposition Members have raised. We need new approaches and drivers. None of us has a crystal ball to see how the Bill will map out in the future. Despite the doom and gloom predicted by Opposition Members, we are seeing a development of the legislation and the system, which we hope will reduce reoffending. As we have seen in the past, a purely financial approach is not an answer in itself. For that reason, we need the Bill and I will support it tonight.

I do not wish to repeat many of the excellent points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), but I would like to address a few specific issues that my local probation service has raised with me about the Bill. Under the existing arrangement there is partnership and collaboration with a wide range of services, and many imaginative and innovative schemes are in operation. However, the key to success is the fact that there is a strong core probation service. The partners that it works with are fellow professionals and they are integrally linked to the service.

We must remember that probation officers deal with very difficult and damaged individuals, many of whom have multiple problems, such as poor home support, mental health problems, substance abuse problems and low educational achievement. They are not like a group of customers who can shop around to find the goods that they want to buy. Many of the client group have difficulty even co-operating with the people who want to help them. That is why we need the dedication, professionalism and stability of the staff in the national probation service. Let us be clear about this: the task can be absolutely thankless. We are talking about individuals and circumstances for whom and in which there are often no easy solutions.

The worries that my local probation service has about contestability include the following. It is worried about the amount of time and energy that is going to be spent on the bidding procedure. Putting together the bids, vetting the providers, judging bids and then monitoring the services provided will take up considerable management time. There is also the difficulty of liaising with providers who may have little experience of the work and of the client group. There are worries about their experience and, in particular, liaison with them.

My hon. Friend will recognise that, within the probation service, there are different levels and grades of probation officer. There is the higher range, consisting of the more experienced probation officers, and there are also probation support officers. People operate in different spheres of skills and influence. It is not true to say that all probation officers do everything at the same level. I hope that she accepts that.

The important point is that the people working on the interventions are part of the same team and in the same office. If we were to farm out work on basic skills to people who have experience of only very mature adults in evening classes, there would be a danger that they might not fully understand the needs of the client group. It would be difficult for those people to turn to other members of the team if difficulties were to arise.

Additionally, when people are competing against each other, it is difficult to share best practice. We experienced that problem in schools in the early 1990s. While there was an absolute obsession with league tables, teachers became very cagey about sharing good ideas. Given that we are all trying to find solutions to difficult problems, it would be an absolute tragedy if, instead of sharing good ideas, one group tried to keep ideas to itself so that it could compete against another.

A further problem could be a lack of stability and motivation among staff. If one provider group suddenly found out that its contract would run out in a few months, with the next phase being taken on by another group, what sort of motivation would the staff of the first group have to continue their work and do it as well as possible? In such circumstances, there would be a tremendous tendency to leave things half finished.

It is thus small wonder that the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), acknowledged in the House last year that the overwhelming majority of responses to the consultation expressed considerable concern about contestability. Only four years on from major change, the national probation service needs a period of stability. I thus strongly urge the Minister to rethink the plans for contestability that are proposed in the Bill.

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Minister and the House for missing a great deal of the debate. That was due to absolutely unavoidable earlier commitments and no disrespect was intended. However, I have had the privilege of listening to several speeches—I have been pleased to do so.

I begin by declaring an interest. I practised as a lawyer for many years in Surrey in the criminal courts. For the past 14 years, I have sat part-time as a Crown court recorder. I was a metropolitan stipendiary magistrate and am now a district judge. I am thus familiar with the probation service and I echo many hon. Members by saying that I admire the service greatly.

In my early years in Surrey, we looked up enormously to the probation officers who served the county. Michael Varah was a distinguished head of probation in the county and Peter Sturge was a distinguished probation officer who was honoured. Indeed, my dear wife, Lynda, was partly involved in setting up community service in Surrey all those years ago. That since became community punishment and is now unpaid work, but it boils down to the same thing.

I do not have much to say tonight. I want to talk not about the general principles of the Bill, but about a couple of matters that worry me very much. I hope that the Minister will take what I say on board.

From my experience, the probation service is very stretched. There are fewer probation officers than there were in Greater London, which is where I sit. When I asked a parliamentary question on the matter in June, I was told that there were 874 probation officers in the area covered by the Greater London magistrates courts in the second quarter of 2004-05. By the first quarter of 2005-06, that number had dropped by more than 50 to 820, and I do not think that the situation is getting much better.

The probation service works very hard indeed, but if one sits as a district judge, one sees day after day the strains and stresses on it. We must address that situation very strongly. Not long ago, I was in court in south-east London. We had ordered a probation report—a pre-sentence report—on a defendant. The report that I received from the probation service read:

“I’m afraid that because of staff shortages I have not had time to prepare a report on this man. I must add that because of those shortages there is no realistic prospect of our producing any report in the course of the foreseeable future.”

I had to sentence with the knowledge that there would not be a report, which was a pity.

As a result of the fact that the probation service is stretched, there has been a slight drop in morale. We live in a complex world. New sentences are introduced year after year, and they require the intervention and work of the probation service. Many years ago, there was a standard probation order. Indeed, much of the work of the service was carried out by the police officer in the towns in which there were courts. That officer would probably present the case to the court and give his or her version of the defendant’s history—he or she would probably have known the family well. That process made it easier for the court to pass sentence. However, life has become more complex, especially in the courts around London in which I sit.

Is the Minister aware of the pressure that the probation service is under? Whatever else the Government do with the probation service, does he think that it is likely that they will be able to ensure that, over the course of the next year or two, there will be more probation officers in post who can produce reports than there are at present? In a court centre in London, if five courts are active all morning, with 30, 40, 50 or 60 defendants who need sentencing in each, difficulties are caused if there is only one probation officer between those courts, with huge delays as a result.

The problems of pressure and the service being stretched have not become easier. Indeed, I venture to suggest that since the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was passed, the burdens on the probation service have become heavier. Section 177 of that Act introduced the community order, which is the new form of sentence for defendants that is, by and large, supervised by the probation service. I say straight away to the Minister that aspects of the new community order are good, but they need strong back-up.

I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s experience in this field for the reasons that he has told the House. However, does he think that it is absolutely necessary for a probation officer to be involved in the whole aspect of unpaid work? Obviously an officer would initiate an order, but would he or she have to be responsible for its delivery?

I think that the answer is yes, because under section 177, one of the aspects of the community order can be unpaid work. The Minister will have seen during his visits to the courts that the probation service has the job of finding out whether there is work available in the local community for the defendant to do. The service then has to interview the defendant at some length to find out whether he or she is suitable to carry out such work in the community—an alcoholic or a drug addict probably would not be suitable, but others could be. The service then has to produce a report on the matter and then provide supervision. It is no good saying to defendant, “Off you go and do some unpaid work,” and trusting him or her to do it. The probation service is involved throughout the process.

The Minister will be aware that under section 177 of the 2003 Act, there are at least eight forms of community penalty that will require the intervention of the probation service:

“an unpaid work requirement … an activity requirement … a programme requirement … a prohibited activity requirement … an exclusion requirement … a residence requirement … an alcohol treatment requirement … a supervision requirement”.

Given that most of the criminal justice legislation that has been passed has never been introduced, let me pause to ask the Minister which of those eight aspects of the penalty have been introduced by the Government so far. I see that the Minister is not rising. Let me put the question to him again: which of those aspects of section 177 have so far been brought in?

The Minister says that he will deal with my point in due course. I am grateful to him—he is a courteous and good man.

As my hon. Friend and I are both recorders, I am sure that he will agree that the Judicial Studies Board’s Crown court bench book sets aside about 20 pages to explain the way in which those community sentences will be passed and carried out. I hope that that little intervention has allowed the Minister time to think and to refresh his memory of the Act of Parliament about which he spoke so proudly on many occasions.

My hon. and learned Friend is correct: the complexities behind the different penalties are enormous, as can be seen in the training given to us in our judicial capacity.

Welcome though one or two of the new penalties are, they all require, first, to be introduced—I am really looking forward to learning how many of the eight have been introduced—and, secondly, a lot of input from the probation service, as does the provision in section 181 of the 2003 Act. The Minister will be very familiar indeed with that new sentencing provision of custody plus whereby a sentence can be passed by the magistrates court that, in future, has to be expressed in weeks—it must be at least 28 weeks and cannot be more than 51 weeks. What is interesting is that part of that sentence of up to 51 weeks will be custodial and part will be served on licence subject to supervision by the probation service. The maximum period of custody is 13 weeks, which is an interesting reflection of the overcrowding in our prisons. The judge will say, “Stand up, Minister”—well, he would not say that. He will say, “Stand up, Mr. Smith,”—Mr. Smith is the defendant. The judge will tell Mr. Smith, “You are sentenced to custody plus, which will involve 13 weeks’ custody and a minimum of”—this is the key point—“26 weeks of supervision under licence.” That is something new.

Remember that the provision was introduced in the 2003 Act, which, unless I am mistaken, is three years ago, but has custody plus been implemented? Answer: no. Why has it not been implemented? At the time, it was lauded as a terrific new sentence for the courts. Ministers told us, “Custody plus is just the job. We shall give offenders a harsh regime for 13 weeks and supervise them for 28 weeks. My goodness, we’ll get this introduced quickly.” But three years later, nothing has happened. A few weeks ago I tabled a parliamentary question asking what had happened to custody plus. I received an answer that had been beautifully crafted by the civil servants, the gist of which was, “We can’t afford to introduce it.” That is terrific—there is no money to introduce a flagship measure from three years ago. No wonder the probation service and everyone in the judiciary and the courts are scratching their heads in disbelief.

Is my hon. Friend also concerned that intermittent custody, which was produced as the great answer to the ills of modern society, having been introduced with some success in certain areas—Luton Crown court was employing it quite usefully—has now been abolished, because they, the Government, cannot afford it?

My hon. and learned Friend brings up yet another section of the 2003 Act. We could spend the whole evening going through sections of legislation that have not been introduced. What a brilliant intervention. To be frank, I had missed that section in my excitement over the others. Intermittent custody, set out in section 183—what on earth has happened to it? It was a terrific idea at the time, but is now not available in practice where I sit.

The problems are overstretch and shortage of money. The Minister must in his reply deal with the overstretch in the probation service, the funding position and the number of probation officers. I would like from him today an absolute commitment on when those various provisions, so heralded as the answer to everything three or more years ago, will come into force. He will, I hope, give us a day or a month when that will happen, because the judiciary and the courts, not to mention defendants, would like to know.

I have a final tip for the Minister, which I hope he will take on board. There is one way in which the burdens on the probation service can be lessened. He will know that in the community penalty provision in the 2003 Act there is a very important measure, namely, a community order with a drug rehabilitation requirement—the DRR. There will be other opportunities, so I shall not spend time this evening going into the tragic backgrounds of so many defendants in our courts who are addicted to heroin or crack, having started on the gateway drug, cannabis. By the time they are 17 or 18, they steal—they cannot help doing so—to feed their habit. By the time they are 25 or 26, they are ruined specimens: they look twice or three times their age, they shake and they can barely speak, and it is heroin that has done it. What is to be done with them?

The DRR introduced by the 2003 Act is beginning to operate, not least in a couple of the drugs courts that we have in this country. I shall talk about those on another occasion. Under a DRR order, the defendant is required to submit to testing and sometimes to enter an institution for treatment. I feel very strongly that the DRR order is a tougher version of the drug treatment and testing order, which was introduced and then abandoned because it failed. Some Opposition members, myself included, feel that the DRR may make some progress. It is an order that the defendant stay off drugs and submit himself to treatment, counselling, advice and all the rest of it.

My message to the Minister is that it is time that we involved to a far greater extent the drug charities, which are committed and expert and which provide excellent drug programmes. Examples include the crack day programme, the Blenheim project, Druglink and Drugline. They are private charitable bodies that, by definition, have nothing to do with the state, they are terrific, and they are available to the courts. The judge could say, “Stand up, Smith. You are given a DRR. You will go to Druglink on a day course. You will do this. You will do that.”

I do not think that all the staff of the probation service are properly qualified to supervise a drug addict. Some are, but some are not. Some expertise is required. I believe that it is time that we all realised that drugs are such a terrible thing in our country, especially for young people, that the more expert the advice and supervision that can be given to defendants given a DRR, the better. Why not gradually phase the probation service out of drug supervision and give that function to those wonderful private charities that are so well placed to supervise addicts? We would win both ways: there would be fewer burdens on the probation service and a much better chance of the defendant receiving the benefit of expertise.

I have spoken too long offering a few passing thoughts, which I summarise in one sentence. Bills are one thing, but what happens out there in the real world is terribly important. Great though the probation service is, the shortage of money, its staff’s morale and the burdens on them are matters that the Minister will have to watch as closely as he can.

I was grateful for the opportunity to hear the Home Secretary introduce the Bill. I am concerned that we still have far too many people committing serious criminal offences for the first time. Incidentally—this is what my wife calls the MLM or “me lovely me” bit—I challenge the claim that crime has been reduced under the present Government but was not under the previous Government. If the Home Office bothers to include car crime, including over-the-limit drink driving, which used to kill many more people than homicides, it can be seen that the number of criminal offences committed each week by young men under 30 decreased by probably more than 1 million a week in the late 1980s. No reduction in other crime has matched that. I would argue that there are good reasons to use the same sort of cultural attack on crime and its causes that worked so successfully in reducing the number of drink-drive deaths from 1,200 a year to 300 to 350 a year now—but that is not the point of the Bill.

Jeffrey Archer spent time in jail, and in his books on jail, which I commend to everyone who is seriously interested in crime and punishment, he makes a number of points, one of which is that it is perverse to pay people in prison £12 a week to push a broom around as a cleaner, but only £6 to £8 a week for receiving education. It would be useful to the Government, in what they are trying to do to improve education for people who are interned, to try to provide incentives for education. The best incentive for education is not, of course, the money that people get for undertaking it while they are in prison; its real purpose is different. However, the money is a signal, in a way, and no one should be paid less for receiving an education than for doing physical labour in prison.

Jeffrey Archer points out the way in which people who are sentenced to jail, especially for the first time, spend the early weeks of their term in a secure prison, where there are many people who are inured to prison discipline, and who use a system of putting pressure on new incomers to get them involved in the use of illegal drugs, and to arrange payments outside. To those who may laugh at the quotation of Jeffrey Archer, I say that he and all those who have experience of prisons, including prison officers, prison visitors and prisoners themselves, would reckon that he has got it right. I hope that Ministers will go on encouraging people in the Prison Service to find effective ways of making sure that young, new prisoners are not influenced by old, bad prisoners, because I fear that many people who are not on drugs when they enter prison are on drugs when they come out.

That brings me to a matter on which the Home Office might have a partnership influence: the national scheme for dealing with people who are on drugs. I have had an incredibly bad experience in Worthing, in my current constituency. I shall not go into detail, as a passing reference is sufficient, but one really good doctor who was dealing with chaotic drug users had got a high proportion of them off drugs straight away—and most of them have stayed off drugs, too. However, the official or more authorised service had a delay of at least 10 days for triage, and a delay of 10 days after triage for getting people on to a substitute for street drugs. If street drug users need a fix four times a day, that delay means 20 extra days, or 80 more occasions, on which they have to find money and supplies. That helps to keep the market going, and has other effects with which I need not trouble the House this evening.

I want to discuss the subject in a non-partisan way, and I am willing to believe that Ministers and those working with them think that the Bill will allow an advance to be made. I was a sceptic about the previous changes to the probation service. If I manage to be selected to serve on the Committee considering the Bill, I am not sure that I will always be mild, obedient, good and kind to my party managers, because in some clauses we should consider the arguments on their merits, as well as with reference to the significant leadership that the Conservative Front-Bench team will provide to the Committee. However, the Government will have to illustrate why they think that they have got things right in this new part of their constant revolution.

I hope that, in Committee, the Government can explain matters in more detail than Ministers may want to provide in their winding-up speeches today, because there are a number of anomalies, one of which is the issue of how various clauses match together. For example, clauses 12 and 13 both have to do with the use of force, but people are authorised to use force in one clause and not in the other. I do not quite understand what the significant difference of principle is between the two, but the Minister may be able to explain, either now or in Committee. I am not sure about Crown immunity, either, as it seems that it does not apply to the property of non-Government-owned trusts, but that it does apply to the people working in the new probation service who are not Government employees. However, that, too, may be explained later.

This weekend, I took part in a 24-hour vigil outside our local hospital. At about 10 o’clock in the morning, after a busy day for the staff in the hospital, a youth came out of accident and emergency, asking for cigarette papers. I think that he wanted to go on smoking what he had been smoking the evening before. He then went back in, but he and two of his friends came out of the hospital escorted by an employee of a firm called Global Security, who handled them with immense effectiveness and great courtesy. They were sent off the hospital premises, not drinking or smoking, and they went without causing further trouble.

At any moment, the whole situation could have blown up. I have no doubt that the employee’s colleagues would have dealt with the matter similarly. I do not know his name, otherwise I would name him, but his actions showed that the private sector can do sensitive work effectively, and I praise those who do that work—not just the voluntary organisations, but people in commercial companies who take on some of the responsibilities that would otherwise have been undertaken by uniformed staff employed by the state.

Lastly, I echo what has been said about mental illness, which causes a great deal of trouble and upset to individuals. Those individuals can be troublesome to themselves and others, so we need to get the issue of resources right. I hope that the Minister will explain, either now or in Committee, what is meant by the requirement on Ministers, in clause 2, to “ensure…sufficient provision”. If that is provision of resources, I shall be interested to know how he intends to monitor how long a person who is subject to a supervision order, or a person whose case is referred to probation for a report, will have to wait until the relevant action is taken. That is a field in which time delays must be abolished, one way or another. If a probation report is needed, it must be provided, and if a supervision order is made, it needs to start. I am not referring to 24-hour supervision of everybody, but the system needs to be made to work. There are too many delays in the health service; let us hope that the probation service does not join it.

Like the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), may I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not being here for part of the debate? I was detained on an unavoidable constituency issue. [Interruption.] The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) seems to take issue with me, but I was here for the first three hours of the debate.

This is an important debate, and reducing crime is a matter of great concern to my constituents in South Swindon. For that reason, the Bill is of great interest. As the Secretary of State said at the beginning of the debate, it is not tolerable that the probation reoffending rate is so high, and whether we believe that the statistic is 60 per cent., 53 per cent., 44 per cent. or 41 per cent.—all those figures have been referred to in the Chamber—the figure is still too high. It is a poor deal for communities, and we must do something to rectify the situation.

Crime is down in my constituency, and the number of police officers is at a record level, but the amount of reoffending among those who persist in breaking the law is too high, and we need to address it. I have talked to a number of probation officers, members of the probation service and magistrates in preparation for today’s debate, and I understand their deep concerns about the Bill. I want to question the Minister carefully, and I ask him to reassure my constituents, probation officers in Wiltshire and me on a number of points.

It is not true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mike Wood) asserted, that providers are entirely opposed to the Bill, as the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations has made supportive comments, and there have been expressions of support from major third sector providers, including NACRO, Turning Point and Crime Concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said that voluntary organisations acted as a fig leaf for the private sector. That is not the case, as they have done some excellent work, and the probation service would be enriched by working with them.

As I said, I have heard criticisms from the Probation Boards Association and members of the probation service in my area. At my request, I had a conversation with the chief officer of Wiltshire probation area, Diana Fulbrook, for whom I have great regard, as she has done outstanding work for the probation service. Her concerns will not necessarily be borne out, but I understand why she is worried about the probation service, so I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to bear with me while I give voice to the anxieties that she and her colleagues in Wiltshire have expressed. They are concerned, for example, that

“there will be no Probation Service in Wiltshire if the Bill goes through.”

I hope that that is not true, because the Government have protected and enhanced the probation service, particularly after the 2001 reorganisation. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary commented, 5,000 more probation staff have been employed since 2001 and, while there has been a 30 per cent. increase in their case load, there has been a 50 per cent. increase in their budget.

It is true, as Members on both sides of the House have said, that probation officers have an enormous case load, but we must pay credit to the fact that there has been an enormous increase in resources. However, probation officers believe that the Bill will end the probation service as we know it, so we must listen to their concerns and address them. Having served on several Standing Committees with my hon. Friend the Minister and seen how he has dealt with diverse issues expertly and sensitively, I am confident that he can take the probation service with him.

I do not think that my hon. Friend was a Member of Parliament when the proposals for the 2001 reorganisation were introduced. They were designed to deal with fragmentation and limited accountability at both local and national level, and they succeeded in doing so. How on earth, therefore, would she explain to her correspondent the introduction of further fragmentation and diminishing local accountability under the current proposals?

I was coming on to talk about fragmentation, and my hon. Friend is right that I was not a Member of Parliament when the 2001 proposals were introduced.

Diana Fulbrook’s concerns match my hon. Friend’s, as she is worried that there will be a series of providers, each delivering something different. Offenders will be passed around those providers, depending on their order requirements, so I hope that the Minister will respond to the charge of fragmentation in his winding-up speech. I have been in communication with one of our local magistrates, who said:

“As a long-serving magistrate, I can say with confidence that the magistrates in Wiltshire have a very healthy relationship with our Probation Service and we are extremely apprehensive about service delivery to courts once the service is fragmented.”

Those serious concerns must be addressed. As I said, I have confidence in my hon. Friend the Minister, but we want to know more about the proposals, both this evening and during the Bill’s progress through the House.

Probation officers are concerned, too, about professionalism and qualifications in the probation service. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary dealt with that in part, but there is concern that the Bill will do away with the need for qualifications in the probation service. The Government have increased professionalism in every other occupation—we have introduced qualifications for teaching assistants in schools—so I hope that the Minister can scotch those concerns quickly and easily. The probation service is concerned that it will be centralised and controlled by the Secretary of State. I do not know why that should be the case, as it is Government policy to localise many other services, but the probation service believes that it does not fit in with any other organisation, apart from the Prison Service. It delivers in the community, and it is strongly integrated with the police, local authorities and local partnership, so its serious concerns need to be tackled.

I hope that the Minister will convince me that the focus will be on what is required to meet local needs, and that what has already been achieved in partnership and community links, particularly in my local Wiltshire service, will not be fractured or lost when the new proposals are introduced. My experience in Swindon has taught me that tackling reoffending requires a broad coalition of effort, which is why I welcome the voluntary organisations coming in.

My hon. Friend makes the important point that it is the responsibility of the whole community to deal with reoffending. In the past there have been silo operations with no discussion between authorities. I am sure she will be pleased that the Local Government Association has produced a pamphlet called “Neighbourhood by Neighbourhood”, which shows for the first time I can remember—I have been involved in national and local politics for many years—that local authorities have accepted their responsibility for dealing with reoffending.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is indeed good news. I am glad to give some more good news: in the last quarterly performance statistics released by the Home Office, Wiltshire probation service was ranked the best in the country for public protection, the national service’s highest priority, which is excellent news. Taking all measures of performance together, Wiltshire tops the south-west regional league table, as well as being ranked third out of 42 probation areas in England and Wales. I want to thank my local probation service and praise its members for their hard work. I was pleased that the Minister also thanked the probation service earlier this evening. The debate is an opportunity for Members in all parts of the House to recognise the important and hard work that probation officers do.

I seek reassurance that the Bill will allow my probation officers in Wiltshire the freedom and support to carry on their work, and that the change from probation board to probation trust will be phased so as not to unsettle the good results. I was heartened to hear my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary say that he would proceed in a cautious fashion. That is good news. From the Wiltshire board, I have received the message that uncertainty about the possibility of competition and contracting out of services is undermining morale in the system. I hope that proceeding in a cautious fashion will build up that morale again.

The continuing drive for competition is creating concern that the agenda is the privatisation of service delivery. I see the Minister shaking his head. I do not believe that privatisation is the intention, but the fear exists and we must address it. The evidence is that competition in the connected field of prisons contributed to efficiency savings of up to 8.5 per cent., so equivalent efficiency savings in the probation service might amount to only about £8 million per year over 25 years. We must weigh those savings against the risks to the probation service, decide whether they are worth while and, if so, whether we can take the service with us.

Under the proposed arrangements, the public sector provider will undergo testing to assess its performance. Will the Minister reassure me that, as I believe to be the case, where public sector providers excel and improve as in Wiltshire, there will be no need for competition and contracting out of services? Will he also provide me with the facts that contradict the argument that the private and voluntary sector will refuse the more difficult areas, leaving the existing services carrying the can for the most serious cases? We need reassurance about that.

As well as managing the most dangerous criminals, the probation service deals with people who have committed low-level crime. Hon. Members across the House may be aware of a national scheme which sees offenders paying back their crimes with community work. Community Payback is a programme of community service works undertaken across Wiltshire which amount to around 75,000 hours every year. The projects involve work that would not otherwise be carried out. I have seen the programme in operation when visiting community facilities and I was pleased to see young offenders participating in gardening schemes, which as a keen gardener I know can only be to their good and to their credit. I hope that they carry on with their gardening after they have completed their punishment. In fact, I do not understand why gardening is intended to be a punishment. The scheme is hard work, but in the end the result benefits the local community and I support it wholeheartedly.

Community payback schemes enable members of the public to nominate projects that offenders can undertake as part of their sentence. It is about encouraging people to feel involved in and informed about what goes on in their neighbourhoods. As a result, local voluntary organisations benefit. It would be great if we had a two-way process, with voluntary organisations working proactively with and contributing to the probation service.

Graffiti is a perfect example of where community payback should be concentrated. The task of graffiti removal can be performed with relatively little training, as the Prime Minister demonstrated in my constituency earlier this year, and there is evidence that crime levels drop in areas where it is removed. Graffiti makes criminals feel at home—that is why we do not want it in Swindon. It is a complex problem with complex solutions. We must focus on delivering the services needed to prevent graffiti offenders from repeating their crimes by encouraging organisations to work more closely together. Wiltshire probation service already works in partnership with the police, courts, prisons, local authorities, health services and voluntary organisations on problems such as graffiti. There is always scope for improvement. The probation board could work better with the voluntary sector, and other probation boards could learn from Wiltshire’s good results to date.

Lastly, there is the problem of perceived erosion of accountability. Today I received a letter from a magistrate and long-term member of the Wiltshire probation board who is worried that improved local accountability—an area that the Government have prioritised in the past 10 years—will suffer, and who argues that much cherished localness will be lost in the forest of new legislation that is proposed. Having spoken to probation board members, I understand that the big problems have been a lack of clarity from the Home Office, uncertainty about change, and the complexity of structures that are changing without clear objectives. We must clear the mists and make these issues understandable; otherwise, perceptions could damage what would otherwise be a very good Bill.

We should value the probation service as a profession and protect the pay and conditions of staff accordingly. This is a time of uncertainty in which staff and board members feel as though they are in the dock. I am sure that the Minister will join me in reasserting our support for them and for the work that they continue to do to make us safer.

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), whose arguments I followed closely. I would adhere to many of them, but I am bit less charitable as regards the direction in which the Bill takes us. My hon. Friend the Minister, who is a good trade unionist, has tried hard to deal with the many fears that my hon. Friends have expressed. I give him 10 out of 10 for trying, but we have yet to be convinced.

I apologise for having come in and out of the Chamber during the debate, but I think that it has three key points. First, there is the role of the voluntary sector. I am pleased that the voluntary sector wishes to engage with this process, but I am surprised that it thinks that it is being given a role that it could not already be playing. In my own county, it already plays a major role in the relationship with professional and statutory organisations in the field of criminal justice. What does it want to do that it could not sign up to already?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about my being a trier. He will have seen the briefing from Turning Point, which tackles many of the issues that he mentions. It is concerned that not enough is being done to ensure that the underlying causes of crime are tackled by the probation service. Turning Point, which is a well respected organisation, says that it can do much more but is not allowed to do it.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Statutory underpinning of what organisations can be asked to do makes a difference. They will be held to account—that happens already through the contractual and compliance arrangements that we ask many voluntary sector organisations to undertake. My fear is that the voluntary sector, which is already involved, could try to do even more, and, if it fails, we are left in the unpalatable position of deciding who will fill the vacuum.

In those circumstances, we could go back to the public sector, but Governments of both parties do not have a great history of reverting to the public sector when other agencies fail. I wish it were otherwise. One example is the railways—perhaps we will learn our lessons and one day get back to proper public ownership. However, we are left with a genuine dilemma: if the voluntary sector took on some of the responsibilities and subsequently failed, it is obvious who would want to fill the vacuum. I want to warn the voluntary sector that it should not be seduced into believing that it can accept such responsibilities because, if it fails, we all suffer. The Government have to persuade the likes of me that there is no real danger of following that route.

The two main points have already been considered at length so I shall not take up hon. Members’ time for more than a few minutes to labour them. However, it is important to stress them because some of us have considerable misgivings about where we are going with the Bill.

The first anxiety is loss of local accountability. By chance, two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the criminal justice team in Gloucestershire. It was an important meeting because all the different agencies and a good number of Members of Parliament were there. However, we were faced by the problem that the court system will no longer be on a county basis because it will link with Wiltshire and Avon. It will therefore have no special locus standi in Gloucestershire. The police were at the meeting and, in a sense, they won the battle to remain a county force, but they are subject to a probationary period to ascertain whether their level 2 policing requirement can be fulfilled at county level. One cannot, therefore, feel assured that the police will remain at the level of location that some of us want.

The probation service will form at least some sort of regional organisation. Our criminal justice team in Gloucestershire has not been an unalloyed success until comparatively recently. However, our recent record on offending rates—and, dare I say it, reoffending rates—has been reasonably successful. As other colleagues who also have misgivings said, if it ain’t broke, why are we trying to fix it? We have fixed matters rather well and it is disillusioning when people who have made things work are told, “Thanks a lot, but we’re bringing in the new team.”

The most galling aspect has been seeing the views of my friends who work for the probation service change. They began by being supportive of many things that the Government have done and the money that has been put in, and to watch that view change to downright hostility has been shocking. It is hard to share time with those people when they feel that they have been sold down the river. It will take much time, notwithstanding the Bill, to rebuild some of the bridges. They certainly need to be rebuilt.

Those of us who have difficulties with the Bill feel most strongly about the second point, which is contestability. I wish that there were a charitable explanation and that the reason for it was trying to find other organisations that could work in partnership. I have said that the voluntary sector could already do the things that we want it to do. Why do we want it to do more? The idea of partnership is well ensconced. There must be partnership because the state sector has always acknowledged that it cannot deliver alone the sort of criminal justice system that we want. However, we come back to contestability. There are many ways in which we could describe it, for example, outsourcing.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman; he is coming to the most important part of his speech. Does not he agree that the business about the voluntary sector is the merest fig leaf? It gives ambitious young Back Benchers who want to read out briefing notes scope to talk endlessly about the voluntary sector, but never mention the private sector. Yet it is private sector involvement that gives most of us cause for concern about the Bill.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I am certainly not reading out pre-prepared notes, and my promotion prospects are—[Interruption.] My notes are just a few scribbles, and not from anyone else.

Although we have had an interesting debate, I have been concerned at the stereotypical arguments that have been presented from all sides. That has worried me, because I do not know whether there has been a genuine debate. We have had three to four years of discussion. As I said, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on how he has worked hard to convince us, but there has not been a genuine debate on the issues. Some of us would like to see, up front, evidence for the need to make such changes before being asked to vote for them.

My hon. Friend travels in the south-west a great deal. During those travels, has he come across a large host of commercial organisations that are anxious to manage Gloucestershire’s offending population and see the market potential in the mentally confused, the addicted alcoholic and the deviant? If he has, does he expect them to be able to release the angel in the block of marble, as it were?

I cannot answer my hon. Friend, as I certainly have not found organisations keen to get involved in that. No doubt there are such organisations, but they may come from far away. That is always a danger. As I said earlier, the worry is that if the voluntary sector fails, the private sector will try to succeed; if that fails, we will be left in great difficulties because we will have broken the system.

I leave my hon. Friend the Minister with the thought that contestability is at the kernel of my opposition to how the Bill is currently framed. What really disappoints me is the notion that underwrites the whole approach to NOMS: that the probation service can be dispensed with—that it is, in a sense, past its sell-by date and can easily be merged into the wider prison service.

From talking to members of the probation service and visiting prisons, as we all do to talk to constituents or to draw evidence of what is happening in our penal service, my concern has always been about mixing up those who work in prison, and those who work outside it, but with the same people. I have worried that that will mean that staff lose flexibility to represent people in a different way.

Nowhere in the Bill do I see any recognition of the dangers to which that may lead. Probation officers have always felt nervous about the whole concept of NOMS. That does not mean that in principle I am against some re-linking of our prisons with the probation service outside. However, the idea behind NOMS—that we assimilate everything into one system—has always led me to worry that we are adopting an untested, certainly untried, approach, which, if we go along the contestability route, will be unacceptable.

I, too, apologise to the House for not having been present for the whole debate.

I should like to make a few short remarks. First, I want to refer to a meeting that I had with probation officers in my constituency and the chief probation officer for Humberside. Secondly, I want say something about the voluntary sector; perhaps I will be classed as an ambitious Back Bencher for doing so, but I have seen in my constituency the excellent work that that sector performs, and I want that to increase in Humberside probation services. Thirdly, I want to refer to the wider perspective, and the concerns of all parts of our society about dealing with offenders and making sure that offending rates go down.

Last Friday I had a meeting with four probation officers in my constituency: Alan Cotterell, Glynis Barber, Anita Oliver and Kate Gosforth. All are excellent probation officers, committed to providing the very best for the people whom they serve. I was incredibly impressed by the passionate way in which they talked about their jobs, their interest in the wider community and their wish to ensure that their area was as safe and secure as possible. They told me about the intensive training that they had undergone, and expressed the view that the probation officer’s job has become harder in recent years. They talked about the work that they must do with violent and sexual offenders, and the particular responsibilities that they have. They also told me that my area contains one of the largest numbers of high-risk offenders in the country. They feel under pressure—they feel that they have a very hard job to do—but I believe that they do an excellent job.

Those probation officers had some worries about the Bill. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with them when he sums up the debate. A major worry concerned clear, open communication: they feared that the current good communication channels might cease as a result of some of the Bill’s provisions. They mentioned fragmentation, to which some Members have referred today, and said that they feared the new trusts might mean the loss of local accountability. They were especially anxious that trust boards should contain local sentencers, and I want to be reassured that that will happen. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) mentioned cherry-picking, and that is also of concern to probation officers. I hope that the Minister will deal with all those matters.

Steve Hemming is Humberside’s chief probation officer. I went to see him a few weeks ago to talk about the Bill, and to hear his professional opinion of the issues raised in it. I was struck when he told me that Humberside—for once—has one of the best-performing probation boards in the country. Unfortunately, as a Hull Member I am used to being told that we are at the bottom of every league table when we should be at the top, and at the top of every league table when we should be at the bottom. I was very pleased to learn that Humberside was doing so well in the performance indicators.

As I have said, I was impressed by the committed public servants whom I met last Friday and by the valuable work that they do, but reoffending rates are an issue in Hull, in Humberside and in the rest of the country. When I talk to my constituents, they raise the issue of public confidence in our criminal justice system. I think it irresponsible of politicians to pretend that we can continue with the status quo. We cannot: we must get reoffending rates down and public confidence levels up.

I am sure that, having listened to so much of the debate so far, the hon. Lady accepts that no Member on either side of the House denies that reoffending rates are too high and that more must be done to lower them. Perhaps she will help to educate the House by explaining precisely what the Bill will allow people to do to improve the position. Those of us with misgivings believe that much of the good work she has described, especially work in the voluntary sector, is already being done, and that the Bill will not allow the sector to do more than it is already doing.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on that. I believe that the voluntary sector is not being used as much or as effectively as it could be. I object to the view expressed by, in particular, some members of the Opposition parties that it is impossible to innovate, change or try different ways of operating when there are real problems like very high reoffending rates.

I am a great fan of the voluntary and community sectors. I think that they can often reach the parts that the statutory sector cannot reach. Let me say a few words about two organisations in my constituency which I think could contribute even more to making our criminal justice system work more effectively. The first of them is Humbercare. Interestingly, it grew out of the local probation service. It is a voluntary community-sector organisation in Hull and Humberside that provides mentoring services to offenders. It is recognised as doing some excellent work, but there is still more that it could do. If it were given the opportunity, it could provide a wider range of services for offenders. It is an excellent example of a voluntary sector organisation that is currently underused. The Bill will allow direct commissioning to take place. That is what I am interested in. That is why I want to mention Humbercare and another organisation, Compass, which provides excellent voluntary sector provision to do with drugs and drug rehabilitation. It could be directly commissioned to work with offenders. It is not being directly commissioned at present; it has not got a direct contract. It can only be subcontracted through the local probation board. There is more room for manoeuvre in this regard. When we talk to probation officers, as I did last Friday, they make it clear that there is scope for such organisations to do much more directly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best probation services in the country—such as mine and hers—are undertaking the type of work and partnerships that she is giving examples of, but they are entirely voluntary? They are not necessarily being taken up by all probation services across the country to the extent that we would like. The Bill ensures that such partnerships will be enshrined in law.