As amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.
New Clause 8
Application of polygraph condition to certain licences
‘(1) The Secretary of State may include a polygraph condition in the licence of a person to whom this section applies.
(2) This section applies to a person serving a relevant custodial sentence in respect of a relevant sexual offence who—
(a) is released on licence by the Secretary of State under any enactment; and
(b) is not aged under 18 on the day on which he is released.
(3) In this section “relevant custodial sentence” means—
(a) a sentence of imprisonment for a term of twelve months or more (including such a sentence imposed under section 227 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (c. 44));
(b) a sentence of detention in a young offender institution for a term of twelve months or more;
(c) a sentence of detention under section 90 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 (c. 6);
(d) a sentence of detention under section 91 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 (c. 6) for a period of twelve months or more;
(e) a sentence of custody for life under section 93 or 94 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 (c. 6); or
(f) a sentence of detention under section 226 or 228 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (c. 44).
(4) In this section “relevant sexual offence” means—
(a) an offence specified in Part 2 of Schedule 15 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (c. 44) (specified sexual offences);
(b) an offence specified in paragraphs 1 to 21 of Schedule 16 to that Act (offences under the law of Scotland); or
(c) an offence specified in Part 2 of Schedule 17 to that Act (offences under the law of Northern Ireland).
(5) In section 250(4) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (c. 44) (licence conditions for prisoners serving sentences of imprisonment of twelve months or more etc), in paragraph (b)(i) after “Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000” there is inserted “or section (Application of polygraph condition to certain licences) of the Offender Management Act 2007.’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government new clause 9—Effect of polygraph condition.
Government new clause 10—Use in criminal proceedings of evidence from polygraph sessions.
Government amendment No. 15
This important group of amendments flows from our proceedings in Committee. Protecting the public from the problem of sexual abuse is a matter to which the Government have given the highest priority. Over the years, we have introduced a range of measures designed to protect children and the vulnerable. We have clarified and strengthened the law on sexual offences, and we have introduced the sentence of imprisonment for public protection for offenders convicted of specified serious sexual or violent offences. Offenders given public protection sentences will not be released until the Parole Board determines that the risk of harm that they present is such as may be safely managed in the community. With the introduction of multi-agency public protection arrangements, we have ensured that agencies work together to supervise offenders in the community, with greater resources directed towards those assessed as presenting a high risk of serious harm to the public.
However, we also recognise that we have a responsibility to continue to refine and develop the ways in which we manage sex offenders, particularly as new technologies become available. On 19 June last year, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary commissioned a review of the management of child sex offenders. The review is due to be published shortly and, among a range of measures aimed at protecting children from sexual abuse, will recommend a trial of mandatory polygraph testing for sex offenders on licence in the community.
A polygraph is a device that measures changes in breathing, heart activity and sweating, all of which are known to be related to deception. We will use the polygraph to monitor whether offenders are engaging in risky behaviour, or behaviour that puts them in breach of their licence conditions.
Between September 2003 and September 2005, the national probation service conducted a pilot study in which sex offenders on licence volunteered to undertake the polygraph test. The results of this pilot were published in December 2006. Nearly 350 sex offenders took part in the pilot, as part of their supervision and treatment process.
Offenders were asked a number of questions, designed to test their compliance with their licence conditions and their response to particular risk factors. The importance of the polygraph examination was in the disclosure of new information which offenders made before and after taking the polygraph.
Based on their knowledge of a case from probation records and discussions with probation officers, examiners reported that new disclosures relevant to treatment and supervision were made in 79 per cent. of first examinations and in 78 per cent. of retests. Nearly 30 per cent. of these disclosures took place in the post-test interview that followed the offender having been questioned while attached to the polygraph—in other words, after being challenged with the result of the test.
Probation staff overwhelmingly found the polygraph results helpful in their risk management of these offenders. Clearly, we wish to listen to their views, and to give every possible support to those who have the difficult job of managing sex offenders in the community.
However, given the self-selecting sample involved in the pilot and the lack of a randomised control group for comparison purposes, it is not possible to attribute with any certainty the new disclosures to the effect of the polygraph test. On average, only 43 per cent. of those eligible volunteered for testing. We, of course, need to be concerned about what was going on with those who did not volunteer.
We have listened to, and are now responding to, points raised in the very helpful debates in Committee. We believe that, if polygraphy is to be taken forward, we should do so cautiously, learning from small-scale implementation. That will give us an opportunity to assess any problems of process, as well as making the expected benefits clearer.
Government new clause 8 introduces mandatory polygraph testing for the categories of offender that I mentioned earlier, to be piloted initially in three probation regions. We will commission a scientific research study, to run alongside the mandatory testing pilot, with a view to determining whether the polygraph test is efficacious and whether the use of evidence collected genuinely facilitates effective offender management without disproportionately affecting the rights of those tested.
Taking all the above into account, we think the proposal represents a sensible way forward. To ensure consistency in testing and post-test procedures, the new clause provides the Secretary of State with the power to issue clear procedural guidance, or rules, which will be developed in order to ensure that polygraphy is conducted in line with the best evidence of what works. In addition, there will be appropriate safeguards to ensure that polygraph testing is undertaken by suitably qualified people, following set procedures and using approved equipment. The safeguards that we intend to put in place will also cover what use is made of the information gained from polygraphy. We will set standards for any reports that are produced on offenders by polygraph officials.
Of course, we need to concern ourselves with the rights of those we intend to subject to polygraph testing. In particular, we have considered whether polygraphy interferes with an individual’s right to a private life as set out in article 8 of the European convention on human rights. The use of a polygraph condition will have to be considered carefully in each individual case, as the convention requires. However, as a general rule, we anticipate that where article 8 is engaged, the conducting of a test and the potential use of the resulting evidence will not amount to an unjustified or disproportionate interference with an article 8 right, because of the clear benefits to effective offender management that we believe will accrue from the imposition of the polygraph condition.
As I have explained, offenders will be required to undertake polygraph tests as a condition of their licence on release from prison. The offenders to whom the condition will apply will be selected by prison, probation and, where appropriate, Parole Board staff, who may be informed by multi-agency public protection arrangements. As will be clear, we want to establish whether information from the polygraph will provide offender managers with an additional risk management tool that is useful in its own right.
The use of polygraph material raises a number of difficult issues that we will need to consider carefully once we have clear data demonstrating its effectiveness. However, one decision that we are more than content to make now is that polygraph evidence should not be used in criminal proceedings against the individual who has taken the test. We want to make that clear in the Bill. Only if it can be shown that polygraph testing is a useful and objective additional tool in assessing and managing the risk posed by sex offenders, will we return to the House to seek an affirmative resolution to extend mandatory testing to all probation areas.
We anticipate that a study of such magnitude and sensitivity will take at least three years to complete. Given the safeguards, and bearing in mind the potential benefits of polygraphy in protecting the public against the dangers of sexual abuse, I ask the House to accept the new clause.
These proposals give us the opportunity to debate the important issue of child protection and to ensure that there are appropriate measures to prevent the trust and innocence of childhood from being shattered by sexual abuse. There is no doubt of the importance of the issue.
In 2000, a study of nearly 3,000 children conducted by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that 21 per cent. of girls and 11 per cent. of boys surveyed reported having been sexually abused or assaulted. The issue is complex and sensitive, and one of the challenges is to assess the scale of offending and to ensure that those who have suffered abuse are properly supported in their recovery from trauma and allowed to bring their abusers to justice.
The new clauses on the use of polygraph testing reflect wording introduced in the draft offender management Bill of 2005, and the Government’s thinking and approach are largely the same as in that measure. As the Minister said, the proposal builds on the pilot study conducted by Professor Don Grubin of Newcastle university—the results of which were published just before Christmas. The emerging findings from the pilot indicate that in up to 80 per cent. of cases the offender made new disclosures relevant to their behaviour, supervision or treatment and that 94 per cent. of probation staff found the information gained from the polygraph “helpful” or “very helpful” in assessing and managing the risks posed by offenders. We should examine that information closely when considering the wider application of polygraphs to ensure that the public, and children in particular, are protected from paedophiles and those who want to commit sexual abuse.
A number of issues and questions flow from the proposals, however, and I hope that the Minister can respond to them when he winds up the debate. As he pointed out, the initial pilot study was in many ways self-selecting, so it is important properly to reflect that aspect in the further three studies to which he referred. Can he provide further detail about how the Government will ensure that safeguards are put in place and appropriate measures are effected to address the self-selection issue in the follow-on studies? If polygraphy is to have wider application, it is essential that its effectiveness on those who may not want to take a polygraph test is properly examined and assessed.
On the mandatory testing requirement, the Minister said in Committee that he would consider carefully the ambit and scope of the application of polygraph testing and whether it was appropriate to limit it to offenders who had been subject to imprisonment for 12 months or more. Given the necessity to ensure the widest possible public protection, can he explain the approach that he is taking and why high-risk sex offenders may not fall within the current scope of the mandatory testing regime?
In Committee and during his speech today, the Minister highlighted the need for training in the conducting of tests and for safeguards in respect of the equipment to be used, and I note his comments. However, what further requirements will there be to ensure that information gained as a consequence of polygraph testing is used appropriately and effectively, and that if heightened risk of offending is identified appropriate action will be taken? Those are key aspects of the effectiveness of any further roll-out of the proposal, so some more detail about the arrangements would be appropriate.
There will be real concerns that the introduction of mandatory polygraph testing and the ability to attach it to licence conditions may be seen as a means of allowing the earlier release of convicted paedophiles. Seeing perpetrators released early could deal a severe blow to the survivors of abuse and could heighten risk, so what assurance can the Minister give that prisoners convicted of a specific sexual offence will not be released earlier as a result of the proposed measures?
If the proposed arrangements are to work effectively, they have to be underpinned by the consistent application of multi-agency public protection arrangements, so what steps has the Minister taken to ensure that the disturbing failures in confirming and identifying the location of offenders have been addressed? It is utterly unacceptable that offenders can provide addresses such as “park bench” before their release from custody. It is essential for us to know that there are effective systems for monitoring and tracking offenders. Can the Minister assure us that suitable measures are already in effect, or are being introduced, to ensure that appropriate address details are provided and are being followed up? Are the police actively checking addresses given by offenders and gaining access to ascertain that the offender is indeed resident at the address?
The use of global positioning systems and other technology to assist with the tracking of offenders has been suggested. Given that, as the Minister said, the Government will shortly report back to the House on their overall assessment of child sexual abuse issues, it would be helpful if he clarified the Government’s thinking on that matter. Are they actively considering GPS in that context?
One issue that I touched on initially was victims. The NSPCC and Barnardo’s certainly provide fantastic support to child victims following abuse, helping them through the process. Often, though, it can take years for the abuse to come out and for the person who has suffered it in childhood to receive therapy. Just before the February recess, I had the opportunity to visit a charity based in Devonport, Plymouth, which specialises in dealing with male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It is one of only four organisations known nationally to deal with the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. What I saw there was quite humbling, quite shocking and disturbing, but at the same time quite uplifting, because I saw what can be done to assist people who have suffered from childhood sexual abuse to move on and lead comparatively normal lives. The sad fact is that many suffer from drug abuse, mental health issues and problems of self-respect because of what they suffered during their childhood and the decades of impact that it has had. In looking for solutions to deal with and stop childhood sexual abuse, it is essential that the victim’s voice is heard loudly and clearly. The work of organisations that provide support and assistance to those who have suffered abuse, even though that abuse might come to light years and years later, is essential too.
In that light, the work of Twelve’s Company in Devonport is instrumental. Although its work is limited to people based in Devonport, its findings over the past few years are certainly worth putting on the record. In its experience, the average age when a male survivor first experiences ongoing and prolonged sexual abuse is just nine years old. Within two years of being abused, most survivors have their first taste of drugs or alcohol. For many, 11 years old is when they start a long battle with addiction, and by the time that they are 14, criminal activity will be funding their habits. That gives an impression of the damaging impact of childhood sexual abuse and the decades of dealing with the problem that follow. We need to remember that most seek support only in their mid-30s, even though, as the figures suggest, the abuse may well have started when they were only nine years old.
In considering the proposals, it is important to focus on strangers—those who might be predatory paedophiles—but in the context of the wider debate, it is worth recognising and putting on record the fact that about 80 per cent. of victims know the attacker who perpetrates the sexual offence, whether they be a relative, friend, employer or some other person in a position of trust who is known to them.
In finding appropriate solutions to deal with this complex area, it is essential from a public protection aspect to focus on the 20 per cent. at whom these measures are largely, though not exclusively, targeted. However, if we want to provide effective longer-term solutions to the problem of dealing with childhood sexual abuse, it is essential to recognise that figure of 80 per cent. A multi-agency approach needs to be applied if we are to provide solutions that will have a long-lasting effect on this most significant, important and serious issue.
I thank the Minister for tabling the new clauses. As he knows, I raised this issue in Committee and tabled new clauses along similar lines. The issue was drawn to my attention particularly by Barnardo’s, which pointed out that the Bill which fell at the 2005 general election had similar clauses and that, therefore, it was not really clear why they had not appeared in the Bill before us. I am grateful to the Minister for responding so positively—and I look forward to his responding similarly positively to amendments that I may move later this afternoon.
How to protect children who have been the victims of sexual abuse is, of course, a difficult issue and Barnardo’s and similar charities really know what is happening. Barnardo’s runs 11 specific projects that deal with children and families where children have been sexually abused. As has been pointed out, the common perception, which is sometimes driven by press coverage of some extremely distasteful and unpleasant crimes, is that the real danger to children is from strangers snatching them off the street. That can of course happen and it is appalling when it does so, but the fact is that the vast majority of incidents of child sexual abuse are, sadly, committed by a relative or family member or someone known to the family who is regarded as a friend.
That is why charities such as Barnardo’s want to explore the proposed mechanism to provide greater protection rather than going down the road of openly naming people who are convicted sex offenders—sometimes referred to as Sarah’s law. In the light of that pattern of 80 per cent. of perpetrators being relatives, friends or in the family, there is one obvious flaw with that approach. If that person’s name were made public, there would be a great danger of the abused child’s name being made public. That problem really must be thought about and dealt with carefully.
Barnardo’s pointed out that the present multi-agency public protection arrangements allow for individuals and agencies to be given details of registered sex offenders, where it is thought necessary. Barnardo’s drew our attention to one example of a convicted sex offender who, on release, was targeting single mothers and trying to build up a relationship with them—
Order. Perhaps it would help if the hon. Gentleman mentioned polygraphs now and again.
I am trying to argue the case for moving in the direction of the new clause rather than some of the alternatives suggested, but I will not try your patience by going on much longer on this tack, Mr. Speaker. If I may just mention it, in that particular case, when this man tried to form those relationships after his release from prison, those operating MAPPA—multi-agency public protection arrangements—were able to get involved and pass on the information.
On polygraph testing, it is right to do it through a pilot scheme. As has been pointed out, we have had a pilot that appeared to offer some real success, but it had the disadvantage in the longer term that it was carried out only on people who were willing volunteers. We obviously need to ensure that it can work efficiently in that wider context. I appreciate the Minister’s point that we need to take some time to make absolutely sure that it works effectively.
As I said at the outset, I am grateful to the Minister for taking this issue into account. The children’s charities and particularly Barnardo’s felt quite strongly about this approach as an avenue that should be explored in the interest of better protecting children from convicted sex offenders who had been released on licence.
May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), who made a substantial contribution in Committee?
I thank the Minister for the proportionate way in which he has introduced these proposals, and for the careful way in which he has expressed the Government’s intentions. In considering the issue of polygraph testing, the unworthy thought came into my head that some integral arrangement attaching a polygraph to the Dispatch Box could be of huge benefit to the House—but of course it would give a negative result in all cases, and would therefore lose any value.
It must be appropriate for us to consider any measures that will enhance the protection of the public in relation to sex offenders who are in the community. Several aspects of the Government’s proposals puzzle me, however. Why is the measure being introduced in the form of a new clause, albeit in response to amendments tabled in Committee by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), given that it was a Labour manifesto commitment to introduce the regime? It was incorporated into the previous Bill, which did not see the light of the statute book. It might therefore have been expected to be an integral part of this Bill from the start. Was there a concern related to the original drafting of the Bill, which has now been allayed to enable the Government to table the new clause at this stage?
The second big issue is the admissibility of material derived from polygraph testing, including statements made under polygraph testing conditions and the physiological responses to questioning in those circumstances. The Minister has tabled an amendment that makes it clear that the material obtained from polygraph testing under this arrangement will not be used in court proceedings, and he is absolutely right to do so. Will he go a little further and make it clear that the Government do not intend to introduce polygraph testing in other circumstances—for example, in the context of police investigations? Some countries allow polygraph testing during such investigations, and some allow such evidence to be admissible in court. We would need a great deal of persuasion to support that as a general principle, and it would be helpful if the Minister could differentiate between this use—which, as I see it, is a matter of the management of an individual—and the collecting of evidence, which would be more difficult to accept.
I think that the Minister said that he could certify that the provisions in the new clause were compliant with requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998. I am glad that that is the case, and that there will be no need for any derogation in order to implement the proposals.
Does the Minister agree that, to establish the effectiveness of the pilot schemes, we shall need not only quantitative information—on recidivism, and so on—about the use of polygraphs, but qualitative material that can be analysed? What matters is not whether someone has failed a polygraph test under the supervision of probation officers, but whether that has resulted in an effective change of regime, and a change in the way in which the case is managed. We would need to know what kind of change had been made, and how effective it had been in producing the desired result—namely, the protection of the public and the rehabilitation of the offender.
Is it the Government’s intention to produce a code of conduct for the operators of polygraph technology, so that everyone can be clear about the right way not only of operating the equipment—a technical issue—but of determining the kind of questions that it is appropriate to ask? Such questions should not be too intrusive into the personal life of the individual, but should be designed specifically to address potentially offending behaviour.
I have no reason not to support the proposed pilots. Anything that can be done to mitigate offending behaviour, particularly among this group of individuals, is to be welcomed. As we know, there is a common characteristic among many sex offenders of behaviour that is intended to deceive and to obscure their activities. In the light of that, and of the compulsive nature that is exhibited by many sex offenders, polygraph testing might become a very valuable tool. We do not know whether that will be proved in practice, but that is what the pilots will enable us to establish. I hope, for the sake of every child in the country, that they are successful.
Subsection (2)(b) of new clause 8 refers to the bar on the use of a polygraph test on anyone under the age of 18. I raise this point because I am aware of the excellent work with young people who have been victims of sexual abuse and who have themselves begun to commit offences relating to sexual abuse that is carried out by an organisation in my constituency. Almost all the young people assisted by that organisation are under the age of 18. I know that the organisation carries out careful management of the young people. I have had discussions with the representatives of the organisation, and they might consider the option of introducing polygraph testing, yet I note the bar on its use for people under 18. Will the Minister tell me why that bar has been proposed?
I apologise to the House and to the Minister for being late and for missing the Minister’s opening remarks. He knows that, even though I did not serve on the Bill’s Committee, I have a deep interest in the subject of the protection of people from paedophiles and sex offenders.
I welcome the piloting of polygraph testing, but I have a slight concern about the practicality of how the testing will work. I tabled a question to the Home Office some months ago, asking how many of the people on the sex offenders register who were registered with the police had gone missing, whereabouts unknown. The answer was very disturbing, and I know that the Minister was concerned about the reply that he had to give me. It was that the information is not held centrally. If we do not know where all the people on the sex offenders register are, how is the polygraph system going to work? Perhaps he can clarify whether we now have a central database. I have to ask whether his trips round the world researching Megan’s law and so on will have been worth while if we are incapable of knowing where all these people are.
My other concern has been raised by several senior policemen in my constituency, not least those who specialise in this subject. It concerns the ability of a paedophile who has been released from prison and placed on the sex offenders register to change his name by deed poll. This relates to our ability to contact these people and to get them to come in for a polygraph test. Surely we must be able to pass legislation to prevent paedophiles from changing their names. This is a matter of great concern. We all know that paedophiles do not think that they are doing anything wrong; they think that the standards and codes of the general public are wrong, and that what they are doing is perfectly acceptable. If they can change their names by deed poll—a practice that is becoming more and more common—how are we going to track them down to give them a polygraph test?
With that last point in mind—I will not delay the House any more, because this is an important debate—if paedophiles do not believe that they are doing anything wrong, will the polygraph test indicate that they are telling an untruth or lying? If they intrinsically believe that what they are doing is legitimate and right, the questioning in the polygraph test has to be very careful; otherwise, we will just get false readings.
I thank the contributors to this debate, which is on an important subject that we spent some time discussing in Committee. I am grateful for the contributions by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning). I acknowledge the points made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), who contributed a great deal to the debates in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow is quite right. It was he who raised the issue in Committee. I am pleased to see that we are getting off on a good footing together in trying to find our way through many of the issues. The Bill is about reducing reoffending and trying to find the right way forward in terms of reducing criminality and the impact that that has on our communities. The hon. Member for Hornchurch was entirely right to raise the issue of the wider consequences and context of polygraph testing in relation to child sex offenders. In terms of risk assessment, it is a tool to prevent further offences. I am pleased that the House has accepted that we want to move forward cautiously, reflecting the issues that have been raised.
The hon. Gentleman said that we need to look at the issue of the 80:20 split. That is a figure from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which says that 80 per cent. of offenders are known to the child—they are either members of the family or people with responsibility for the individual. However, the remaining 20 per cent. are important. I thought that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead was straying towards supporting the Government’s ideas on identity cards in terms of knowing who offenders are. I felt the warmth of support for that idea.
The Minister is straying off the point.
I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but it is important that we look at the context.
Mention has been made of the charities that are involved, such as Barnardo’s and the NSPCC. I have been heartened by the work of Circles of Support, which is a body that mentors sex offenders. In the support that it offers to sex offenders, it has been good at making sure that the reoffending rate is minimal. It heartens me to hear hon. Members talking about the impact of the voluntary sector in managing offenders. We will come on to amendments that relate to some of those issues later.
A number of questions were put to me and I will do my best to answer them. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that the measure was a manifesto commitment, which it was, and asked why it had had to be dealt with in changes to this Bill. He knows that the measure was in the previous Bill—the Management of Offenders and Sentencing Bill—but there were concerns about the direction, the detail and the technicalities. This has been the first available Bill to address the issue. This is a useful tool and it is important that we take the earliest opportunity to include it in legislation.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch asked me about the safeguards that need to be in place. I wholeheartedly agree with what he said and that is why I was cautious in my opening remarks in relation to making sure that we have a scientific study running alongside the three pilots to ensure that we have the right control group and that we can make effective comparisons between polygraphed and non-polygraphed offenders so that we get the right balance of information. The research study will need to determine whether the disclosures made to examiners are directly attributable to the polygraph tests. That is where the issue of training—and who carries out the tests—is important. I am happy to keep all hon. Members informed about the progress that we are making on those issues.
The hon. Gentleman also said that the pilot covered offenders who wanted to take part in the polygraph test and asked how we would deal with those who did not want to take part. Clearly, if we have a mandatory pilot, taking part will be a condition of the offender’s licence and if they fail to comply with the testing, enforcement action, such as recalling them to prison, could be considered. We hope that the measures will mean that there will be effective use of polygraph testing.
The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead raised the major issue of what to do about sex offenders who go missing. I can reassure him that if they change their names, they still have to inform people about that change of name and they still go on the list.
If someone changes their name because they want to hide their identity, they are then the missing person on the list. That is what I was referring to earlier.
That leads me on to the issue that the hon. Member for Hornchurch raised about what we are doing to stop people giving addresses such as “in the woods”. Although I have some concerns about “in the woods” being an address, the reason why that was done was that offenders had to tell people where they were and to say “no fixed abode” was not appropriate either. To make sure that people comply, in addition to what everybody accepts as the proper arrangements—involving the multi-agency public protection bodies that deal with high-risk offenders—we will also make it a requirement that the offenders have to report regularly to a police station. We will bring legislation forward to do that. This point relates to the question of why we have no central records. The issue is about the MAPPA—multi-agency public protection arrangements—authorities, of which there are 42, making sure that they know where their sex offenders are and the interfaces that take place when people move around. The big issue is about denial and the way in which child sex offenders operate.
The Minister has just indicated that he is minded to consider a requirement on offenders to report to a police station, but does that not underscore the problem that there needs to be some form of residence or abode? If someone does not report to the police station, that may be because they have disappeared. That is the issue that we seek to address in terms of tracking and ensuring that we know where the offender is so that the appropriate management, supervision and possibly treatment can be put in place and adhered to. Does he accept that if he were just to go down the police reporting route, that loophole would still remain?
I do—if that were the only condition or the only requirement. The hon. Gentleman touches on a point that we will come to: offenders who come out of prison are sometimes homeless and do not have an address. There is a requirement for the authorities to know where the people on the register are. One of the issues that we will face when we discuss the wider context of how to manage offenders is that of approved premises and resettlement plans. What do we do to try to reintegrate people into society? The onus is on the offender to report back, but there are circumstances in which the offender does not have an address to report from.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), reminded me that we have the sexual violence and abuse stakeholder group, where representative bodies and individuals who have been affected by sexual violence or abuse have the opportunity to explain the impact of what has taken place. The idea is that, in the not-too-distant future, we will come up with a whole set of issue action plans that will help to give a better view about the impact, facilitating liaison with the sector about the issues that people face. I accept that sometimes the impact can be felt in later life.
I was asked whether prisoners will be released early, and I am happy to say no. Polygraph testing will apply after release and will not be a factor in deciding whether to release someone. I was also asked why we are confining polygraph testing to offenders on licence, as opposed to all offenders under supervision. As I said, we intend to proceed cautiously with polygraphy. Initially, we intend to extend it to more serious sex offenders who have been sentenced to 12 months or more in prison, but I am not ruling out an extension to other offenders at a later stage, should the pilot indicate value. Again, that would require further legislation.
Points were made about the failures of the test, and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome talked about ensuring that such testing was limited, rather than extended to other aspects of criminology and police investigations. Clearly, such extension is not our intention through the Bill. A debate on that might be needed at a later time, but there are no plans at the moment to include other bodies considering polygraphy in the legislation.
It will be important that we set out clearly through the Secretary of State not only guidance, but rules on how the tests are applied, who should apply them, and the training that is necessary for the people who apply them.
Will the codes of conduct be laid before the House and will they have the same authority as codes such as those under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984?
I hope that that will be possible. The hon. Gentleman knows that there is a qualification about such matters due to timing, but I see no reason why that should not be the case, given the close relationship. We all want the system to operate properly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) mentioned under-18s. We want to focus on the highest risk. Although the benefits are unproven as yet, it would not be proportionate to apply the tests to juveniles. We must be careful. However, I will not rule out that happening in the light of our experiences. Unfortunately, there are child sex offenders who are under 18, and we need to find out the risk that they present to society.
I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. I hope that I have answered their questions and that the new clauses and amendment will be agreed to.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 9
Effect of polygraph condition
‘(1) For the purposes of section (Application of polygraph condition to certain licences), a polygraph condition is a condition which requires the released person—
(a) to participate in polygraph sessions conducted with a view to—
(i) monitoring his compliance with the other conditions of his licence; or
(ii) improving the way in which he is managed during his release on licence;
(b) to participate in those polygraph sessions at such times as may be specified in instructions given by an appropriate officer; and
(c) while participating in a polygraph session, to comply with instructions given to him by the person conducting the session (“the polygraph operator”).
(2) A polygraph session is a session during which the polygraph operator—
(a) conducts one or more polygraph examinations of the released person; and
(b) interviews the released person in preparation for, or otherwise in connection with, any such examination.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (2), a polygraph examination is a procedure in which—
(a) the polygraph operator questions the released person;
(b) the questions and the released person’s answers are recorded; and
(c) physiological reactions of the released person while being questioned are measured and recorded by means of equipment of a type approved by the Secretary of State.
(4) In subsection (1)(b) “appropriate officer” means an officer of a provider of probation services or an officer of a local probation board.
(5) An appropriate officer giving instructions as mentioned in subsection (1)(b) must have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State.
(6) The Secretary of State may make rules relating to the conduct of polygraph sessions.
(7) The rules may, in particular—
(a) require polygraph operators to be persons who satisfy such requirements as to qualifications, experience and other matters as are specified in the rules;
(b) make provision about the keeping of records of polygraph sessions; and
(c) make provision about the preparation of reports on the results of polygraph sessions.’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 10
Use in criminal proceedings of evidence from polygraph sessions
‘(1) Evidence of any matter mentioned in subsection (2) may not be used in any proceedings against a released person for an offence.
(2) The matters so excluded are—
(a) any statement made by the released person while participating in a polygraph session; and
(b) any physiological reactions of the released person while being questioned in the course of a polygraph examination.
(3) In this section “polygraph examination” and “polygraph session” have the same meaning as in section (Application of polygraph condition to certain licences).’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
Amendment made: No. 15, page 21, line 34, at end insert—
‘(4) An order under this section bringing anything in sections (Application of polygraph condition to certain licences) and (Effect of polygraph condition) into force, other than an order which makes the provision permitted by subsection (5)(a) or (6), may not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(5) An order which brings those sections into force only in relation to a specified area may—
(a) provide that they are to be in force in relation to that area only for a specified period; and
(b) make transitional provisions or savings relating to those sections’ ceasing to be in force at the end of the specified period.
(6) An order containing the provision permitted by subsection (5)(a) may be amended by a subsequent order under this section so as to continue those sections in force in relation to the area concerned for a further specified period.’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
New Clause 2
Requirement for probation trusts to prepare plans
‘(1) Each probation trust shall provide a plan for the forthcoming financial year at least four months before the commencement of that year.
(2) A plan submitted under subsection (1) shall set out for the trust—
(a) its anticipated probation services needs,
(b) from whom it proposes to commission services,
(c) the costs of those services.
(3) The Secretary of State may modify the plan.
(4) Any modifications made by the Secretary of State shall be made not later than one month before the start of the financial year covered in the plan.’.—[Mr. Garnier.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in clause 2, page 3, line 8, at end insert—
‘(4A) In carrying out his duty under subsection (4) the Secretary of State shall consult the Welsh Assembly Government regarding the provision of probation services in Wales.’.
No. 9, in clause 3, page 3, line 15, after ‘considers’, insert
‘, following consultation with the relevant probation trust,’.
No. 5, page 3, line 35, at end insert—
‘(4A) Before making arrangements under subsection (4) the Secretary of State must consult any probation trust or trusts providing probation services in the area to which the proposed arrangements would apply and such other persons as he thinks appropriate.’.
No. 18, in schedule 1, page 22, line 15, at end insert—
‘(c) a magistrate for the area in which the probation trust carries out its functions; and
(d) a local councillor for the area in which the probation trust carries out its functions.’.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on his work to bring about the previous group of amendments. I also thank the Minister for his acceptance, via the Government new clauses, of the ideas that came forward from the hon. Gentleman.
I will be as brief as I can because we are very short of time, given that this group has to be dealt with by about 2.15 pm. I hope that truncating my remarks will not cause the House to misunderstand my enthusiasm for the arguments that I am advancing or their validity.
I want to start by correcting something that I got wrong in a Westminster Hall debate on 6 February. I misattributed a quotation by Mr. Erwin James, The Guardian journalist, who had written a foreword to a Prison Reform Trust report on mental health among adult male prisoners, to my close friend, Jonathan Aitken. I thus wish to apologise to Mr. Erwin James.
I wish to speak to new clause 2 and amendment No. 9, which I tabled. I will leave it to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) to speak to amendments Nos. 4 and 5, which he tabled. If I may, however, I will comment briefly on amendment No. 18, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). The amendment would insert a provision in schedule 1 about the need for local government to have a presence on probation trusts. The idea is sensible, but I am not quite sure that the amendment goes far enough. I ask him to consider whether one councillor is sufficient to act as the representative of the electorate of big population areas, such as Greater London, and counties with big populations, such as Kent. I think that he probably agrees that that is not the case, but nevertheless I applaud him at least for raising that flag up the mast. We will hear a little more about the amendment from him.
Let me concentrate on my party’s new clause and amendment. I will not take long over this because the difference between our position and that of the Government is clear—or at least it ought to be by now. Our new clause and amendment would overturn the top-down management of the commissioning and procurement of probation services, whether they are provided through the state sector, the private and commercial sector, the third sector—charitable agencies—or the not-for-profit sector. We want to bed down involvement in the communities, which is why we think that each probation trust should
“provide a plan for the forthcoming financial year at least four months before the commencement of that year”
and that each trust should set out in its plan
“its anticipated probation services needs”.
A trust would have to set out in the plan who needed to receive probation services and the sort of services that would be required. A trust would have to think about young offenders and adult offenders—male and female. It would also have to consider offenders whom the courts would probably not send into custody and those who would need supervision following their release from custody. Some 500 prisoners leave the prison estate lawfully on every working day of the week, so an enormous number of people will need supervision following their release from custody. Some will be serious offenders. Some will be on parole, while others will be on licence as life sentence defendants. However, all will need care and supervision from the probation services, and it is our contention that a trust should set out in its plan the anticipated needs of the probation services.
Equally importantly, the trust should tell us and the Home Secretary
“from whom it proposes to commission services”.
Although we are at one with the Government on this matter, there is a clear distinction between the view of some hon. Members and that of us and the Government about the source of probation services. We do not have a philosophical or political objection to probation services being provided from outside the existing probation service—the body itself. However, we think that it should be up to the trust to identify the sources of its probation services. The engine room—the directing mind—for the identification of the types of services required and the people and agencies from whom those services will be required should be in the locality, rather than at the top.
Under the Bill, it will be for the Home Secretary, via his agents—the regional offender managers—to decide what is appropriate. We say that that is the wrong way round. In a conference at Local Government House just before Christmas, the Minister and I had a question and answer session—I asked the questions and he gave the answers. I asked him to whom a regional offender manager would be accountable. I had hoped that he would say, “To the people of the locality.” His answer came: no, he or she will be accountable and responsible to the chief executive of the offender management service and, through him or her, to the Home Secretary. That neatly describes the difference between the Government and us and illustrates why we believe that new clause 2 is necessary.
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman explain why the Local Government Association, which has Conservative members, now supports the Bill’s principles of local accountability?
That is to elide a huge amount of concern within the LGA. It does not support the principles. For example, it is concerned about the lack of local government representation on probation boards. That is why the Liberal Democrats have tabled amendment No. 18. The LGA is not convinced that this top-down model is the way forward. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that people who have been elected to serve on local authorities would far rather see themselves, as the most local representatives of their area, having the input into the probation trusts’ decisions than the Home Secretary, through his agents.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman interpret the Minister’s intervention as an intention to accept my amendment No. 18? It is clear that the Local Government Association’s support is entirely dependent on that amendment being passed, as is clear in the briefing that it has produced.
I do not dare try to interpret what goes on in the Minister’s mind, but he will no doubt let us know in a moment.
I want to pray in aid some other people’s views. The Howard League for Penal Reform said:
“The regional structure will prevent most voluntary organisations, which operate on a local scale, from bidding…The regional structure will threaten local relationships with MPs, councils and small groups…The judiciary will be cut out of the management of community sentences as they will not sit on the new management trusts as it would be a conflict for magistrates or judges to award contracts to private companies to run sentences to which they had sent people. This means that JPs and judges would not be accountable for outcomes of sentences, a bizarre and retrograde step”.
Whether or not one agrees with the aims of the Howard League, that seems to demonstrate that the current arrangements in the Bill will not meet local need.
I dare say that the Minister will say in response to this debate that clause 2(4) says:
“The Secretary of State shall at least once in every year consult such persons as he thinks fit about the provision that should be made for the following year for the purposes mentioned in subsection (1).”
The Secretary of State has form when it comes to explaining what he thinks fit, and consultation is not his watchword. One would think that a Home Secretary who wanted to consult, for example, the probation service, would have called in its officers, or even been to the annual conference of the National Association of Probation Officers or the Probation Boards Association to explain his views and hear theirs. But he did not. He went to Wormwood Scrubs, a prison, where he unburdened himself to an uninvited audience, that is to say the inmates—
A captive audience.
Indeed. The Home Secretary gave the probation service a premeditated kicking in front of the very audience who, one would have thought, needed to be persuaded that the probation services—by that I mean with a small “p” and “s”—should be respected and encouraged, but that is not his style.
We know from the Home Secretary’s letter to members of the Public Bill Committee that he has attempted to appear emollient, but his real style is to be found in the way that he approached the Home Office in the first place, crashing in like a bull in a china shop, breaking the furniture and generally causing mayhem, and then complaining that nothing and nobody works. We know that his real style is to be found in the article that he wrote for The Daily Telegraph on 26 February in which he roundly abuses anybody he can reach with his pen, accuses my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition of hypocrisy and then says, “But I do hope that you’ll be supporting me.” It really will not do. If we have a control freak running the system, a man who is given to abuse and throwing his weight—such as it is—around to get his way, we cannot have much faith in the words “as he thinks fit” when it comes to consultation.
I know that time is short and others wish to speak, so with those few words I want to persuade the House that although the Home Secretary is, from time to time and with one part of his personality, offering us fig leaves and palm olives, with the other part of his personality, which he reveals daily, he is abusive, he is a control freak and he wants, through the Bill, to have micro-management, on a top-down basis, of the provision of probation services. That is retrograde, and we urge the House to support the new clause and amendment No. 9.
One of the proclaimed important aims of the Bill is to establish the end-to-end management of sentences for offenders. Most people say that that would be a good thing, and they include the many probation officers in Staffordshire who have lobbied me in support of their union, NAPO, which opposes many other things in the Bill. Everybody says that end-to-end management would be a good thing.
The Secretary of State already has ultimate responsibility for the Prison Service, and as we will see when we reach clause 3, prison officers will become part of the National Offender Management Service. The plan is that the Secretary of State will also have ultimate responsibility for the probation service, which brings together lines of accountability. We are concerned today about the public accountability and consultation processes in the service, from top to bottom. We would not say, would we, that the Prison Service as it is run at present is a good example of public accountability and consultation at the local level, however good its service—and it certainly is good at Stafford prison in my constituency. We are looking for something better.
The Bill requires, at a national level, the Secretary of State to consult every year, and that is a good thing. I point out that many of those who contribute to providing offender management are not in the service. The national health service provides mental health treatment, drink and substance abuse services, and speech and language therapies, in which some hon. Members are especially interested. The NHS is a huge contributor from outside the service. Another is the Learning and Skills Council, which nationally and regionally provides skills, training and education and funds many services for offenders. Another good example is local authorities, which, in their “supporting people” programme provide supported housing. All those examples show why it is important for there to be consultation and accountability at the national level and at the regional level, because the NHS, local authorities and the Learning and Skills Councils all have a regional presence.
In a letter from the Minister to members of the Public Bill Committee there is an assurance that, at the regional level, the new regional offender managers will consult organisations such as learning and skills councils, Government offices of the regions, strategic health authorities and local government regional associations. That is all very good, but perhaps the Minister could say a little more about why those do not appear in the Bill if we are to accept that there will be good, strong regional accountability and consultation.
We then come to the local level, and the Minister has a good story to tell, but it is not in the Bill. He says that that is because it is in another Bill, currently going through Parliament, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. It is a good story because it tries to tie in this structure, at a local level, through probation trusts and in future, if the Bill is successful, their many providers, with all the existing local processes: local area agreements, local strategic partnerships, community safety partnerships, and crime and disorder reduction partnerships. It is intended that all those should be partners of probation trusts. That will be a good and strong outcome, if it happens.
Clause 10, which deals with sharing information and to which an amendment has been tabled, will ensure that probation services and the new offender management service will participate in sharing information at local level. If the Minister can assure us that those measures are set solidly, we can be sure that the right accountability and consultation processes will be in place.
Mindful of the time, I give my hon. Friend that assurance. In Committee, he said that we ought to have those relationships, and they will be delivered, either through this Bill or through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill.
I was not fishing for a compliment, but it is nice of my hon. Friend to give it.
I, too, am mindful of the time and of the need to allow the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) the opportunity to speak to his amendments in the group.
We have come to the substance of the Bill and to one of the primary objections to it, which is that it is essentially a centralising measure—one that takes both power and accountability upward rather than downward. Many of us have difficulty with the lack of local accountability and even local consultation. I heard what the Minister said in response to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and we will examine the proposals closely, but I would prefer to see in this Bill explicit requirements for local accountability and local consultation. I take on board what the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said in that respect and support his proposals.
The hon. Member for Stafford is correct: no one would point to the Prison Service as a good example of local accountability and concern for maintaining proper relations with the local community. That might be excused by the fact that the people with whom the Prison Service deals are in prison, not in the community. Sadly, that is not always the case, but generally prisoners are in prison, not roaming the streets. However, when dealing with the probation service in the context of community sentences, we are talking about people who are not only within the community, but—one hopes—serving sentences within the community that relate to their effect on the local community.
The key is confidence: confidence on the part of the local community that the service is doing a good job; confidence that the offender is being managed appropriately; confidence that the sentence reflects the concern that the community expresses about crimes that are committed locally; and confidence within members of the judiciary—especially the lay magistracy—that they can hand down a community sentence that will be properly administered and will have the desired effect in terms of rehabilitation and the other parts of the equation that the probation service deals with.
It is hard to see how a small management board consisting, we are told by the Minister, of business people reflects the views of the community. It may reflect the views of local businesses and it may be very good at running the affairs of the service, but it does not reflect a genuine community interest. That is one of the reasons why I tabled amendment No. 18, which would ensure that every new trust had on its board a lay magistrate and a local councillor. I appreciate that those are two classes of person to whom the Government have a violent allergy, as they have demonstrated time and again, but there is no better representation of the local community than representation by those who are elected via the ballot box to play that role, and the lay magistracy continues to play an important part in our judicial system. In addition, both local councillors and lay magistrates are members of the existing probation boards, and it is hard to discern what difference has arisen since the last time the arrangements were changed to suggest that then it was right to include those individuals and now it is wrong.
I accept entirely the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough that one councillor cannot truly be said to represent all strands of opinion within a community, especially one covering a large area; however, he can represent the interests expressed by the council on which he serves, which is representative of the community. In addition, it is entirely necessary for the probation service to have connections with many services that are in the hands of the local authority. That connection is therefore of value for utilitarian as well as for representative reasons.
What is most important is that there is someone who is accountable to the public—the first point in the chain at which someone who is representative of the public can say that, as far as the community is concerned, the way in which offenders are being managed in the community will not do because they are not undertaking tasks or being managed in ways that are appropriate to that community. That is the representative voice that should be heard at that level.
I have already made the argument applicable to the presence of the magistracy on probation boards. It is important that magistrates have confidence in community sentencing. Their being represented on the board is one way to establish that confidence.
For all those reasons, I hope that the Minister will accept amendment No. 18. He has suggested that the Local Government Association supports the Bill because it meets the association’s requirements. I have to say that his reading of the LGA briefing is very different from mine. I might have to declare an interest at this point, because I might be an honorary vice-president of the LGA. I was once, but I am not sure whether I still am. I was certainly a councillor of long standing. In its briefing, the LGA suggests an amendment in similar terms to the one that I tabled and says:
“If the Bill is amended in this way, the LGA believes that it would address our concerns about local accountability.”
Conversely, if the Bill is not amended in that way, it will not address the association’s concerns about local accountability. That is why I commend my amendment to the House.
A consensus is developing on this part of the Bill. Running through the amendments is a thread to do with consultation, local accountability and similar concerns. I rise to speak to amendments Nos. 4 and 5, both of which stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends. Amendment No. 4 would ensure proper consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government on the provision of probation services in Wales, and amendment No. 5 deals with proper consultation with probation trusts and so on. My argument will therefore be similar to those that have already been made.
Under current legislation, the statutory duty to make arrangements for the provision of probation services rests exclusively with the local probation board. As others have said, under the Bill that duty is transferred to the Secretary of State. That, in itself, is a massive shift of both power and responsibility from local governance to Westminster. Although the Secretary of State has appointed regional offender managers and, in Wales, a director of offender management, those ROMs, as they are known, have no local accountability whatever. That is particularly unfortunate in the Welsh context in view of the role of the Welsh Assembly Government. I am sure that the Minister will address those points. Both amendments are probing, and if the Minister will respond in due course, I shall confine my speech to getting the points over.
Unfortunately, the Bill does not mention the Welsh Assembly Government, even though key services with which existing probation boards and, in due course, the new boards work very closely are delivered through the Welsh Assembly. Lifelong learning, health and housing have all been devolved fully to the Welsh Assembly. My point is that close co-operation between the commissioners, the providers of probation services and the Welsh Assembly Government is essential. That is why the Secretary of State should be required to undertake regular and meaningful consultation with the Assembly Government.
The Bill does not take into account the different circumstances that pertain to Wales, and there is a great deal of concern about how the implementation of the Bill will impact on the provision of probation services in Wales. Some of those concerns stem from a National Offender Management Service document published in August 2006 on working together to reduce re-offending, which failed to mention the Welsh Assembly or to recognise the different circumstances pertaining to Wales. Paragraph 1.14 of that document states that three strong alliances—a corporate alliance, a civic society alliance, and a faith and voluntary sector alliance—are being incorporated to promote and encourage greater involvement on the part of employers, local authorities, and voluntary and faith organisations in reducing reoffending.
Will there be a Welsh dimension, and indeed a local dimension, to those alliances? If not, how will knowledge of local and regional requirements and differences be imparted? In the case of the voluntary sector, will the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and county voluntary organisations such as Mantell Gwynedd have a role to play?
On page 17 of the NOMS document, there is a reference to a NOMS national provider network. Will that have a Welsh dimension? Could it result in contracts for services in North Wales being given to bodies from England and other parts of the UK? What safeguards will there be in relation to the provision of Welsh language services? The ability to provide services in the Welsh language is of the utmost importance in parts of Wales, particularly in some areas in Gwynedd where more than 80 per cent. of the population are Welsh speakers. Will all the organisations given contracts in Wales be required to have a Welsh language policy, and will they have to show the same commitment to the language, and to the provision of services in the preferred language of the user, as the relevant area probation board currently does?
The purpose of the Bill is to split the responsibility for commissioning and providing probation services, and to introduce contestability, or whatever one calls it. Possibly, it is privatisation by the back door, but I will not go into that now. The emphasis on competition seems to be in direct conflict with the approach taken by the Welsh Assembly Government and other public bodies in Wales towards the provision of public services. In fact, the Welsh Assembly Government’s document, “Making the Connections: Delivering Better Services for Wales”, referred to public services in Wales as being based on co-operation and collaboration, rather than on competition. The north Wales probation board has an excellent record on developing and maintaining partnerships with local bodies to provide services to offenders. It should be allowed—indeed, encouraged—to develop that work further without any interference by Government.
Public bodies in Wales, including probation boards, are being judged and audited on the basis of the progress that they are making in implementing the “Making the Connections” agenda. The enactment of the Bill would make it difficult, if not impossible, for probation services in Wales to be judged on that basis. Those are pretty important points, and if the Minister cannot address them today, I respectfully ask him to respond in writing, as the Welsh Assembly Government and many people throughout Wales are concerned about the impact of the Bill.
I once again thank hon. Members for their contributions; they have been consistent in their views, both in Committee and on Report. I have to say to the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) that I have never accepted that the Bill is top-down. Indeed, it is the other way round, and we put safeguards in place to make sure that that is so, as was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). I am grateful for his contribution, in which he set out what we are trying to achieve. This has been a constructive debate, and I have listened carefully to the points made today and in the past, and in discussions with a number of colleagues and organisations. I recognise and share the desire of the House to ensure proper consultation, representation and planning under the new arrangements.
Let me begin by referring to consultation, to which we are fully committed. As the hon. and learned Member for Harborough said, clause 2 already places a requirement on the Secretary of State to consult at least once a year such persons as he thinks fit about the provision that should be made for probation purposes in the following year. The consultation will take place through the nine regional commissioners in England, and through the director of offender management in Wales. That will be one of the key ways in which commissioners engage with stakeholders and identify the needs that must be met. The people consulted will include sentencers, providers of probation services, providers of custodial services, other criminal justice agencies, local authorities, learning and skills councils, and bodies involved in the provision of services that contribute to the reduction of reoffending.
In Wales, we are fully committed to working closely with the Welsh Assembly Government. The reducing reoffending strategy for Wales was jointly developed by the National Offender Management Service in Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government, along with other organisations. The current NOMS commissioning plan for Wales will continue to be prepared in consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government as part of the overall plans to reduce reoffending and ensure public protection. The reducing reoffending action plan was produced jointly by NOMS Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government’s reducing reoffending strategy board for Wales. The board is important, because it involves other agencies. It is chaired jointly by the director of offender management in Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government, so there is a relationship there, and I hope that it will strengthen.
I am fully aware of the need to involve the Welsh Assembly Government; the question is whether we need to specify that in the Bill. In Committee, we debated whether consultees should be specified in the Bill, and if they were, which organisations they should be. In Committee, there was no real consensus on that point. In general, it seems that a list would not be an especially helpful way forward, given that we want to include a range of interests, not simply across different agencies and sectors, but at all levels, from the local to, where appropriate, the national.
The Welsh Assembly Government, as the body responsible for many of the services with which probation trusts need to interact, occupy a unique position. On reflection, I agree that it may make sense to reflect that in the Bill, and I am happy to consider how we might best achieve that. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) will not press his amendment, because I feel that we can come back to him on his point.
I am less convinced by amendments Nos. 5 and 9. The aims of those two amendments are appropriately achieved by the duty in clause 2 to consult, which, as I said, we wish to exercise widely and openly. I therefore do not accept the amendments as they stand, but I am happy to consider matters further and bring forward any further improvements that are necessary.
How far can my hon. Friend assure me that if an agreement is drawn up between all the representative agencies and organisations in my county, that local area agreement would be approved by the regional commissioner? Is it my hon. Friend’s expectation that in most circumstances the plans and ideas drawn up by local organisations would be accepted as part of the regional commissioning plans?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I will touch on her point shortly, so I hope that she will bear with me. New clause 2 proposes that probation trusts provide an annual plan. I have already explained our commitment to consultation, and we are similarly committed to transparency in the operation of the new arrangements. We already have arrangements in place whereby the commissioner publishes a regional commissioning plan, which sets out the basis on which he will commission services for the year. Currently, that is an administrative arrangement, but I would be happy to put it on a statutory basis, and we will consider how best to do that. I am also happy to extend the requirement to individual providers, along the lines proposed. I am therefore happy to accept the new clause in principle, subject to any minor technical drafting improvements that might be necessary.
That brings me to the amendment on magistrates and councillors—an issue that we discussed at length in Committee. I explained then our desire to allow flexibility in the membership of trusts to suit local circumstances. I fully accept that we need to make sure that local circumstances are considered. We want to work closely with trust chairs to determine the skills that each trust needs to suit its local circumstances and to enable the selection of the best people for the job. The existing legislation, the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, is excessively prescriptive and imposes a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution that we do not wish to carry forward into the new world.
The Minister did not say that at the time.
I expect that the trust will need magistrates and councillors’ skills and expertise, so we are not saying that we do not want magistrates and councillors. Trust members will continue to be drawn largely from the local area. The hon. Gentleman will find, therefore, that the Government listened to what was said. I accept that we need to revisit the position on councillors in the light of concerns about local accountability and engagement, and I have had helpful discussions with the Local Government Association, which said that it would be concerned if we were not prepared to look at the issue in greater detail. The LGA did not mention magistrates, as it was concerned purely about the position of councillors. I do not wish to be prescriptive, but I am prepared to reconsider the representation of local government councillors.
Without wishing to be too prescriptive, would it be appropriate for the leader of the council or a cabinet member, rather than a back-bench councillor, to hold such a position to ensure that they can bring their weight to bear on the role?
It is worth considering that point. In my constituency, West Yorkshire probation service covers an area served by five local authorities, so the issue would be how to determine which person was most representative. We shall have further discussions on local accountability, and I am sure that the matter will be considered then.
We will include in the Bill a reference to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is proceeding through the House, to make it clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford suggested, that the providers of probation services are under a duty to co-operate with local area agreements and have regard to targets that are set. Local area agreements tie in with the local framework and the reducing reoffending partnership boards. That is not a top-down approach, as we have the ability to consult at national, regional and local levels. On the issue of the Welsh language, I am afraid that I will have to write to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy with the details.
I am grateful to the Minister for his positive approach to my amendment, and we look forward to amendments being tabled at a later stage.
I hope that the Opposition will not press their amendments in the light of what I have said about accepting them in principle and returning to the issue at a later stage.
What the Minister said was interesting. From time to time, the Government need the spur of a Division to keep them to their word, and it is only for reasons of time that I shall not seek the opinion of the House this afternoon. I accept his word that he does not want a top-down system, but the facts on the ground are different. The winter supplementary estimates for 2006-07 for the Home Office and for NOMS are revealing compared with those for 2004-05. The Government will spend £60 million more on NOMS headquarters than on the entire probation service for 2006-07; £899 million will be spent on those headquarters and only £832 million on the probation service. Since March 2005, the NOMS budget has increased by 556 per cent., partly because of the transfers from the probation service and the Prison Service budgets to NOMS for that two-year period. The probation service headquarters budget, however, has fallen by £160 million to £40 million in that period.
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].
New Clause 11
Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2)
‘(1) Arrangements under section 3(2) relating to restricted probation provision may only be made with a probation trust or other public body.
(2) In this section “restricted probation provision” means probation provision which—
(a) is made for a purpose mentioned in section 2(1)(a) or (b); and
(b) relates to the giving of assistance to any court in determining the appropriate sentence to pass, or making any other decision, in respect of a person charged with or convicted of an offence.’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment (a) to the proposed new clause, in line 2, leave out from ‘trust’ to end of line 8 and insert—
‘(2) In this section “restricted probation provision” means probation provision which—
(a) is made for one of the probation purposes set out in section 1(1)(a), (c) and (f);
(b) is for the provision of assistance to the Parole Board;
(c) is for the management of approved premises within the meaning of section 9.’.
Government new clause 12—Power to repeal section (Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2)).
New clause 3—Conflict of interests—
‘No private provider of probation services may, without giving notice in writing to the relevant sentencing court of any relevant financial or commercial interest, recommend a sentence in which it has a commercial or financial interest.’.
Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 18, at end insert—
‘(1A) In this Part, “a core probation purpose” means the purpose of providing for—
(a) the probation purposes set out in subsections 1(a), (c) and (f);
(b) the provision of assistance to the Parole Board;
(c) the management of approved premises within the meaning of section 9.’.
Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 44, at end insert—
‘(2A) The Secretary of State shall discharge his function under subsection (1) in relation to any core probation purpose by making and carrying out arrangements under section 3 solely with probation trusts established under section 4.’.
Government amendment No. 24.
The new clauses and amendments give rise to some key issues. The aim of the Bill is to improve the delivery of services to reduce reoffending and better protect the public. It offers a pragmatic approach to tackling the diverse needs of offenders, which require a diverse response. I have frequently emphasised, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my appreciation of probation staff and the difficult and dangerous work that they do on our behalf. I have frequently paid tribute, too, to the improvements in performance that the probation service has achieved in recent years.
The current arrangements have delivered a great deal, but we need to deliver more. To do so, we must free the public sector from the burden of being responsible for all the probation services in 42 individual areas. We must give the public sector freedom to focus on its strengths, while opening the door more widely to providers in the voluntary, charitable and private sectors so that they can show what they can do. We must be able to commission services, not on the basis of ideology, but on the basis of what works in particular circumstances and who is best placed to deliver it. If a voluntary sector organisation has particular expertise in an area of service delivery, we should be able to make full use of it. If it makes sense to commission a specialised service across a region, rather than in small area-based packages, we should be able to do so. We should be able, too, to commission services that span custody and the community to improve continuity in the provision of services across different parts of an individual sentence.
We want to increase the involvement of the charitable, voluntary and private sectors, especially in interventions—for example, in the provision of programmes on offending behaviour, drug treatment and so on. Many voluntary sector organisations are already doing good work in those fields and we want to build on that. We want them to work alongside the public sector to develop expertise and strengthen partnership working so that a more diverse range of provision is available in due course. I know that many Members are concerned about what that means for the public sector. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have made clear on numerous occasions, the public sector will continue to play a key role in those arrangements and we intend to proceed cautiously.
Most services will be commissioned from lead providers at area level, which will sub-contract to a range of other providers. In most cases, those lead providers will be part of the public sector probation trust, and we have always said that the bulk of core offender management work such as writing reports for courts and supervising individual cases will remain for the next few years in the public sector, which has inherited expertise in the field. We have consistently made it clear, too, that the Bill will not lead to a “dumbing down” in standards. Whether work is carried out by a trust or a non-public sector provider, it will still be delivered by appropriately qualified, professional probation staff. I accept, however, that the House still has concerns about the pace and scale of change, and about what might happen in future.
I have a briefing from the Probation Boards Association, which refers to the regulatory impact assessment, which says that data sharing is essential. The association, however, says:
“Data sharing is said to be essential but information from the private sector is not available on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.”
Will my friend address that point, and explain whether there will be a seamless transfer of information between private sector providers and probation services?
If my hon. Friend has read the Committee proceedings, he will know that the issue was raised then. We intend to make sure that transparency and data sharing continue. There should be no excuse for failing to maintain those relationships, and he will know that the private sector is involved in many aspects of that work—I will return to those issues later. He has read the briefing from the Probation Boards Association, and I hope that he has read, too, the briefings from all the organisations that have contacted the House, to learn where they stand on the issue.
I was explaining that the public sector has a key role to play in the arrangements, and I was discussing core offender management work such as the writing of reports for courts and the supervision of individual cases. I repeat that that work will remain for the next few years in the public sector, which has inherited expertise in the field. We will not dumb down standards, and the work must be carried out in association with qualified probation staff. I accept the House’s concerns about the pace and scale of change, and I have been considering, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, how we might best respond to those concerns.
We have concluded that it is right to give statutory force to our assurances to show the House and external stakeholders that we are serious about what we say. I have looked carefully at the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and have held helpful discussions with him, for which I thank him. We tried to achieve a consensus on our aims in respect of offender management. I recognise his commitment to the probation service and his desire to secure the future of the public sector.
My hon. Friend just said rather quickly, in passing, that he was mindful of concern about the pace of change. One of the issues, which is not about the Bill but about the implementation, is that if the Government move too quickly in opening up contestability, the smaller voluntary organisations, which are sometimes the most creative and innovative, may be pushed out of the way by other organisations simply because they have the management capacity to put together bigger proposals. Can my hon. Friend say a little more about how, in practice, the Government will deal with the pace of change, and what assurance could be given to the House over time that things were not moving faster than innovation can take place at local level?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, for the work that he does on these matters. The point that he raises about small individualised local voluntary sector schemes is important. I referred to that in Committee. We want to protect such schemes and we will introduce arrangements that protect their specialist needs. Those are the bodies that we want to support because they provide the means to reduce reoffending by their interventions.
No sensible person is against the charitable sector being involved in the provision of these services, but we have trouble understanding why it requires the Bill in order to make that possible. Surely some charities are involved already, and there must be other ways that do not involve a sledgehammer to enable the Government to encourage more to get involved.
The Bill is necessary to change the existing culture. It is important that we tackle reoffending. We all agree that reoffending rates, on whichever figures we believe, are too high, despite the excellent work of the probation service. The probation boards currently have a monopoly on the services that are provided. My hon. Friend will have received many representations from voluntary organisations to the House arguing that they could do more. We believe that the formation of the probation trusts will provide a wider answer and enable us to tackle reoffending as a community. Too often, that has been left to the criminal justice system and the associated bodies.
Before they commit an offence and afterwards, offenders are members of our community. In particular areas—resettlement is one that comes to mind—there is an opportunity for other organisations, whether voluntary, charitable or private sector, to come up with resettlement plans. That is what we want to achieve.
I anticipate my hon. Friend asking me to give way. I will give way and then get back to the main body of my speech. I want to hear what others have to say.
I take my hon. Friend’s point. In my area, the Sussex probation area, the probation service works with 19 different voluntary and statutory providers on managing offenders. Those organisations range from the YMCA to Working Links to locally based organisations. If there is a problem with probation boards in other parts of the country, would the Government not be better advised to deal with those particular problems, rather than with the service as a whole, as the Bill does?
The simple answer is no. If that work is being carried out successfully by that probation board, it will continue. Nothing that we propose in the Bill will destroy those links. One would expect them to be strengthened by local area agreements and by the involvement of local partners. They would be the priority of the various criminal boards and would be part of the partnership between regional reoffending boards.
What we are offering is enhancement. It comes back to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said about the pace of change. There is no big bang solution. There will not be 42 new probation trusts by 2008. We want to implement the measures over time and by agreement to achieve what we all say we believe in—end-to-end offender management, building on the good work that is being done.
I shall make progress, as I am mindful of the time. I want to explain why we disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, whose commitment to the probation service I recognise. However, his amendment goes too far. His definition of core services is so wide that it would require virtually all probation services to be commissioned through the public sector. There would be no scope for services to be commissioned directly from a charitable, voluntary or private sector provider, regardless of the skills or expertise that that provider had to offer.
I do not believe that to be the right way forward. It would undermine the key objectives of the Bill. Nevertheless, I accept the need to do something. I have been particularly struck by the concerns that have been expressed both in the House and outside about the support that the probation service gives to courts, especially in the preparation of reports. This is a crucial and sensitive area of work which depends on trust between the court and the report writer. It requires a high level of expertise on the part of staff in assessing risk, the circumstances of the offence and appropriate disposals. It can be key to the success or otherwise of what follows in reducing reoffending and protecting the public.
Concerns have also been expressed about conflicts of interest, and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) will no doubt wish to say something about that later. I understand some of these concerns and, though I do not rule out for all time the possibility of some of that work being done in the voluntary, charitable or private sectors, it will in practice rest with the public sector for some time to come. It is the public sector, with its century of experience, which is best placed to deliver this work and it will be some time before the appropriate expertise has developed elsewhere.
For that reason, I propose an amendment that would require the Secretary of State to contract only with the public sector for the work that the probation service does in relation to courts. The amendment defines this area of service provision widely: it includes not only pre-sentence reports, but advice on bail and remand decisions, breaches and general assistance to courts. The provision could be repealed only by an order subject to affirmative resolution, so if at some future point the Government were to decide that the time was right to open up this area of work to non-public sector providers, they would have to make the case to Parliament, which would have the final say.
The amendment shows how we have been listening and goes a long way to meeting the concerns that have been expressed. I hope that in their contributions my hon. Friends will recognise that we have moved forward from where we were and listened to some of the concerns relating to court reports and the management of offenders. We want to approach the matter in the context of reducing reoffending. It is not an attack on the probation service. We understand that the National Association of Probation Officers, the trade union involved, wants to protect all the responsibilities of its members.
Will the Minister explain to me in simple terms why both new clause 11 and new clause 12 have been tabled? Why is it necessary to insert in the Bill a mechanism for repeal by order, if it is the Government’s intention to proceed in good faith with the provisions of new clause 11? We do not have automatic systems for repeal by order in any other Bill. Why is it necessary in this case?
That is a response to the requests for us to listen to definitions of core probation functions. There is no intention to jeopardise public protection. We believe that through the measures we can proceed very cautiously and deliberately, with the support of local areas through local area agreements and all the accountability regimes that are in place, and that if it is felt by local areas that there needs to be a move on court reports, we cannot do that without coming back to the House. We feel that that is a fair compromise that gives satisfaction in the area that we were told is the key element of probation work—court reports.
I hope that hon. Friends and colleagues on both sides of the House will be able to accept what the Government propose.
As before, I will endeavour to be brief because amendments other than mine may command greater public attention. None the less, I should like to comment on the Government’s new clauses and on our new clause 3.
New clause 3 is wholly uncontroversial and nothing other than common sense. I declare an interest as a Crown Court recorder who has received pre-sentence reports from the probation service and will presumably, if I continue to sit, receive them from commercial providers, assuming that they are not placed in a special category and reserved to the probation service. It is unarguable that no recommendation to a court for a sentence should carry with it a hidden interest. Anyone who is recommending to a court a sentence of, say, community punishment should not be able to hide his or her firm’s interest in that sentence. I hope that with those few words new clause 3 can be accepted.
On new clauses 11 and 12, I do not want to enter into the arguments for and against the outsourcing of probation services beyond the probation service. I wish to place on record, as I have by tabling an early-day motion, my admiration for the work of the probation service and for those who work within it as officers and staff. This is their 100th anniversary year, and I do not think that anybody would wish to detract from or diminish the work that they have done in very difficult circumstances. After all, they deal day after day with people who are extremely difficult to work with, such as drug addicts, violent offenders and sex offenders—broadly, people who do not feel that they have a place in society and see no particular reason to comply with the norms of social behaviour. None the less, the public service ethos cannot be monopolised by the probation service. Plenty of people outside it are willing and able to do that work. However, they should be properly regulated as regards their qualifications and properly monitored as regards their performance, and there should be no diminution in quality or in the provision of a 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year service.
As the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, several small charitable bodies will not have the financial or secretarial weight to compete with some of the bigger organisations. It would be a pity, to say the least, if they were swept away by the bulldozers of big organisations which are equally well motivated but much better able to trawl up some of the easier contracts. I trust that those organisations will not simply pick out the easy ones and leave a truncated and underfunded probation service to carry on doing the most difficult work.
Earlier, I mentioned some figures about NOMS headquarters that demonstrate that the Government seem to be wedded to a centralised bureaucracy that condescends to deliver services from the centre to the regions, and through the regions to localities. I accept that they want probation services to be pushed out beyond the state sector, but they are making matters extremely difficult by spending much more money—£60 million—on the bureaucracy in the middle than the probation service can currently spend on the front line. If that is their attitude now, what will it be like when they come to distribute the contracts and to the third and not-for-profit sectors?
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) picked on an issue that I was going to pick on myself—namely, that in new clause 11 the Government give, but in new clause 12 they take away. It is difficult to understand a Government who say that they want to push these services out beyond the state sector but then keep up their sleeve a legislative provision that allows them to amend, repeal or make law in this regard. That makes their arguments much more difficult to accept.
The Government need to be clearer about what they intend to do as regards subcontractors. We all understand that a service may be given to a big company or a big charity, but the Bill provides that work can be subcontracted to second, third and fourth parties. The Government need to clarify to the House and to their own supporters what they mean by the provision in clause 3 whereby such work may be subcontracted. New clause 11 mentions restricted probation services. We are owed a clearer explanation of where the restriction stops and how the work should be carried out.
A few moments ago, the Minister said, rather disarmingly, that the Bill is designed to change the culture. I have heard of Bills doing all sorts of things, but I did not think that changing cultures was what we were about today. I am a little puzzled. The Minister seems to be convinced in his own head, if nobody else is, that the Bill is essential in order to move probation services out to the third, not-for-profit and commercial sectors. However, given that the Government have already done things with the probation service that did not require legislation—this is the third reorganisation of the probation service since they came to power—his argument about the need for this piece of legislation rather falls through.
On 26 February, the Home Secretary complained in The Daily Telegraph that only 3 per cent. of probation revenue goes to voluntary bodies. However, the figure was more than twice that until the Home Office under this Government decided that it was not money well spent. Government top-slicing of probation budgets further skews the picture. Certain services are no longer provided by the probation service. For example, drugs rehabilitation money now goes through drug action teams, offender accommodation money is routed through schemes called “supporting people”, and offender learning money goes through the Learning and Skills Council.
All those funds, which used to be part of the core probation service budget when the target for outsourcing was 7 per cent., are now outsourced. The Home Secretary can truthfully say that the figure is only 3 per cent., but that is only because he made it so. It is 3 per cent. because the Government pushed those elements into other quangos and agencies. The Home Secretary is setting up an Aunt Sally when he complains, in that charming way that he has, that the probation service restricts itself to 3 per cent. of revenue going outside. It does not—the Government make it so. If they can change their mind on the move from 7 per cent. to 3 per cent. without legislation, they do not need this Bill in order to move from 3 per cent. to 10 per cent., 50 per cent. or even 100 per cent. In that regard, the Government’s argument for the Bill—forgetting the arguments that the Minister has with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard)—is deeply flawed.
I shall finish my speech now, as many Members will wish to speak on other new clauses and amendments. I shall, however, watch, wait and listen.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. I had anticipated that I would speak to amendment No. 1, which is in my name. Because of technical issues of which you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it became necessary to substitute for that amendment (a) to Government new clause 11, which is effectively the same. At the end of the debate, I hope that you will feel able to allow a separate vote on amendment (a) as well as a Division, if it is called, on new clause 11.
The new clause and amendments address some of the core issues of the Bill. I appreciate all that the Minister has said about not wishing to move too fast in a particular direction. The fact is, however, that the Bill allows for all probation functions to be opened up to competition from the private sector as well as the voluntary sector. I am not suggesting that the Minister’s comments were not made in good faith, but that is what the Bill allows. Who knows which private companies might be involved? We can make guesses—they would be guesses, because no private company is currently doing core probation work—that certain providers of private prisons would be involved, and that such companies would no doubt poach staff from the probation service; otherwise, they would not be able to find anybody with experience of the work. We have seen that happen in other fields.
Does not my hon. Friend accept that the quality of the contracts and tendering documents written will determine what service is provided? Does he have so little faith in the existing services that he believes that they would not win a substantial amount of the work that is, to coin a phrase, market-tested in that way?
I would have more confidence about the contracts if I felt that there was any chance that I might be able to see the details, especially on the bid to operate the contract. In the private prison service, if questions are asked about the nature of bids, the answer is that details are not available because of commercial confidentiality. That is one of the big problems. As for the ability of those in the public sector to win such contracts, I think that they would do so, but there is no guarantee of that. When bids are made that will be commercially confidential, the whole process is much more difficult to understand.
In relation to the scenario that my hon. Friend has just described, does he share my concern about the future integrity and quality of training?
That must be a concern. The issue was discussed at some length in Committee, and the Minister will no doubt have comments to make about that. If I recall correctly, one of the later Government amendments proposes some basic qualifications.
I shall address the reasons given for the changes—that we need more flexibility and voluntary sector involvement, that some probation boards are not delivering a good service, and that reoffending rates are not going down—but I have still never seen any analysis of exactly how and why the proposed changes would lead to improvements. A business case has never been made, despite the proposals having been around, in one form or another, for the best part of three years.
I am not convinced that the Bill is necessary in order to make some of the changes that we would all want. The Home Secretary is already telling probation boards what percentages of their expenditure he wants to be used for contracting out. Nobody disagrees about voluntary sector involvement. We know that there are some excellent examples of voluntary sector involvement. Some work is done almost exclusively through the voluntary sector.
That point goes to the heart of what the Government are trying to achieve. My hon. Friend will be aware of some of the partnerships at the moment, and particularly of the one involving Rainer and Serco. Would he support their involvement in a partnership to provide services?
Rainer is an excellent example of an organisation that does good work. It has been saying this week, however, that it does not see the need for the restructuring under the Bill. I am not therefore sure that it is a perfect example for the Minister to cite.
I want to press my hon. Friend on this point, as it goes to the core of the issue. I do not share his view of what Rainer says about the Bill; it has some concerns about children being locked up, and we shall deal with that later. But does he agree—
Order. I appreciate that the Minister is answering a question that has come from the Back Benches, but he must address his remarks to the Chair.
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Does my hon. Friend support a partnership between Rainer and Serco to provide services?
Some of us have said throughout the debate that we would like more partnership and co-operative working. Nobody has difficulties with that kind of approach. Rainer is saying that it strongly supports an expanded role for voluntary organisations. It talks, however, about the need for clear lines of accountability. It does have concerns about the proposals.
Perhaps my hon. Friend is going to cover this point, but the letter from Rainer that I have in front of me says that it has areas of concern but,
“on the understanding that these are addressed, we would urge you to vote in favour of the Bill.”
I must admit that I took that as general support for the principle behind the Bill. My hon. Friend seems to be arguing, however, that it opposes the Bill. There seems to be some contradiction between what it has written to me, and what it has written to him.
Rainer obviously has concerns about accountability and local partnerships, which it believes have been addressed. Voluntary organisations are coming at the Bill from both sides. All Members will have seen briefings from certain voluntary organisations that are fully in support of the proposals, but other voluntary organisations that have significant involvement in probation work are making it clear that they do not want change, because they do not want to be seen as agents of the state. They want their independence, and believe that they are in a stronger position when working in a co-operative fashion with the probation service than if they were seen as in charge of probation work with offenders.
On the question of some probation boards failing, in every service, some people provide good standards, and some do not. Generally, however, our response is not to tear up the whole structure. If a school fails, we do not start to tear apart the whole education system. If there are failings in local government, mechanisms and pressures are in place, such as the best value regime, to encourage councils that are not delivering on particular services to improve. We are told that reoffending rates are too high. If we look at what is happening in the criminal justice system as a whole, however, that is not surprising. Probation services do not supervise every offender; they are involved in the supervision of some offenders. Reoffending rates are lower among those who are supervised by the probation service than they are among those who are not.
Prisons are overcrowded to such an extent that educational and drugs rehabilitation work is suffering badly in many prisons, and people are being moved around from one prison to another in an effort to cope with all the pressures. They might be in the middle of a drugs rehabilitation course in their prison when they are moved to another prison where there is not such a course—or not one of the same nature. There are also huge numbers of people in prison who have serious mental health problems, and there is nowhere near enough capacity to deal with them either inside prison or outside when they come out. On top of that, it is now required that serious offenders—particularly sex offenders, as we were discussing earlier—are subject to much greater and more in-depth supervision.
If reoffending is so important that it is the central issue, why has a target on that never been one of the targets set for the probation service? The Government have set a list of targets for the service, and it is meeting—or is very close to meeting—most of them, and it has been improving. Therefore, it is now being castigated for not achieving a target that has never been set. That does not make sense to me.
The service has been in its present form since only 2001, and for the last three years it has been under constant threat of reorganisation and privatisation, but it is, in fact, doing quite well—so why do we want to tear up the structure? Why are we proposing privatisation? I ask that question because, as I have said, the Bill allows for privatisation in any part of the service, not only in voluntary sector involvement.
I accept that the Minister has moved somewhat. New clause 11 is a shift; there is no question about that, and I welcome the fact that there has been that shift and that there is a recognition that at least one bit of probation service work should be fundamentally public sector. Unfortunately however, we have also got new clause 12. It allows new clause 11 to disappear by the passing of an order. That provides very little protection, because we all know how orders are dealt with and pass through the House, even when they address quite controversial subjects. I have in mind an order on a controversial subject that passed through the House in the past few weeks: the renewal of control orders under anti-terrorism legislation. Some people probably have not even noticed that that happened, even though the issue was extremely controversial when the primary legislation was dealt with. Even in such circumstances, little attention is usually paid to an order passing through the House two or three years later. Therefore, there are no guarantees whatever in what is being offered.
That is not to say that I do not trust the word of the Minister, because I do trust what he says: it is not his intention to move wholesale and to move quickly. I do not doubt his word for one moment. However, Ministers change. [Interruption.] As a colleague says from a sedentary position, that is perhaps especially the case in the Minister’s Department. Departments also change. We hear that there might be some changes in structure soon—although I do not know whether that will happen—and that what we are discussing might cease to be a Home Office responsibility altogether.
I must also say that some Ministers in this Government have form—if I can use that phrase in the current context. For example, when foundation hospital trusts were introduced, we received assurances that we would move cautiously, slowly and gradually—but we did not. I have heard the same assurances on a number of other matters, but we did not move cautiously, slowly and gradually on those either. Therefore, there is some form which must be taken into account. All that can be guaranteed in respect of what the Government are proposing is that the national service will become fragmented, that there will be myriad providers, and that we will lose local connections because commissioning will be at regional and national levels.
I acknowledge that some things need to be done at national level. For example, electronic tagging is currently done nationally through contracts with a couple of private companies, and if the probation service has to deal with someone who has a tagging order it must make arrangements with the company concerned. However, many Members in various debates on the Bill have cited examples of good work, and what has struck me about every one of them is that it is co-operative work at local level involving the local probation board, or perhaps a local voluntary organisation or a local private company. That work is happening in a co-operative way and at local level.
I have a concern about my hon. Friend’s amendment No. 2. It says that the Secretary of State can make and carry out arrangements “solely with probation trusts”. It is my interpretation that under the amendment it would therefore not be possible to have such co-operative local arrangements between probation services and servers from the voluntary and private sectors. Therefore, all the cases of good practice that Members witness locally would have to stop if the amendment were agreed to.
I have had that point put to me before. I am unsure whether I accept that it is true, because I think that my amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from contracting directly with a voluntary sector organisation, but I do not think that it would do anything to stop probation trusts—if probation boards become trusts—continuing the current arrangements or deciding that in certain parts of their work they will contract or subcontract with a voluntary sector provider. It would only stop the Secretary of State doing contracting directly. I am sorry, because I am not a parliamentary draftsman, but if the amendment were otherwise acceptable I am sure that the Government could easily find a parliamentary draftsman to correct that problem. None of us wants to stop the sort of good local arrangements that currently exist.
The basis of my hon. Friend’s amendment is a reflection of the spirit of the system that has been developed in Scotland. What would be formed is a partnership model under which various functions can be agreed at local level and devolved to the agencies that are best suited to carry out those functions. Therefore, it would not be a centralised approach such as that developed by the Government proposal.
That is certainly the intention. It is important that we keep that localism if we possibly can. If the power is with the probation trusts, that is where it should stay.
The core work of the probation service is the writing of court reports, and the key role in the supervision of offenders ought to remain with trained probation officers. If they believe that it is necessary to bring in a charity dealing with drugs rehabilitation work, for example, or specialist work in resettlement or education, then that is fine; that should be done, and the more people we can involve, the better. I say that because probation officers have more than enough to do without trying to move into things currently done by the voluntary sector.
My suggestion is a compromise. It takes three of the six items listed in clause 1. It does not remove some of the other key elements of the Bill, such as the boards becoming trusts, or the Secretary of State having the power to deal with failing trusts and, if necessary, to merge them with another trust or to refuse to contract with them and to give their area’s work to another trust. What I am suggesting would not stop it being possible to apply those sorts of pressures to a trust that does not deliver.
I do not want it to be possible for private profit to be made from a key element of the criminal justice system. This Bill is, to some extent, a dog’s breakfast. The debate on it has highlighted the uncertainty about how it will work and who will make the decisions. Regional offender managers, who are talked about as the key commissioners, are not even mentioned in the Bill, so I am unsure what their role will be. I am afraid that we are in danger of constructing a system that will create more problems than it will solve.
Amendment (a) is an attempt to preserve some of the key elements of probation work in the place where they ought to be—with trained, qualified probation officers—while at the same time encouraging the wider involvement of the many local voluntary organisations which, as we know, do really good work and need to be so encouraged. As I said, I hope that we can have a separate vote on my amendment at the end of the debate on this group.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who will have our support if he presses amendment (a) to a vote. I agreed with almost every word that he said, but there were two things that I did not quite agree with. First, he said that the Bill as it stands will produce myriad providers, but the risk is quite the reverse. It will produce a consolidated, small number of companies and very large charitable organisations that will make such provision, in replacement of the current probation service. Many of the smaller, non-profit organisations that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) mentioned will be squeezed out by these central procurement arrangements.
Secondly, the hon. Member for Walthamstow was mistaken in his generosity to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), whose construction of amendment (a) was incorrect. The hon. Member for Walthamstow was right to say that it would prevent the Secretary of State from effectively short-circuiting any local consideration in the provision of such services and ensure that such matters go through the probation trust. Such short-circuiting is surely what many of us who are concerned about the Bill’s centralising aspects want to prevent, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not in any way be put off his own amendment by a criticism that is not based on a proper reading of its consequences.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that some of the voluntary sector providers prayed in aid in support of this Bill are in fact quite hostile to it? Has he seen the response of Pete Crossley, of YMCA England’s prisons unit? He said:
“Any new arrangements should leave overall accountability with the Probation Service. The responsibility to protect the public and to manage the risks must remain statutory.”
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is important that we draw out the fact that elements of the voluntary sector are deeply concerned, as many of us are, about the direction of travel of this ill thought out proposal?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I shall return to that issue in a moment, if I may. The idea that the voluntary sector as a whole is crying out for this Bill and believes that it is an unalloyed success in achieving its objectives is quite wrong. Many of the larger providers—not just the small providers that I and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion referred to earlier—are also saying that this is not the direction of travel that they wish to follow.
A number of reasons have been adduced for the Bill’s core content, and we have accepted all along the line that there are some things that it is wise to do in the context of the probation service. We all support so-called “seamless provision”, and we all want the probation service to work with the Prison Service in providing better care and management of offenders for the protection of the public; nobody in this Chamber would want any other result. The difficulty that many of us have is understanding why Ministers are so clear in their minds that this Bill will make those things happen better now than they currently do.
I want to make it very clear that I have a great deal of respect for probation officers, probation services and the work that they have done. I used to work very closely with a probation service in Somerset that was one of the most innovative and excellent in the country. It has been hamstrung by constant changes to its structure, and it has been concerned about whether the funds match the Government’s and the public’s aspirations for the way in which it exercises its duties. However, in terms of their personal qualities and management, the probation services do a good job. Do they always get it right? No, of course they do not, but let someone show me a public service—or, indeed, a private service—that always gets things right. We should start from a basis of respect for the probation service.
The Minister nods, and I am grateful to him for doing so. Such respect was not immediately obvious when the Home Secretary gave his reflection of Johnny Cash at San Quentin when he visited Wormwood Scrubs. The main purport of his comments was to rubbish the probation service, which saddened me. If he felt that to be appropriate background music to the introduction of this Bill, he was much mistaken. This issue is of concern to many Members of this House, who might have wanted to look more positively at his proposals. However, he let the cat out of the bag: he showed that this is essentially a destructive, rather than constructive, measure.
Much has been said at the Dispatch Box about how the Bill will liberate the probation service and enable it to use properly the skills available in the voluntary sector, but I have yet to see any evidence that insuperable barriers exist to doing that at the moment. The Minister talks about a Bill to change the culture—a point that was taken up by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). Bills do not change culture. Management can change culture. Direction can change culture. The day-to-day operations within the service can change culture, but one cannot change it through legislation. I fear that that is a wholly mistaken view on the Minister’s part.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
The Minister is going to correct me—I hope.
The hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong. He said that the existing system has its weaknesses and needs to be supported. I am saying that the change in culture that we want is for cutting reoffending rates and helping offenders to be the responsibility of the whole community. Throughout our consideration of the Bill, our aim has been to widen the whole community’s access to the offender. That is why the Bill is important, because that is how the culture and the management will be changed.
If that is the Minister’s intention, he is going a very funny way about it. He conceded earlier that there might be a role for local communities through local authorities. However, he is saying that boards will be established made up of business people, and they will talk to other business people about what provisions they might make under a contract, and that they will set contracts that communities are not party to—the point made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow—in order to establish in those communities a culture of support for the rehabilitation and control of offenders. I am sorry, but that equation makes no sense to me at all.
I am sorry that I was not present earlier. My main worry is accountability. Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent a county area. We have a county police force—it was subject to reorganisation, however—and county courts, which are also being reorganised. It is not at all clear whether the form that the probation service will take—whatever that might be—will in any way fit with the Court Service and the wider probation services. In other words, there will be no accountability, which is an additional reason why the culture will be wrong.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. My worry is that this Government’s general movement is toward allowing the criminal justice system to retreat from local accountability. We had it with the proposals for regional police forces and for the court system. All the time, the leverage that the local community has on the criminal justice system is becoming more and more remote. It is becoming a distant service, administered from Whitehall, and that is of great concern. The criminal justice system needs more local accountability and understanding of how to deal effectively with crime and the punishment of offenders in the community. All the factors that the Government bring into play tend to have the reverse effect.
I am not trying to be clever with the Minister, but he talked about the public sector being given freedom from being responsible. I do not want the public sector to be given freedom from being responsible. I want the public sector to be responsible, but that does not mean that it has to provide every single service itself. The prospect that remote organisations, and I include the Secretary of State in that, should be given the power to offload key responsibilities for the delivery of the criminal justice system in our communities to businesses or nationally organised non-profit-making companies, is an entirely regressive step. That is why it is important that the Bill is fundamentally amended.
We voted against the Bill on Second Reading. Unless there is serious movement now, we will vote against it on Third Reading. The Government have a last opportunity to accept the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, but I am given no confidence by the amendments that they have already tabled. As the hon. Gentleman says, they have tabled a partial concession, but they do not have confidence in it. They are not prepared to say that they are persuaded by the arguments put by Labour Members and others, have rethought the issue and are now putting forward a new model. Instead, the Government give with one hand and take back with the other. They propose a unique system under which a provision would be put into the Bill, but the very next clause is the capacity to repeal it. However, that repeal would not be by this House in primary legislation, but by Order in Council. That is not an illustration of good faith or of a Government who have listened and changed their mind. It suggests that the Government think that the application of a bit of sticking plaster will get them through today and see the Bill on to the statute book.
I have fundamental objections to key parts of the criminal justice system being privatised and I make no pretence otherwise. I am happy for the private sector to be involved in peripheral activities where it can add value to the operation, but dealing with offenders involves core issues that should be performed by operatives of the state in the form of the probation service. That is why I will support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow.
If I were concerned about a paedophile on the streets of my constituency, I would want a properly trained probation officer dealing with him, not an accountant or a business man. I do not want business people producing contracts for other business people to fill: I want people who know the business of criminal justice. I want the reassurance of having properly trained officers who know about the probation service doing that job on the streets of Somerset. I suspect that many other hon. Members feel the same way and will illustrate that in the way that they vote this evening.
I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). I have no ideological objection to the involvement of the private sector in the criminal justice system if I can see a case for it. Still less have I any objection to the involvement of the charitable sector and I welcome the fact that it is already widely involved and could be more so if we so choose. I was one of those who persuaded the then shadow Home Secretary—he is now Leader of the House—of the desirability of introducing the private sector into the Prison Service. I could not see any other way of cracking the malign influence of the Prison Officers Association on the management of our prison system.
In the case of the probation service, however, I am not convinced that there is a problem that needs fixing, at least not with the sledgehammer envisaged in this Bill. I do not know where the proposal started, as the turnover of Ministers in the Home Office means that none of the present ones are to blame for any mistakes in the Bill. I suspect that it has more to do with the Government’s habit, in many areas of public service, of throwing all the pieces into the air every so often and seeing where they land.
My hon. Friend understates the case. If the press reports are true, not only do Ministers change, but the responsibility for prisons and the probation service is to move from the Home Office to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. It is one of life’s ironies that the last great public Department will, allegedly, be responsible for reforming a service for which it will no longer be responsible.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that piece of information, of which I was not aware. I look forward to debating that proposal in due course.
As far as probation is concerned, I cannot see a problem that needs fixing. In my area in Northumberland, the probation service provides a good service and I am not aware of any serious concerns about the quality of the service provided. I am aware that in some parts of the country—a minority of areas—there are some concerns about the way in which the probation service is managed, but there are other ways to deal with those concerns, such as a shake-up of the probation board or a serious conversation with the management. I do not see why the entire service should be turned inside out to deal with problems that exist in only one or two areas.
On the issue of the reoffending rate, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made the point that it was not among the targets that had been set. It is only a very recent argument. We can all think of many reasons—not least the chronic overcrowding in our prisons and the difficulties in providing education and rehabilitation services—why the rate remains stubbornly high.
There may be a case for shaking up the probation service in those few areas with a problem, but there is no general problem that needs fixing. As other hon. Members have remarked, it is only three years since the last reorganisation in the probation service and there has to be a limit. I shall support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend this evening.
As other hon. Members have done, I wish to make it clear that even those of us who believe that there is a case for change in the organisation of the structures of probation do not mean that as criticism of the professional probation officers who work in the service. They do not choose those structures, and they work hard and professionally in the vast majority of instances. I want to make that point clear.
It is a matter of great regret to me that the Government resisted the request from the Home Affairs Committee to give the Bill pre-legislative scrutiny. Such scrutiny assists the House in its work and some of the issues on which the Government have recently made concessions—such as the welcome concession on the issue of court report—could have been highlighted, resolved and solved before the Bill was formally introduced into the House, had it been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The very important commitment that my hon. Friend the Minister made earlier this afternoon on requiring regional offender managers to take full account of local area agreements—a significant change in the structure of the Bill in terms of getting probation services to work with local authorities and other agencies, including the health service and mental health services—could have been addressed at an earlier stage. I believe that the Government would be facing less difficulty today if proper draft scrutiny of the Bill had taken place. I say that about nearly every Home Office Bill, because the Government almost always refuse draft scrutiny. I live in hope that, one day, we will handle these matters a little better.
On the substance of the Bill, although some problems exist, I believe that we should start moving in the direction that it sets out. We should not reject it, which is what I understand the Opposition parties, and possibly some of my colleagues, have decided to do this afternoon. Rejecting the Bill would send out entirely the wrong signal, as would accepting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). It would suggest that we are resistant to change in the provision of some of our probation services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) said, in effect, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I admire the work that he has done on these matters, but I remind the House of the report from the Home Affairs Committee on prison regimes and their role in reducing reoffending. Like many earlier reports, it highlights the catastrophic breakdown in the process by which prisoners make the transition from prison to the community. That need not happen: there are no reasons why current partnership arrangements should not have delivered a more seamless service, but the reality is that very few offenders get a managed transition that deals seamlessly with their needs in terms of housing, education and employment, as well as possibly providing marital or relationship counselling for those who want to get back with their partners. Meeting offenders’ needs in those ways is the key to reducing reoffending.
On paper, there is no barrier preventing the existence of such a service. However, the fact that it does not exist should tell us that we ought to be prepared to countenance some radical change.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware that section 10 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 provides that the Secretary of State can intervene when a probation board is underperforming. If some of the matters that he has just cited are causing problems, would not it be worth trying that route first?
It is certainly arguable that it would have been better if, over the past four or five years, that power had been tested—to destruction, as it were—to see how adequate it is. However, every Member of this House must make a judgment about the current provisions in respect of returning offenders to our communities, a problem with which we are all familiar. Do we feel that the service generally provides ex-offenders almost everywhere with what they need, and that the failure in some areas needs to be addressed by a power of intervention by the Secretary of State? Or do we suspect that the great majority of prisoners leaving prison, in most parts of the country, do not get the support that they need?
The Home Affairs Committee looked at prison regimes, and found that the latter possibility obtained. That is not the fault of the probation officers who have the responsibility to provide the service to prisoners; it is just that the present structures stand in the way of the provision of the more seamless service and the support that offenders need.
A few years ago, the social exclusion unit produced a report on reducing reoffending. It is arguably the best evidence-based piece of social policy published by any part of this Government since 1997, but very few of its recommendations—in respect of housing, employment, support for families, education, mental health services and drug treatment, and all the other provision that needs to be made to reduce reoffending—have been delivered. That also suggests that our existing structures are not delivering, and that the failure is a large one and not confined to a few localities.
May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to what he said about the ability of the Secretary of State to control probation policy in general, as opposed to giving directions to particular boards? He will be familiar with paragraph 14 of schedule 1, which gives the new trusts a duty to
“comply with any general or specific directions given to it by the Secretary of State”.
As far as I can see, that means that the Bill retains the ability to make policy changes nationally. However, does he agree that amendment (a) would mean that such changes would have to go through the local level, and could not be imposed directly at the national level?
I think that Ministers’ ability to influence what happens at local level should be stronger than it has been. I know that that is controversial, but I am one of those who have always been convinced that some element of community sentences should be carried out in uniform, where that is appropriate. Many Ministers have held that view over the past few years, but any implementation of such a policy has always been blocked by the autonomy of probation services.
We can debate whether it is desirable for probation services to be able to block policy development in that way. I believe that it is not.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
If I may, I should like to make a little progress before I give way to my hon. Friend.
In my view, we need to countenance change and open up the procedures. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made the perfectly fair point that the Bill as it stands could mean that almost everything goes over to the private or voluntary sectors. However, a Bill such as this is almost inevitably drafted in that way, as it is difficult to incorporate in legislation a fixed percentage that becomes a target, limit or cap.
Although I believe that it is desirable to open the system up to new providers—and to providers that can provide the whole of a service and not merely work as subsidiaries to existing probation officers—the Government must take great care about the pace of change. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear that in mind.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and then to my hon. Friend.
I want to get this matter clear, for the record. My right hon. Friend says that we need a discussion about change. I am secretary of the parliamentary justice unions group, which has met representatives of most of the organisations involved in the consultation process of the past four years. None has resisted change, but 96 per cent. of respondents to the consultation said that they did not support the Government’s change proposals. Instead, they wanted to look at a co-operative approach at the local level to determine who best provided the service. Most of the people working in the sector have promoted that approach to Ministers, but the Government have resisted because of their obsession with privatisation.
As I think my hon. Friend will acknowledge, I have been a fairly persistent critic in the House and outside of some of the ways in which the Government have tried to introduce market mechanisms in other public services such as the NHS, so I cannot easily be put into the category of those who have an ideological drive to invoke the private sector—at least I do not think so. However, if all the relevant public sector partners in certain existing parts of the public sector were asked to work together to produce a better service, so many people who came to the table would have reasons not to change and would have excuses not to do things differently that nothing would ever change. That is the nettle we have to grasp this afternoon—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend is chuntering away, but—
Will my right hon. Friend allow me to come back on that point?
The consultation the Government undertook was not just with public sector providers; it was with the voluntary and private sectors. Ninety-six per cent. of the respondents urged the Government not to go down the route now proposed, and most of them urged the Government to look at the Scottish model of co-operation.
I, too, have looked at the Scottish model. I entirely accept that I may be proved wrong, but my judgment is that it is too soggy to produce the radical change necessary at local level. I believe in partnership and co-operation, but in some circumstances opening a service to a new group of people who can deliver it differently is the only way to achieve radical change. The challenge to my hon. Friend the Minister is to get the pace of that change right.
I worry about some of the indicative targets set by the Home Secretary, because it is clear that if we decide to chase a target, the difficulty is that the contract will go to those with the management capacity to fulfil it, which will not necessarily produce the type of change we want. The type of new service that brings together, for example, a local authority housing department, a further education college and drug treatment and other services in a local area is much more likely to develop at district council level than regional level. My hon. Friend the Minister must take care that he does not drive the process too fast.
I have listened carefully to the comments of the right hon. Gentleman and of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Is the right hon. Gentleman convinced that we need a Bill at all to achieve what he wants, either at the pace he wants or at the pace the Government want?
I believe that we need a Bill, because although there are challenges—to say the least—in respect of a regional commissioning structure, it is not clear where else that function could be handled. I cannot see how it could be done easily under existing legislation. I know there is a debate about that point and my view may be wrong, but sometimes it is better that such things are set out in legislation. I do not want to take too much of the House’s time, but perhaps I could give an analogy. When I was a Health Minister I introduced all the legislation that set up primary care trusts. Arguably, no legislation was required, but it was better to have all the provisions in one piece of legislation.
My right hon. Friend is dealing with a point that is of concern to all colleagues—the issue of how much should be set out in targets. We think that there is an amount that could be contestable, but what drives us is not achieving targets for putting services out to the private sector. The question for us is: who can provide the best service? My right hon. Friend is entirely right; we are listening and we have said that we will be cautious. What drives us should be finding the best provider, and in most circumstances that is likely to be the public sector.
My hon. Friend is right. The result of the process will be that many years down the line the greatest part of the service will be provided by those who provide it at present, but opening up to new ways of delivering it will enable much more rapid change to take place across the service as a whole than would otherwise have happened.
My right hon. Friend is making a most helpful contribution. Does he agree that our hon. Friend the Minister would be well advised when he responds to the debate to move away from the ill-advised comments that we have heard previously about setting targets for contestability? Should not he respond to Members’ concerns by accepting limits to contestability, so that where it is used it is focused on services that are not delivering rather than being an ideological objective in its own right?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. There is a huge difference between saying that 10 per cent. of a service should be open to different providers and setting a target that 10 per cent. of a service should be transferred to different providers. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Minister said and found it extremely reassuring; he set out exactly the approach we should be taking. An artificial target that regional offender managers have to meet because their careers are on the line is not merely pointless; it is actually damaging.
My hon. Friend the Minister responded as fully as I could expect to the point I wanted to end on, so I shall conclude my remarks.
I rise in support of amendments Nos. 1 and 2 and amendment (a) to new clause 11, which were tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard).
I have listened carefully to the interesting contributions to the debate, especially that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). However, I remain unconvinced that the Bill is truly necessary, as I think that everything that we want to see achieved and all the progress that needs to be made on tackling reoffending, increasing the role of the voluntary sector, meeting performance targets and enhancing public protection can be broadly met under existing arrangements. The claim that abolishing probation boards and putting all commissioning power in the hands of regional Home Office officials will tackle reoffending is, I feel, not backed up by the evidence. Nor have I heard a convincing set of arguments about that.
I am not in the least bit complacent about tackling reoffending, but it has been pointed out to me, and backed up with some real examples of individual experience in Bedfordshire, that some serial repeat offenders have, with the support of the probation service, changed their behaviour significantly. If, however, in the two-year period after sentencing, an individual offends just once, that is presented as a total failure. I would like to make it clear that the reoffending is absolutely unacceptable—I am not defending it at all—but what if someone who was regularly violent or made a career out of burglary stopped that behaviour but stole cigarettes from a supermarket once during that two-year period? Obviously, that is not acceptable, but in terms of its impact on the public, we need to view it in a significantly different way from violence or burglary. The statistics, however, do not acknowledge the need to do so at all.
As everyone who has contributed to the debate has made clear, the role of the voluntary and community sector in the criminal justice system is extremely important. From what I have learned over the past days and weeks, I believe that it has not been sufficiently developed. Its role is important for a number of reasons, but perhaps especially because it can specialise and fine-tune its services to all kinds of requirements in different parts of the country. At its best, it is rooted in the community and possesses local knowledge.
Most importantly of all, the voluntary and community sector is, and is seen to be, independent of the state. That is crucial because it makes it more likely to gain the confidence of offenders who may, quite understandably, have a jaundiced view of the authorities. The independence of that sector is therefore more likely to assist in reducing offending and in supporting ex-offenders into training, employment and accommodation, which are essential ingredients to improving public protection as well as improving the lives of those people. I totally accept the importance of increasing that sector’s role and I support the intention to do so.
The Government’s target for the probation service’s budget it that 5 per cent. of it, and then 10 per cent. by April next year, should be open to competition. That is supportable because it increases the chances of greater involvement by the voluntary sector.
A circular of 26 February written by Clinks, a membership body of voluntary organisations working within the criminal justice system, strongly supports and understandably welcomes the Government’s intention to increase the sector’s role. However, Clinks expresses two key concerns. First, it states:
“We do not think a series of competitions in which voluntary and private organisations are pitted against the probation service is the best model. We are concerned too that the arrangements for letting contracts for work should reflect the highly local nature of some of the most effective projects and activities. Regional commissioning and competitions organised by the Home Office could squeeze out the small, local innovative organisations that can make a difference.”
Secondly, it states:
“There are some core areas of work carried out by the Probation Service that Clinks considers should continue to be undertaken by the state, particularly writing reports for courts and the parole board, which make recommendations about sentences/release; and aspects of public protection work in relation to high risk offenders. Apart from potential conflicts of interests which would arise for private and voluntary sector providers, there are important issues of justice and accountability that should not be discounted.”
I also note from a letter to the Home Secretary from Katie Nutley, the chair of the St. Giles Trust—which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has helpfully made available to me—that, while she rightly welcomes the Government’s wish to boost the role of the voluntary sector, she also states that offender management and the enforcement of court orders and public protection
“are rightly preserved in the public sector where they are accountable to the authorities.”
That is one of the main questions before us today.
The Home Secretary has clearly made a compromise in new clause 11, as has been acknowledged, over the writing of court reports and the supervision of serious offenders. He has moved towards the position advocated in amendments Nos. 1 and 2—a position that is widely supported not just within the probation service but, as I have illustrated, within parts of the voluntary sector. However, the Home Secretary and the Ministers have not settled the matter beyond the next three years or so. New clause 12 allows for the repeal of the provisions in new clause 11. That signals the possibility that court reports and the supervision of high-risk offenders will be open to competition. Yes, the public sector could well win some or all of those competitions, but there is a risk that it would not.
There are risks inherent in putting those probation services out into the private sector, particularly in regard to issues of public accountability and scrutiny in relation to commercial confidentiality. There are also potential conflicts of interest and the inevitable temptation for Home Office civil servants, who will be the regional commissioners, to go for the lowest tender. That raises an important question about the competition. Will it be conducted on the basis of the disastrous compulsory competitive tendering regime that the previous Conservative Government imposed on local government, or of the more sensible best value approach introduced by this Government? We really need to know the answer to that question. Speculation on that point is bound to arise because of new clause 12.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his ministerial colleagues could inject a great deal of comfort and stability into the proposed changes if new clause 12 were withdrawn. In any event, with or without new clause 12, it is essential that development on the ground is closely monitored from a quality assurance perspective in the years ahead, so that we can learn from best practice and take corrective measures when things go wrong. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to acknowledge the need to monitor the process, and to show a willingness to establish such a mechanism, with reports being made available to the House and to partner organisations.
One of my fears about the Bill is that it could trigger a process across the country in which local details get lost and forgotten or are not even noticed. I am informed, for example, that the Bedfordshire probation service contracts with a number of small local organisations to place one or two offenders, supervised by probation officers, undertaking unpaid work. Those contracts exist only because of trust between people who know each other at local level. I cannot see how the Home Office regional commissioner—known as ROM, the regional offender manager—will be able to deal with all those arrangements. There simply are not enough hours in the day. The Government’s answer is to say that local area agreements will cover the matter, and that the ROMs will have to take on board what is in the agreements.
In Bedfordshire local area agreements are not particularly well developed and I am not sure whether they are anywhere in the country—others may comment on that. The Government propose to put local area agreements on a much stronger footing through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, which is currently in Committee. Clause 79 of that Bill lists organisations and individuals who will be statutory partners with local councils in drawing up the local area agreements. The local probation board is listed as one of those. I wish to raise some points about how that will work with regard to tackling reoffending and helping to keep local knowledge and local contacts intact.
Under the proposals in the Offender Management Bill, the chief probation officer will be the only statutory partner present who is unable to commission services. Others around the table, such as the chief constable, will be able to commission them. Should not the regional offender manager also be a partner? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will heed that point. Furthermore, it will be up to the local council and its partners on the local area agreement to determine the priorities from a national list. I understand that there is national list of about 200 points and that each local area agreement will have to prioritise 35 of them. What if reoffending is not seen as a particular local priority? Perhaps it should be, but I do not think that it has to be. Those matters have to be addressed.
The mechanism of how local area agreements will work is not known at this point and will be left to local determination. That is the Government’s intention. However, we need some reassurance about how that mechanism will work with regard to tackling reoffending and enhancing rehabilitation and public safety. We need to know that local knowledge will not be lost. If the local area agreement says something in detail about how these issues are to be delivered—perhaps involving a continuation or enhancement of what already happens—we need to know how the regional offender manager, the Home Office official, will take that message on board and act on it, because that is the only mechanism whereby those things can be commissioned. There will not be a local commissioner on these matters. We have to address that.
In conclusion, I want to repeat first that I am disappointed with Government new clause 12, which is not necessary, secondly that there is a need to address the point about best value, thirdly that there is a need to monitor and report on progress in the years ahead, and fourthly that there is a need to consider how local area agreements will work and whether regional offender managers will be present in that respect. I look to my right hon. and hon. Friends to address those matters.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to concerns, specifically on local accountability, although as the Bill proceeds I hope to hear more on the precise relationship between regional commissioners and local agencies and local area agreements. I also appreciate the amendment that excludes from the private sector the writing of court reports and assistance to the courts. From his comments earlier and the discussions that I have had with him, I understand that that would include, inevitably, a substantial element of the core work of probation officers in managing and supervising offenders, which goes along with their work in doing those court reports.
However, I would appreciate it if the Minister clarified exactly what is covered and the extent to which the provision already covers an exclusion from the private sector in relation to the purposes in clause 1(1)(c) on
“the supervision and rehabilitation of persons charged with or convicted of offences”.
I would appreciate knowing a bit more about how far the exclusion in relation to assistance to the courts already covers a definite commitment that the probation service would continue to provide the services relating to the supervision and management of offenders. That is covered in amendment No. 1, which has been signed by a number of hon. Members. I urge the Minister to consider further other areas that should be excluded from contestability and left with the probation service.
As several hon. Members have said, when I have had discussions about what should happen regarding the probation service and the management of offenders, no one has said that the voluntary sector should not be engaged with the criminal justice system when it has appropriate skills and services to offer that can help to deal with offenders. There are two good examples of the work of the voluntary sector in Derbyshire: Addaction provides drugs programmes in the system from police stations onwards; and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children provides sex offender programmes. Both those programmes do not count against the probation service’s budget, so when we hear people bandying about figures on how much of the service’s budget goes to the voluntary sector, they do not include such programmes. I understand that one of the Government’s priorities is that the voluntary sector should be able to provide such imaginative and innovative services.
Will the Minister consider seriously whether approved premises, to which amendment No. 1 refers, should be excluded? When he met probation officers with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and me, he said that the child sex offender review would be likely to recommend the strengthening of the approved premises sector, which is made up of 100-odd premises that house dangerous offenders who have left custody on licence. A dedicated and skilled work force in those premises carry out substantial supervision and active intervention.
The public would not understand why we would allow hostels housing dangerous offenders, including many child sex offenders, to be handed over to Group 4, but that would be allowed under the Bill. Some of the most dangerous and prolific offenders in the community are managed in such premises, and the premises provide vital intelligence to offender managers and the police, which, if an offender’s behaviour deteriorates, can often lead to enforcement, including a return to custody.
I ask the Minister to consider the evidence that although there is an intention that approved premises will be excluded from initial moves towards privatisation, there are examples of such services being prepared for possible contestability and privatisation. Can he say specifically that approved premises should be kept in the public sector? Should not the Bill provide that such premises are the purview of the probation service? It would be hard to justify taking such premises away from the probation service. Does he think that there any other aspects of the system that should be subject to exclusion?
Over the past few weeks, my position has moved from that on Second Reading, when, as a loyal Labour Back Bencher, I was happy to go along with the Bill, to that of today, when I feel passionate that the Bill must be passed in its current form. That has happened because of my experiences over the past few weeks, and I can cite three examples in particular. First, I received 800 responses to a questionnaire about crime and justice that I put out in my constituency. Among the clear messages that came from the questionnaire were that reoffending rates were too high, that we could not be complacent about that and that we had to take drastic action to ensure that reoffending rates came down.
A series of consultation events was held around my constituency with magistrates, police officers, people who worked with ex-offenders and, principally, members of the public. At those events, we also heard a strong message about reoffending. A chap called Bob Auld, who is well known to me and many in the High Peak Labour party, came to one of the events. He would be proud to be called a Stalinist and the last defender of the producer interest. Bob told us that he had worked with ex-offenders many times over the years in different circumstances. He said that the Bill has to go through, and his message was that we must shake off our complacency about reoffending. He put it in terms of having seen the light; I am sure that it was not quite as dramatic as that.
My third experience in recent weeks was to visit the Hollowford outdoor centre in Castleton in Hope Valley in my constituency and meet a group of young offenders. I saw the work that was being done with them by that charity and the interest of the people involved in working with those young people. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), I do not decry the passion and interest of probation officers, but there is an extra quality that can be brought by those who have chosen voluntarily to give their time to charitable causes such as working with ex-offenders to stop reoffending. By talking to the young offenders, I could tell that the people whom I met were having that effect.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the Circles project that operates in the Thames valley. It is run by a group of Quakers and works on an individual basis with former sex offenders. It has been going for several years, and I understand that it has other projects besides that in the Thames valley. It claims a zero reoffending rate because of the nature of the support given to individuals by people working voluntarily. Whatever the figures are, I am certain that the project gives us a model that could be replicated and built on elsewhere, and the voluntary sector is quite capable of delivering it.
No matter what we have heard, there are major players and, indeed, minor local players in the voluntary sector who want to be involved. They feel that they have a contribution to make to reducing reoffending by supporting individuals to ensure that they have the capacity to live their life without offending. We need to have those people on board, working with the professionals in the sector. If the outcome is that only 10 or 15 per cent. of this work eventually goes out to the voluntary sector, so be it.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not because I know that others want to speak before the Minister winds up.
The qualitative difference, the influence on the rest of provision, will be significant. The Bill will make a real difference in reducing reoffending rates and help us to achieve our aim of helping people out of offending in the first place.
I rise to oppose the amendments in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), not because I disrespect him or the way that he has dealt with matters throughout the proceedings on the Bill but because I have real concerns about the effect of the amendments.
We have a system in which there is co-operation and good practice between local probation services and institutions in the voluntary and private sectors. I have met probation officers from my area to discuss their concerns about the Bill at length. I have long-standing working relationships with the probation service because of the time that I spent as a criminal law solicitor. I know that there have always been good working relationships between the voluntary and private sectors and the probation service. My concern about the proposals on which we are going to vote is that they could prejudice those relationships.
Earlier we had a discussion about sex offenders and the introduction of polygraph tests. I referred to an institution in my constituency which works with young sex offenders, including children, who are given the highest and most professional level of care to deal with the profound difficulties that they experience. It is an intensely specialised area and an intensely professional one. The individuals who work in that organisation have a very professional background in social services which has developed over many years. The institution is, however—horror of horrors—private. My clear reading of the amendments is that they would prevent that institution from delivering the services that it provides to very damaged young people in my community.
What is clear is that the wording adopted is such that, if the amendment were made, the Secretary of State could provide services “solely”—the word used in the amendment—with probation trusts. We are therefore being asked to exclude voluntary and private sector providers from providing such valuable services.
The wording is not intended to stop any probation trust contracting with a voluntary sector provider. I accept that it will stop the Secretary of State contracting directly with a voluntary sector provider. That is the clear intention. If the Government were minded to accept the general principle, I am sure that parliamentary counsel could draw up a suitable minor amendment to provide what we all agree we want.
I am to be asked to vote on a particular amendment and my reading of it is as I have described. For that reason, I shall oppose the amendment.
I ask other hon. Members to think seriously about the effect of voting in favour of the proposed amendments, because they might prejudice high-quality and important care that is being provided in our communities by voluntary sector and private sector organisations. To vote in favour of the amendments would serve the political expediency of our opponents, but it would not serve the interests of our constituents.
I am grateful for the contributions made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, because I know that their views are well held. I would never attack anyone for feeling strong emotion about the subject—except perhaps the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who set out the Conservative party position, which I will deal with later.
Fifty-eight per cent. of offenders go on to commit another crime within two years and more than 50 per cent. of crime is committed by people who have already been through the criminal justice system. As hon. Members, especially Labour Members, have said, it is not a problem of resources: the budget has increased by 40 per cent. in five years to more than £900 million this year—a record—and the amount spent per offender has also increased, by 12 per cent. between 2001-02 and 2005-06. I hope that hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends, acknowledge the investment that has gone into the probation service and the increase in the number of probation officers.
What we are saying is that we want—we need—to do more, because as my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, it is important to move forward, not backward. I consider the commitment of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and other hon. Friends to be of the highest calibre, but their amendment would do what my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow admitted the technical drafting problems, but said that if the Government supported the principle, we could draft a new amendment. The Government will not do that because we do not share his view of the four elements that he wants to be protected.
So it is not the drafting.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham made the point that if he votes for the amendment on the amendment paper today and it is passed, certain agencies will be excluded from consideration. I am simply making that clear to the House.
To support the amendment is to go backward. The amendment covers the provision of approved premises—a subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber)—which, if it were made, could be provided only by the probation service. At present, approved premises are provided by organisations such as the Langley House Trust; the amendment would stop that happening. I understand where my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow is coming from, but the amendment would do those things and take us backward, which is clearly not where we need to go. We want to move forward cautiously. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I listened to the concerns put to us, and why we tabled new clauses 11 and 12, which set out the relationships that we think are important. We were told that court reports are a significant element of what needs to be protected, in the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. We understood that, and that is why new clauses 11 and 12 were introduced.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) that clauses 11 and 12 go together. That is part of negotiation and achieving consensus, and we thought that we were moving in the right direction. Most hon. Members will know of my trade union background; I thought that, in negotiations, people on both sides gave a bit, but clearly that is not the understanding of some of my hon. Friends, as there has been no movement towards what we are trying to achieve.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen has a wealth of experience, as he is not only a former Minister but the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. He hit the nail on the head when he talked about the need for us to look for innovation and new ways forward. He was concerned about the pace of the changes that we are trying to undertake. I agree with him and, perhaps more importantly, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does, too. That is why we have tried to be accommodating. We have tried to understand that the ideological background to some of the concerns is a worry that we are talking about pure privatisation, but we are not. The measures are about making sure that we raise capacity, so that we have the best providers. In 2006, we announced our intention to complete up to £250 million-worth of probation business. Both the public and voluntary sectors can bid for that work, and that is the important issue. The measures are about raising standards and making sure that the best providers are in place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) mentioned the letter from the YMCA, but that is only one letter. Hon. Members have received a number of contributions from voluntary sector bodies that say that they can and want to do more, but are prevented from doing so. Surely that is not right. We have strengthened local accountability, and hon. Members have accepted what we said about strengthening local area agreements to make sure that links are in place. The excellent work that has already been achieved, to which hon. Members have referred, can be built on. We do not want to remove the good work that takes place; we want to build on it and extend it further.
I share the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), who mentioned Circles of Support, a voluntary sector organisation that mentors sex offenders, and that works in difficult circumstances and achieves a superb reduction in reoffending rates, and that is what we want to happen, but under the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, it would be prevented from doing that. If a public sector provider is good enough, it will have as much chance as anyone else of winning the work, and I think that in many cases, it will; we have no problem with that.
We have referred to the number of organisations that support what we are trying to achieve. It must be unique—at least in my time as a Minister, as far as I can recollect—for the Local Government Association, numerous voluntary sector organisations and the CBI to accept what we are trying to achieve. That leads me to the role of the Opposition. What we see from the Conservative Opposition is outright opportunism, again. They supported the Bill on Second Reading. They said that they sought improvements to it, but that if those improvements were made, and we ensured that there was no top-down structure, they would support the Bill. Clearly, they are not prepared to do that; they are prepared to put party politics before attacking reoffending and related issues.
I particularly welcome the statement from Mr. Martin Narey, a former director general of the Prison Service. His background is in public service—he supported the introduction of private sector operations in the prison regime—and he now works for Barnado’s, which is one of the main charities supporting children. He says that more can be done.
My hon. Friends should accept our assurances in the spirit in which they are given. We will not move too fast, and we will take time to make sure that we do this properly. We have put safeguards in place to ensure accountability, so we will achieve what we are trying to achieve, which is reducing reoffending rates and the number of people in prison, and making sure that offenders are rehabilitated and integrated into society. If we achieve that, we will achieve a great deal for our constituents.
I was asked what type of activity is covered by the Government amendments. The answer is all the work that the probation service does with the courts, including pre-sentencing and other reports, advice on breach hearings, bail and general assistance. As for the issue of offender management, we have made it clear that for the next few years we expect the supervision of individual cases and reports to courts and the Parole Board to remain in the public sector, which has inherited expertise in that area. Public protection is important, and we do not want to put the public at risk, which is why we want to proceed cautiously and make sure that we take people with us.
My hon. Friends’ ideological fears are fundamentally misplaced. This is not about privatisation but about making sure that we have the best provision to tackle reoffending. Multi-agency public arrangements, which are unique to the UK, are in place. It was this Government who introduced those arrangements, to make sure that the public were protected and that responsible agencies worked together. Across the world, MAPPA is regarded as a step forward, as it has established partnership between agencies which people did not think could work together. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough attacked NOMS, but 95 per cent. of its budget is spent on the front line. NOMS has been set up with existing resources, and it employs 69,500 front-line providers and 2,500 back-office staff, so it is not top heavy. I hope that the House has listened to what we have said, and backs the consensus that this is an acceptable compromise by supporting the Government amendments.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time.
Amendment proposed to the proposed new clause: (a), in line 2, leave out from ‘trust’ to end of line 8 and insert—
‘(2) In this section “restricted probation provision” means probation provision which—
(a) is made for one of the probation purposes set out in section 1(1)(a), (c) and (f);
(b) is for the provision of assistance to the Parole Board;
(c) is for the management of approved premises within the meaning of section 9.’.—[Mr. Gerrard.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The House proceeded to a Division.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a door to the Lobby to be shut and for a Government Whip to stand blocking the entrance? The Whip has now moved away, but was standing in the doorway.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Fortunately, the issue has now been resolved.
28 February 2007
The House having divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
Clause added to the Bill
It being more than three and a half hours after commencement of proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].
New Clause 12
Power to repeal section (Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2))
‘(1) The Secretary of State may by order repeal section (Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2)).
(2) The power under this section includes power to provide for that section to cease to have effect for such purposes as may be specified in the order.’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
Brought up, read the First time and Second time, and added to the Bill.
Orders and Regulations
Amendment made: No. 24, in page 20, line 14, at end insert—
‘( ) section (Power to repeal section (Restriction on certain arrangements under section 3(2))),’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
New Clause 4
Qualification etc of probation staff
‘The Home Secretary shall by regulation prescribe the qualifications and standards of staff to be employed by a provider of probation services.’.—[Kerry McCarthy.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 7—Provision of speech therapy, etc.—
‘(1) It shall be the duty of each provider of probation services to ensure that—
(a) every prisoner and young offender is assessed for speech, language and communication impairments by a qualified therapist,
(b) contractual arrangements are made to provide any therapy required consequent on this assessment.
(2) For the purposes of this section a “qualified therapist” shall be a therapist of not fewer than five years’ standing, qualified in accordance with regulations prescribed by the Secretary of State.’.
Amendment No. 22, in page 5, line 18, clause 6, at end insert—
‘(5) The Secretary of State shall, by regulation, make provision as to the necessary training and skills for an officer of any provider of probation services.’.
Amendment No. 20, in page 10, line 28, clause 13, at end insert—
‘( ) A worker at a contracted-out prison shall be subject to qualification requirements that the Secretary of State shall by regulation define.’.
My objective in moving the new clause is to enshrine in the Bill assurances that have already been given by the Minister that, to quote from a letter from him to probation staff,
“Probation will continue to be valued as a profession, reinforced by rigorous national standards and training.”
The Bill envisages that many more employers will be involved in the delivery of probation services. They might be public, private or voluntary sector employers, and they will deliver a range of services under a variety of contracts and subcontracts. I should add that I support the broad thrust of the legislation; there is much to be gained from greater voluntary sector involvement—and, indeed, from private sector involvement—in work with offenders and in tackling reoffending.
There is, however, considerable concern among probation officers about how the legislation will affect them both as individual workers who might lose their jobs if services are contracted out and as a profession. I have been told by the National Association of Probation Officers and individual probation officers in my constituency that morale in the service is very low, and one of the reasons that they give for that is the uncertainty that remains about how some of the measures in the Bill will affect their profession. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide them with some reassurances today.
My main concern—and the reason why I have moved the new clause—is that in clause 6, which relates to staff who
“carry out the functions of an officer of a particular provider of probation services”,
there is no mention of the training standards, qualifications or accreditation that will be required of those who will be involved in delivering services under some of the new contracts. Because the Bill is silent on that point, there are concerns that it could lead to the de-professionalisation of the probation service. It has been suggested to me that if the voluntary sector and the private sector are awarded contracts, they will be allowed to employ people who are less well-qualified and less experienced than those currently working in the probation service, and that as a result they will provide a less effective service. It has even been suggested to me that that could put the public at risk.
It currently costs £70,000 to train in the probation service. It is a mandatory requirement for trainee probation officers who wish to work with medium and high-level offenders in England and Wales to acquire a diploma in probation services. Will that still be the case if the proposed legislation is enacted even if such services are eventually provided by other organisations? Also, what about those involved in work under the new contracts that is perhaps more peripheral, but which is certainly equally important and sometimes highly sensitive? What skills, qualifications and accreditation will be required of them?
In Committee, the Minister said in response to similar points that it was intended that information on such matters should form part of the bid of a contracting company or voluntary organisation—that those bidding for contracts would be required to outline in their tendering documents how they intended to recruit and retain highly motivated, qualified and supported staff. Committee members were told that an assurance and accreditation process will continue to run, and that contracts will specify the skills, experience and qualifications required for a particular task. Will the Minister confirm whether national occupational standards will apply across the board? Will there be clear performance criteria that workers will be expected to meet and standards of quality that they will be expected to achieve? If so, how will that be monitored and enforced?
I am seeking reassurance that there will not be a two-tier system—that the same standards will apply to everyone involved in delivering probation services, no matter who employs them or what the contractual arrangements are. We need to be sure that the professionalism of the service is maintained, that rigorous standards are enforced and that the service’s overriding concern—to protect the British public from offenders and from the risk of reoffending—will be maintained. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response to my remarks.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy), who was a member of the Bill Committee. I am unsure whether she raised the issue under discussion in Committee, but it is certainly worth doing so now, because although unlike her I support moving the probation services away from a state monopoly—perhaps it is like her, as I am unsure of her position on this—I have concerns about whether private providers should be as qualified as those within the state sector.
What the hon. Lady had to say about her new clause, and what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will doubtless say in support of his amendments Nos. 22 and 20, will clearly command broad support. We do not want an over-bureaucratic system or one that inhibits people’s desire to do such work; nor do we want to inhibit their desire to enter the probation services more generally. Other than those brief remarks about new clause 4 and amendments Nos. 22 and 20, I shall allow others to speak to them.
I want on my behalf and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) to speak briefly in support of new clause 7. My hon. Friend would have been here, but sadly—or happily, depending on how one cares to look at it—he is chairing a debate in Westminster Hall and cannot be in two places at once. I hope that Members will find not only the new clause but my remarks to be wholly uncontroversial.
In Committee on 23 January, we had a clause stand part debate on clause 20, which dealt with the provision of medical services within the prison estate. It was an uncontroversial view during that debate that mental ill health in prisons is a tremendous problem. A huge number—about 70 per cent.—of the people given custody have at least two identifiable mental illnesses. I am talking not just about people who are deeply depressed about being in prison, but about people with identifiable mental conditions. The sad thing is that about the same percentage leave prison in exactly the same condition.
New clause 7 addresses itself not to mental health but to a related issue: the ability of prisoners and young offenders to communicate in a way that permits them to relate to other members of society—even authority figures such as police officers—without resorting to criminal activity. One problem that befalls many young offenders—who, sadly, are then churned into the adult criminal justice system—is that they cannot read and write and express themselves sufficiently to avoid criminal behaviour. A young man who cannot express his frustrations and deal with his anger in any way other than through violence is going to end up in prison. I, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and all right-thinking Members of this House want youngsters to be diverted from crime through education and the proposed form of therapy, which has identifiable and empirically provable benefits.
The noble Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, frequently tells the following story, and it is a pity that he frequently has to tell it. On visiting a particular prison—I hope that I am relaying the story correctly—he was told that speech, language and communication therapy simply was not available to young offenders and adult prisoners. As a consequence, this hideous carousel of youngsters who cannot articulate and deal with their frustrations goes round and round. I am therefore urging the Government, in this brief debate on new clause 7, to take on board our concerns. I have a suspicion that the Minister’s privately shares my concerns precisely, and I want him to translate his private view into action on the part of his Department and the Government.
Our previous debate, in which I played a small part, was perhaps not an occasion on which to address the question of introducing the private provision of speech and language therapists. However, now that we have passed that particular watermark—high or low depending on which side of the debate one took—we may return to a more consensual approach. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to support new clause 7.
To follow the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on the general provision of health services in prisons and his reference to mental health provision, it is a scandal that up to one in 10 of all prisoners have a functional psychosis. They should not be in prison. Having said that, it is important that we improve medical and mental health provision within the prison setting. The Minister was earlier able to cite Martin Narey in support of his argument, yet he has repeatedly made the point that medical provision in the prison system is simply inadequate. The prison system should provide a much better level of medical support to those who are incarcerated, and that includes mental health provision.
The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has addressed one particular issue to do with the inability of many prisoners to communicate effectively through speech or in written form. There is a direct correlation between lack of literacy and communication skills and the propensity to get into trouble with the law. It has been shown to be the case that one of the most effective rehabilitative processes in prisons is educational provision that is targeted at improving spoken and written communication skills. The evidence shows that such provision reduces recidivism, so it is a mystery to me why we do not address it effectively. It would be relatively inexpensive, but it is missing in most prisons. If we can use the opportunity provided by the Bill to draw attention to that fact, we could make progress in the right direction.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the problem is not only the ability to get people into prisons who could provide such education and training, but the lack of prison officers available to take prisoners into classrooms to receive that training?
My hon. Friend is right. I have heard him speak with great passion on that subject many times and I know that he understands the importance of that issue to the treatment of prisoners. At the moment, the whole system is not properly geared to addressing one of the principal problems that so many prisoners face: their lack of ability to communicate with the rest of society. Because they cannot communicate, they have recourse to criminality. That is not an excuse, but it is—on an evidential basis—one of the reasons.
In my desire to be speedy, I forgot to say something, and the observations of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) have reminded me. Yesterday, I visited Wandsworth prison and met the people carrying out the Toe-by-Toe reading programme that is sponsored by the Shannon Trust, a private charity. That programme offers another example of how prisoners’ lives—and thus the security of the wider population—can be improved be reducing reoffending. Under the scheme, prisoners teach other prisoners to read so that they can communicate and live more sensible lives.
I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. One positive thing to emerge from our debates is the consensus that teaching prisoners to read should be a priority for NOMS in the future.
Earlier, the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke to her new clause 4. It is very similar to my amendment No. 22, in that it would ensure that those who provide probation services have the appropriate training and skills. I do not want to overstate the concern, as I believe that the Bill to a large extent will ensure that appropriate organisations undertake probation work, and that they will have regard for the skills, training and qualifications of their staff. However, we must be aware that one variable in the competitive tendering process could be the qualifications of the staff who are taken on.
By recruiting people who are not fully qualified for the task, private sector organisations would be able to tender beneath the price of the public sector. If we are to be responsible in our discussion of the Bill, we must accept that that is a risk. I made clear earlier in the debate my appreciation of the calibre and commitment of probation officers, and the quality of rehabilitation and custodial services that are provided relies very heavily on their ability to deal appropriately and effectively with the people in their care. Those officers need to know how to supervise their charges, with proper regard for the safety of the public, and how to help with their rehabilitation. Clause 3 opens up the possibility that our assumptions about the quality and qualifications of those who provide the probation services could be swept aside. That would be a retrograde step, and the effectiveness and quality of service delivery across the country inevitably would fall.
I have no great love of regulation, but the need for probation officers to have a level of qualification appropriate to the needs of prisoners and of society means that there should be a degree of regulation by the Secretary of State. Indeed, we have that at the moment, as I understand that probation officers are required to have either a certificate of qualification in social work or a diploma in probation studies. While they are acquiring those skills, officers are given a protected case load so that the public are not put at risk through misadventure caused by their inexperience. We need the guarantee that such qualifications confer, and I hope that the Minister will give an assurance on the matter.
Amendment No. 20 would make similar provision for those who work in the Prison Service. Although it is not quite the same as the probation service, prison officers must go through a vetting process. They face selection tests and receive specific training, with continual assessment and support from experienced staff. That will all change with the application of clause 13, which will open up the profession of prison officer to allow other staff members to work on those tasks without the same degree of training and vetting.
We need to do one of two things: to restrict the areas of work open to non-trained people or to insist that people engaged in such work have the appropriate qualifications, with mandatory training and supervision at the level required. There are already human rights concerns about individual prisoners in custody, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights is looking into them. The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Wainwright v. the United Kingdom underlines the need for stringent procedural safeguards associated with the power to search in prisons. I am sure that the Government want to comply with the ruling and that they have no intention of derogating from that requirement, but that means that staff must be properly trained and supervised.
Will the Minister explain the purpose of clause 13? I am not sure exactly what its implications are. At face value, it seems to open up various tasks in the Prison Service to less qualified people. If that is the case, safeguards are appropriate, and my amendment No. 20 would ensure that they were introduced.
I am grateful to Members who have tabled amendments. There have been a number of strands in this short but useful and important debate and they are all underpinned by shared concern about staff and standards. As I have said in other debates, the Government share those concerns, too. We are utterly committed to the maintenance of high standards in the delivery of services to offenders, because we recognise that that is the only way to achieve results. There would be a heavy price to pay if anything we did dumbed down those delivery standards and that is not what we want to do; public protection is key in all that we are trying to achieve.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) for proposing new clause 4, which relates to staff employed by a provider of probation services, as it gives me an opportunity to clarify what we have in mind and, I hope, to offer her and other Members reassurance about what we are trying to achieve. Contrary to the suggestions that have sometimes been made, our proposals categorically do not signal the end of probation as a profession. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We are determined to ensure that all providers have staff with the right qualifications and training for the work they carry out and that will be enshrined in contracts. If a provider cannot demonstrate that they can fulfil that expectation they will not be awarded the contract in the first place.
Do we need to go further and put those provisions in legislation? At present, there are no statutory requirements in that regard, and there is some variety across the country in the type of staff undertaking different work. There is a balance to be struck between allowing local providers the freedom to develop solutions that work for them and ensuring consistent standards. However, I understand why, in this new world of multiple providers, my hon. Friend may feel that further reassurance is needed.
The probation service already operates under clear and explicit national standards for service delivery, approved by the Secretary of State. National standards will continue to apply when the Bill becomes law. We are developing a comprehensive qualification framework for both offender management and interventions. It goes beyond the current probation officer qualification and will be required of all staff. That framework, combined with national standards, will impose strict requirements on all providers to ensure that the highest levels of professionalism are met.
Is the Minister saying that the new framework and the qualifications therein will apply to anyone contracted to carry out probation work within the meaning of the Bill in whichever sector they are performing that task?
At the level of requirement of those skills. The point I am making is that there is no statutory responsibility to provide it, so probation officers, Prison Service officers and a variety of others are involved.
At the moment, the intention is that this will be a policy document, which will be reinforced by contract. Again, I am considering whether I can strengthen the status in any way and I will report back on options when the Bill reaches the other place, as we can develop through negotiation. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East tabled a probing amendment designed to gain some reassurance that we will look further into the matter, so I hope that she will feel able to withdraw it.
I move on to deal with amendment No. 20, which relates to staff in private prisons. As I explained in Committee—the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will have read the Hansard—the inclusion of a requirement for the Secretary of State to set particular qualification requirements for staff in private prisons is unnecessary in the light of safeguards contained within and outside the clause. In fact, it introduces unwarranted additional bureaucracy as a result. Having formed that view, I suppose that I need to explain to Members how and why I have done so.
First, I remind Members that no such formal requirements apply to equivalent public sector staff performing the same duties. Neither are any of the powers proposed any different from those exercised by the equivalent public sector staff. Even if we ignored those factors, we would contend that the successful track record of private companies in delivering custodial services in the 14 years since the first private prison was opened already offers assurance that they can be relied on to recruit competent staff.
I have mentioned the name of Martin Narey before and I will mention it again. When he was the director general of the Prison Service, he praised private contractors. They have certainly been a key driver of the improved treatment of prisoners and—under what is sometimes termed the decency agenda—of ensuring more decent prison regimes. He believed that it came from the commitment and involvement of the private sector in addition to what was going on in the public sector. I think that that seal of approval applies to all members of staff in the private sector, including non-prison custody officer staff who play a vital role in ensuring the effective operation of private prisons.
Private prison contractors already undergo thorough pre-employment checks, which include a requirement to disclose all previous convictions. Under section 85 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, prisoner custody officer grades—the equivalent to prison officers in public prisons—must be authorised to perform their duties by the public sector prisoner custody officer certification unit, which is quite a mouthful. Although other staff are not subject to the same certification requirements as prisoner custody officers, they are still cleared via the same unit as part of their pre-employment checks.
Any person seeking to work in a private prison receives a basic enhanced police check and, in addition, any person working in a juvenile prison or who will come into contact with children or vulnerable adults also undergoes a Criminal Records Bureau check. Such pre-employment checks are wholly consistent with those undertaken on equivalent grades in the public sector, in relation to which the amendment would not apply.
The private sector is no different from the public sector in seeking to ensure that it benefits from staff who are fully trained and competent to conduct their roles. All private prison contractors require any newly appointed staff to undertake training prior to commencing their duties in the same way as in the public sector. Training may vary between contractors, but the common goal remains the same—to have a work force with the necessary skills to deliver the contract. Failure to do so would completely undermine the ability to generate new work in the future and would expose the contractors to risk within current operations.
It is also worth remembering that controllers have the ability to examine training packages and even attend sessions if they wish. Indeed, the changes proposed elsewhere in the Bill actually free them up to spend more time to provide this quality assurance. In addition, once authorised and fully trained, certain safeguards are in place to ensure that the work covered by clause 13 is done by the right people.
The clause requires that, prior to being deployed to perform a task listed in an order made under it, a member of staff must be authorised by the director. We can anticipate, in deciding whether to authorise any individual, the director will take into account whether the person is properly trained, has the appropriate experience and is generally suitable to undertake the duty. Importantly, any authorisation given by a director may be made subject to appropriate limitations or conditions and cannot, of itself, authorise the use of force in any circumstances.
In regard to the safeguards that are in place outside the ambit of the clause, further checks and safeguards are provided by the fact that the controller of each prison may personally monitor staff undertaking these duties whenever they wish. Safeguards are also provided by the presence of an independent monitoring board in each prison, and by the existence of an avenue of complaint to the independent prisons and probation ombudsman.
Finally, quite apart from the risk to the contractor of losing future business opportunities, there is the potential for severe financial penalties to be imposed for allowing operational failures to occur under existing contracts. We therefore feel that there is a powerful vested financial interest for contractors to ensure that their staff are suitable for the jobs that they are employed to carry out. I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, having listened to what I have said, will be satisfied that his amendment to clause 13 is unnecessary, and that he will agree not to press it.
New clause 7 proposes that probation services should carry out the legal duty to ensure the provision of speech and language services in prisons. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow); I understand that he is not in the Chamber at the moment, for the reasons given by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). In Committee, we debated mental health provision and other health provision, and I recollect that the hon. Member for Buckingham also raised the issue in oral questions a few weeks ago. I am well aware of his interest in these matters, and I know that it is not a passing interest; it is something that he feels passionately about. Indeed, I think that he chairs the new all-party group that has been set up to look at this issue. I do not, therefore, dismiss his views on the subject lightly.
I know, however, that the hon. Member for Buckingham and other hon. Members will recognise that the responsibility for commissioning these and all other health treatments sits best where it does now: with the NHS. That is why we have ensured that NHS primary care trusts commission health care for people in prison and on probation in the same way as they do for their communities, on the basis of comprehensive assessments of local need. They do that under existing health legislation, and it is unnecessary to legislate further for specific services.
In April last year, the Government completed the transfer of prison health services to the NHS from the Prison Service. That process began in 2003 and, since then, we have increased the investment in health services in prisons from £118 million to nearly £200 million this year. This change has given prisoners access to mainstream NHS services. All prisoners receive a health screening on reception into prison, as well as a general learning needs assessment. Where a need for speech and language therapy is identified, a referral to an NHS therapist is made.
Indeed, the number of speech and language therapists employed in the NHS has increased by 38.8 per cent. since 1997, with 6,759 being employed at September 2005. I know that there is an issue about where those people are placed, and about their not being placed in custodial establishments, but the opportunity exists for teams to go into such establishments. Given this progress and the significant improvements in prisoner health care, there is no good reason to begin transferring elements of this responsibility back into the criminal justice system. Transferring prison health care to the NHS was the right thing to do, and I know that Members on both sides of the House share that view.
On young offenders, the Department of Health will be extending child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—in young offender institutions. This will mean additional services for young people in custody, including child psychiatry, child psychology, community psychiatric nursing, speech and language therapy, psychotherapy and occupational and creative therapies. I am pleased to say that the additional funding for these new services has now been secured by the Department of Health, and is expected to go out to the service commissioners in early summer.
New clause 7 proposes that these assessments should be made only by a qualified therapist with five years’ experience. The NHS requirement is for the therapists to be registered with the Health Professionals Council after completing a degree at undergraduate or postgraduate level. That is a high level of qualification and it is unclear to me why the hon. Member for Buckingham thinks that it is appropriate for prisoners to have a legal right to professionals with greater experience than those available to the rest of community. I believe that that is unjustified and I hope that the House agrees. That is not to say that we are complacent on the issue. I look forward to the work that the all-party group will do and I expect to be in regular contact with it on this issue. There is some interesting work taking place on speech therapy and behavioural patters, and nutrition and behavioural patterns. I hope that with those assurances about what we intend to do, the new clause will be withdrawn.
In light of the assurances that the Minister has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Responsibility for ensuring the provision of probation services
I beg to move amendment No. 12, page 2, line 44, at end insert—
‘(2A) The Secretary of State must have regard to the aims mentioned in subsection (2B) in the exercise of his functions under subsections (1) and (2) (so far as they may be exercised for any of the probation purposes).
(2B) Those aims are—
(a) the protection of the public;
(b) the reduction of re-offending;
(c) the proper punishment of offenders;
(d) ensuring offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on the victims of crimes and the public; and
(e) the rehabilitation of offenders.’.
In Committee, the Opposition tabled a new clause that proposed the inclusion of probation aims in the Bill. We had a useful discussion and I made it clear at that time that I was sympathetic to the new clause and the arguments made in support of it. I said that I would consider the matter further. Having done so, I have concluded that it would be sensible to enshrine the aims of probation in statute, to make it clear to all what our overarching objectives are. Although aims can be and are stated clearly in the published plans of the National Offender Management Service and in contracts with providers, I agree that it is helpful to a shared sense of purpose and continuity to place them in statute. That also helps to emphasise that the structural changes proposed in the Bill do not erode the fundamental purpose of probation, which will remain unchanged.
The amendment applies statutory aims to the functions of the Secretary of State and will oblige commissioners to ensure that those aims are enshrined in the contracts that they agree with providers. The aims are the same as those that the Opposition included in their new clause in Committee and they replicate the aims that currently apply to probation by virtue of section 2 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. We discussed in Committee whether those aims could be improved and different views were expressed. I accept that arguments could be made for recasting the existing aims—that will always be the case—but they have served us well and encapsulate effectively our current and future priorities. I hope that the House will support the amendment.
I think that the Minister was referring to the debate in Committee on 23 January, when I moved a new clause 4, which read:
“The Secretary of State shall by direction at the start of every year and in respect of every provider of probation services, set targets concerning the reduction of offending or reoffending by those charged with or convicted of offences, or those given conditional cautions in the area in which the provider carries out its functions under this Act.”
That new clause is not identical to the amendment that the Minister has just moved, but the broad thrust of it is the same. At the end of our debate, the Minister said in reference to our new clause:
“It is not necessary to put that requirement in statute.”––[Official Report, Offender Management Public Bill Committee, 23 January 2007; c. 212, 215.]
If he has changed his mind, I for one am very pleased about that.
Clearly, one of the primary aims, if not the primary aim, of the criminal justice system—and, for that matter, a Government—is to ensure that the public are protected from crime and criminals. If adopting Government amendment No. 12 and thus inserting proposed subsection (2B)(a) in the Bill focuses the minds of those whom engage in that sort of activity, so much the better.
The second aim is the reduction of reoffending. As was the case in Committee, I am worried—as, I dare say, are the wider public—by the appalling rate of reoffending among those who have been released from custody. The reoffending rate for adult prisoners within two years of their release from custody is 67 per cent, while the rate for young offenders is nearer to 80 per cent. If I may say so, that represents a huge waste of public money. Housing an adult prisoner costs about £37,500 a year, while the cost of housing a young offender is about £70,000. If we are putting those people in custody, yet they are coming out in exactly the same condition in terms of education, drug addiction or social aptitude and then reoffending, we are wasting the public’s money.
As I pointed out in Committee, I want the Government to deal with the problem. Prisons and young offender institutions are getting fuller and fuller, but the reoffending rate is not decreasing. There is a direct correlation between the reoffending rate and the overcrowding of our prisons. I visited Wandsworth prison yesterday. I would guess that 80 per cent. of the cells in the prison are double-occupied. The number of people in big London prisons who are crammed into small spaces and living in fairly unhygienic conditions is simply appalling.
Not so very long ago, a wing of Norwich prison was decanted of its prisoners so that the accommodation could be improved. The prisoners had been living in their own sewage. The governor and the Prison Service clearly needed to do something about that, but, owing to overcrowding, the wing has had to be reoccupied. The situation is appalling for not only the prisoners, but the prison officers who have to work in such filthy conditions. If we think that reformed and rehabilitated prisoners are going to be placed back on our streets when they are coming out of a prison estate in which some of them are living in their own sewage, we are misguided.
The reduction of reoffending is a hugely important social and moral public policy aim. I am thus delighted that it will be included in the Bill through proposed subsection (2B)(b). However, such a measure will require the Government to deal rapidly and effectively with overcrowding. Overcrowding in our prison estate is the bedrock problem that is preventing a reduction in reoffending. It prevents people from getting on to courses to help them to get off drugs, or to learn to read, write and to do simple mathematics.
Yesterday, in HMP Wandsworth, I saw that people in that large London prison, most of whom were probably serving sentences shorter than three years, far too often got ready to go on a literacy or numeracy course, or a course to deal with alcohol or drug abuse, but then had to be moved on to another prison because of overcrowding. That causes them to miss out on such courses because when they get to the new prison, they go to the bottom of the queue for the course that is relevant to their needs. Although I do not have much sympathy for those who commit crimes and have to be sent to prison, it is utterly counter-productive merely to warehouse people in prison and then to expect them not to reoffend when they come out.
Proposed paragraph (c) sets out the aim of the “proper punishment of offenders”. We all want the proper punishment of offenders not because we are vindictive, although retribution is one of the three elements of any criminal justice punishment system, but because we want offenders to come to terms with their offending.
One of the things that I saw yesterday at HMP Wandsworth—I think that it is occurring at other prisons on a patchwork basis—was a restorative justice course called the Sycamore Tree programme run by a non-state organisation. I want to pay particular tribute to the people involved in that and to the governor and deputy governors of Wandsworth prison, who have permitted in their overcrowded facilities their overworked prison officers to facilitate the work of the programme. The prisoners whom I met yesterday on the restorative justice course really were for the first time coming to terms with the nature of the consequences of their criminal activities.
There was a group of 12 inmates in that room, at least three of whom admitted that they had been in custody, on and off, since they were 15. These were men in their 30s and 40s. At last, they had been brought face to face with their offending behaviour, and not only did they realise that it was a waste of their lives, but, as a consequence of a proper sentence plan—and that is what I would call proper punishment of offenders—they had come to realise that their criminal behaviour affected their families and children. One man was in tears as he told how his mother, aged 83, had recently died, ashamed that her son had spent his entire adult life, but for a few breaks, in prison. I did not have an opportunity to ask him questions, but I assume that he was unable to leave prison to visit his mother as she was ill and dying or to go to her funeral.
The proper punishment of offenders means not just locking people up; it means dealing with them in such a way that they come out less likely to reoffend.
I have seen the excellent work done in the education department at Forest Bank prison in my constituency, but does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, although the rehabilitation of offenders is important within the prison environment, there must be a proper strategy for aftercare and resettlement, with proper facilities and proper support?
I entirely agree, and if time permitted I was going to draw those sorts of conclusions in relation to proposed paragraph (e). It is rather like taking people up in an aeroplane, then throwing them out without a parachute and expecting them to land safely. That is what we do in our prison system. We do not rehabilitate people in prison, or not enough of them; we do not reform them; we do not enable them to come to terms with their offender behaviour, and at the end of their period in prison we say, “Here’s the door—out you go,” and expect them to behave. They cannot.
Offenders may be irresponsible people, but we must bear it in mind that they are in many respects damaged people, albeit ones who have done extreme damage to other people. They cannot behave unless we take care of them as they come out of prison and make sure that they have employment and housing opportunities and are enabled to restore links with their families—all the sorts of things that the Minister and I have discussed over the last 15 months. Without all that it is highly unlikely that we will achieve what we want with the prison system. I accept that we are talking about irresponsible and, in many respects, very criminally minded people, but they are redeemable. However, they will not be redeemed unless we provide, through the offender management system, adequate rehabilitation systems.
One of the most frightening things for a prisoner is those moments before release. I say this because of Jonathan Aitken. He was highly educated and had a family and a home to go to, but he said that the most frightening time for him after his period in custody was waiting to go out, because he did not know what would be out there. Before his release, he was sitting in an anteroom next door to an old lag—he did not use those words—who had been round and round the system. He said, “The most terrifying time is now. In prison, you are cocooned. In prison, you do not have to make decisions for yourself. In prison, you are told when to get up, when to eat, when to sit and so on. But I am about to be thrust out the back door into the streets.” I suspect that he felt like the man being thrown out of the back of the aeroplane without a parachute. The hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) is entirely right: the rehabilitation of offenders must include some form of resettlement and aftercare; otherwise, we will again lose people back into the criminal justice system.
I have spoken for far too long, so I shall not deal with paragraph (d),
“ensuring offenders’ awareness of the effects of crime on the victims of crimes and the public”,
save to say that the ripple effect of one man’s crime—it normally is a man—goes beyond the individual victim. It can extend to the victim’s family, to the victim’s workplace, to the victim’s street, and to the wider community. That is something that the Sycamore Trust restorative justice course teaches offenders. Unless we have more of that work and greater strategic will on the part of the Government to ensure that all of the things listed in paragraphs (a) to (e) are provided within our criminal justice system, however well minded we are, we are wasting our time.
I shall conclude my remarks here. I hope that I have dealt with the various amendments and new clauses, and if I have not, it does not matter. What is important is that we get this part right—[Interruption.] It genuinely does not matter. I can tell the Whip, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), that the issue is so important and we have had so little time to discuss it that we are letting down the public, we are letting down the taxpayer and we are letting down our fellow citizens if we do not get this part of the Bill right.
I have fundamental complaints about the Bill, and the House might hear more about that later, but in this discrete area, the Government are to be applauded for having got it right. It is just a pity that the provision fits within a mesh of legislation that does not get it right. None the less, in respect of the amendment, I applaud the Minister and wish him well in that part of his work.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on his success. He raised the matter in Committee and today the Minister has, in effect, accepted what he suggested should be in the Bill, so congratulations to him. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on listening to the arguments and the debate, keeping an open mind and tabling the amendment on Report, so well done to the Minister. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman and my hon. Friend recall that in Committee I argued that the wording was not good enough. I have not changed my opinion, so although I congratulate them both, I shall explain why I feel they should go further.
In Committee I said that the way in which the probation service was being established under the Bill would leave it a rootless organisation, free from values, free from an overriding strategy to achieve its purpose and free from directions for its staff in relation to what Parliament thought they were good for. I said that we could put that right by laying down statutory objectives. The Minister has gone some way toward doing that by, as he accepted in his opening remarks, repeating in the Bill the aims of the body that is currently the National Probation Service for England and Wales. That is good, as far as it goes. I shall support the amendment because it is better than nothing, but I remind the Minister that in Committee I said that some things important to the future service were not provided for.
First, because the probation service is part of this country’s criminal justice system, which does not work especially effectively, it would be useful to state in an Act of Parliament that one of the objectives of the probation service is to support the whole criminal justice system and make it more effective. That would tie in the service to a job that I consider important. Secondly, I think that probation officers, who work in the community, have an important role in educating the public about the criminal justice system; the importance of reducing offending, which we should all be pressing for; rehabilitating offenders as well as punishing them; and the role of the criminal justice system, as well as its limitations, which it is important that members of the public understand.
Thirdly, I said that I thought that there should be a statutory objective on the probation service’s role as regards victims. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough chided me about that in Committee, saying that that was already included in proposed new paragraph (d), but it is not. Paragraph (d) has the objective of ensuring that offenders understand the effect of their crime on victims, so it is offender-focused, not victim-focused. The probation service is particularly well placed to have regard to the needs and interests of victims, which our party claims to put at the heart of the criminal justice system. We are missing a big opportunity to say that it is important to look after victims, and to ensure that they are valued and are given a prime position in the criminal justice system in their own right.
In some Acts of Parliament, there are directions to the probation service about victims; in fact, there is one in the Bill. Back in the part of the Bill dealing with probation purposes, it states that one purpose is the provision of information to victims of crime. Victim Support, which gave Members a briefing for today’s debate, points out the way in which that purpose differs from the provision enacted in the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. In the 2004 Act, there are broader requirements on the probation service. It must not only give information to victims of crime, but help them to make representations about particular elements of sentencing.
Admittedly, the 2004 Act provisions apply only to serious assault, sexual offences, and some offences relating to children. Arguably, the probation purposes in the Bill are broader than those in the 2004 Act, because in the Bill there is no limitation to serious sexual and assault offences, but in a way the Bill is more limited, because it relates only to giving information, and not to making representations that influence what judges, courts and hospitals do with the offenders who create such fear in the minds of their victims. As there is uncertainty in law about where victims stand, and about the probation service’s role as regards victims, a statutory objective about that would be a helpful addition. It would assure victims that they are at the heart of our criminal justice system. I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to undertake a little more work on those points before the Bill becomes, I hope, an Act.
Earlier, I spoke about end-to-end management of offenders’ sentences, and I do not want to end without saying that, given that we will eventually achieve much closer co-operation between prisons and probation, the statutory objectives would be more seamless if they included the role of prison officers, as well as the role of probation officers. Again, that opportunity has been missed, but perhaps such a provision will be included in the fullness of time. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister finds those comments helpful, and perhaps he will give a little more thought to the fact that there is still work to be done.
This has been a remarkably sapient and valuable episode in our discussions, and I thank the Minister for the consensual way in which he introduced the amendment. I welcome the comments of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), who made some important points. The Government’s welcome acquiescence in the suggestion that aims should be set out has distorted the architecture of the part of the Bill that we are discussing. The set-up is now slightly peculiar: the meaning of “the probation purposes” is dealt with first. Provisions on functions follow, and the aims, which qualify the functions, come next. A bit of drafting is needed to get everything in a sensible order.
The Government blow hot and cold on declaratory statements; sometimes they like them, and sometimes they do not. Sometimes they think that they are useful, and sometimes they do not. I do not want to find fault with the Minister for listening to what was said in Committee, but perhaps in the Lords the provisions could be rearranged into a more logical sequence. The hon. Member for Stafford made an important point: not only should the transition in the criminal justice system between the Prison Service and the probation service be seamless, but there should be a seamless transition in their aims, as they share the same overall goals. It would be logical, therefore, for all parts of the criminal justice system to have a common aim.
Finally, clause 2, which is qualified by the Government amendment, is rather curious. Its heading reads,
“Responsibility for ensuring the provision of probation services”
but it does not deal with responsibility or duty. It deals with the Secretary of State’s function, which is to ensure that
“sufficient provision is made throughout England and Wales”
for the purposes that are qualified by the aims in the Government amendment.
It is not clear at what point a function becomes a duty. That may be a clever bit of drafting by the Home Office, seeking to defend its budget against the Treasury, or the lack of clarity may be inadvertent, but next time that there is a failure to protect the public, reduce reoffending or punish offenders properly or achieve any of the other aims that have been set out, I shall come to the House to say that the Secretary of State has failed in his function of ensuring that sufficient provision is made, and we could have an entertaining argument about whether he has a duty to provide more cash to ensure that the probation service does its job effectively. The wording is slightly odd. I expect that the issue will be revisited in another place and, as a result we will have a better Bill at the end of the day.
Briefly, I did not have the privilege of serving on the Bill Committee, so I shall rely on local comments that are relevant to the Government amendment.
I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) about responsibility for victims. Some of the complaints that I receive about the performance of the probation service concern its communication with victims when carrying out its responsibilities, so a clear and explicit responsibility in that regard would be helpful in giving due weight to the role of victims in the criminal justice system.
I wish to concentrate, however, on clause 2—the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly identified its strange construction—as I could not find a clear requirement for the Secretary of State to manage the enhancement of the quality of all those functions as part of his responsibilities. I did not want to participate in earlier debates about the voluntary sector, because I am a committed supporter of its role in delivering such services, and I did not wish to add to the weight of opinion on the subject. My purpose in speaking now, however, is to address the subject of enhancing quality and the Secretary of State’s role in ensuring that quality is delivered. Quality is achieved not by insisting on uniformity of service provision but by designing services around individual needs, including the needs of prisoners, individuals on probation and other people who have direct relationships with the probation service.
That requires diversity, so we must consider—and I have raised this doubt with my hon. Friend the Minister—how to ensure the correct reflection of local knowledge and intelligence in determining individual service provision in a particular area. I do not have any particular anxieties about the generic use of private and voluntary sector contractors in the delivery of any of the aims to which the clause refers, but I am anxious about the loss of innovative edge of small contractors that may deliver excellence at a local level.
The reason for my anxiety is the tendency of larger entities to try and simplify their contracting functions by saying, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we had an overall contractor delivering this range of services across the area?” Yes, it would be easier, it would certainly be more efficient in contracting terms, but it would not deliver the innovative edge that allows others to learn from someone doing something new—that novelty can start small—and it would not necessarily be attuned to local capability to deliver the services that we want. I shall give a couple of examples from my area to illustrate my point.
There is an excellent footpaths group, as it describes itself, in the village where I live. It carries out a wide range of other environmental projects as well. For a long time the group has had a relationship with the local probation service, with prisoners coming to assist with some of the work that the group carries out. It has been a tremendously positive relationship. I have asked both the probation service and the group whether there have been any problems in delivering such services. Both sides say no, the relationship has been excellent. The prisoners have gained greatly from exposure to carrying out various tasks in the countryside and dealing with well intentioned voluntary workers, and the village has gained from some works carried out.
My anxiety is that those little projects and the little voluntary contractor who has been able to deliver something of tremendous value may be lost. There is another example, which has always struggled. A farmer who produces eggs has young offenders in particular coming to assist him on his farm. One of the Minister’s predecessors, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), visited both projects and was extraordinarily positive about what he saw there.
I do not want to lose those little local initiatives to a big brother contracting function, albeit one that embraces the voluntary sector and the private sector. I would welcome my hon. Friend’s assurances about that. Some reassurance would come from scrutiny by local entities such as local authorities and the local police service, who very often know those links and can exploit them and help in using them in future. I hope that my hon. Friend can give a little reassurance about managing the quality function within the aims, delivering innovation and testing new ideas, which is often done on a smaller scale.
This has been a sapient debate. We have had the opportunity for an in-depth look at the problems facing our criminal justice system in relation to the aims and objectives set out in the clause. I am grateful for hon. Members’ acknowledgement that we have listened. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is right that we need to revisit the provisions affecting victims. I want to reflect on that. My hon. Friend is aware of the work that we are undertaking through victim care unit pilots to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, and I understand what he is trying to achieve.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) spoke about a subject that has been raised with me on numerous occasions—the innovative quality of small projects. We are taking care of that. I shall write to him outlining the safeguards that are in place. If he is unhappy with that, we can have a further discussion. If we need to do anything further as a result of commissioning, I look forward to his comments. I acknowledge and pay tribute to the work of the many small and innovative groups that manage to engage with offenders proactively. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) will have enjoyed those visits and that experience.
The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) talked about where we all stand on this matter. There are no differences between us in terms of wanting to reduce reoffending and ensure not only that the punishment element of a sentence is present but that the other element of rehabilitation is put in place. I agree that the prison population is too high. We will have arguments about the reasons for that and about capacity, but we all agree that we must reduce that figure by giving people support. I can give the number of extra places that have been built since 1997 and go through a whole range of issues on capacity, but the key point is that we must stop people seeing prison as being a place where they feel comfortable. The chaos and disorder of criminal lives sometimes means that prison is seen as an easier option because people do not have to deal with the outside world. We have to stop people from being in prison for so many years of their life, and we can do that collectively by innovation in offender management.
That is why I feel passionately about the Bill. I said earlier that it is about a change of culture, and I wholeheartedly believe that. It is incumbent on us all to acknowledge in our communities that wrongdoing must be put right but we must try to bring people back into society. I was recently told about young prisoners in London being released, picked up by a flash car, taken to accommodation, bought clothes, and given money for drinks or whatever else. They are being groomed for the next crime that is going to take place. We have to break that cycle, and that is why innovation is important. Those aims are in the Bill, but I accept that we need to revisit the matter in another place.
I am grateful for the acceptance that we have listened and commend the amendment to the House.
Amendment agreed to.
Disclosure for offender management purposes
I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 6, line 39, at end insert—
‘(aa) a relevant local authority;’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 21, in page 7, line 2, at end insert—
‘(h) representatives of local authorities.’.
Government amendment No. 14.
In Committee, I agreed to consider an amendment to include representatives of local authorities in the list of “listed persons” in subsection (2). The intention of the clause is to put beyond doubt for the main parties involved in managing offenders with whom and for what purposes data can be shared.
It has been our view that it would not be sensible to include other organisations at this stage as “listed persons” on the basis that they might in future need to be included. However, we have recognised the unique position of local authorities and their existing responsibilities as regards offender management. In particular, they have established an important role with regard to the multi-agency public protection arrangements and the proper consideration of the housing and safeguarding of vulnerable groups. There is no reason to think that the sharing of data is or should be confined to specific types of very serious case, and on reflection we think that it would improve the Bill if that were recognised by the inclusion of local authorities in subsection (2).
The amendment adds local authorities to the list of persons concerned in subsection (2), with the effect that local authorities will be able to exchange information with NOMS on a reciprocal basis for offender management purposes, but that does not entitle a local authority to share information on a reciprocal basis with other bodies listed in subsection (2), as those bodies are not part of NOMS.
Typically, we envisage that local authorities will exchange information about offenders for whom they are providing housing or education or fulfilling social services department responsibilities. Importantly, however, the amendment does not restrict and exclude other areas in which local authorities already obtain information about offenders when performing important wider functions. One such example is the mandatory indicator in local area agreements between Government and local authorities to reduce the proportion of adult and young offenders, and prolific and other priority offenders, who reoffend.
Not enabling the sharing of such information, on an express basis, would deprive NOMS of important operational flexibility when carrying out its offender management duties. Given the safeguards on data sharing imposed by the European convention on human rights and the Data Protection Act 1998, we can see no good reason for that. With that explanation, I hope that the House will accept the amendment.
I welcome the amendment. The role of local government in the context of probation services, and the need for local authorities to be engaged within the data sharing process, was highlighted in Committee. The Local Government Association has welcomed the amendment for its formal recognition of the status of local authorities. The Minister alluded to the role of local area agreements. It is essential for local authorities to be engaged in the data sharing process to maximise any opportunities flowing from local area agreements, and to put that into force at the community level.
Clearly, local authorities have an essential role to play, in a range of services, in reducing reoffending and supporting work undertaken at the community level to cut crime and deal with offenders appropriately and effectively. The issue of housing was highlighted by the Minister, and it was mentioned by the Opposition earlier in relation to our amendments on sex offenders. Those sorts of issues put the essential role of local authorities in fulfilling many aspects of probation services into context. Councils have a role to play in providing education for offenders in the basic skills of reading and writing, the lack of which inhibits their ability to get jobs and re-skill. Employment opportunities can lift offenders out of their situations, thereby cutting crime and preventing further offending.
The amendment reflects and recognises the essential role that local authorities, councils and communities have in the probation function and in dealing with crime as a whole. It is only a pity that the same approach has not been taken in relation to other aspects of the Bill that remain centrally focused and driven from the top rather than from the community level.
I thank the Minister for introducing Government amendment No. 13, which is similar in form to my amendment No. 21, although perhaps in a slightly better position in the context of the clause.
I tabled my amendment because I was impatient at the time taken to follow up the assurance given in Committee, but the Minister got there in the end, and I am grateful for it.
I thank hon. Gentlemen for their contributions. Local authorities do play a key role, and the amendment acknowledges that. I hope that the amendment is supported.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 14, in page 7, line 36, at end insert—
‘(7A) In this section “relevant local authority” means a county council in England, a Welsh county council or county borough council, a district council, a London borough council, the Common Council of the City of London or the Council of the Isles of Scilly.’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
Powers of director of a contracted out prison
I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 10, line 29, leave out clause 14.
In the limited time available, I want to raise a critical issue. The Prison Governors Association has made representations to Members on both sides of the House about clause 14. Let me explain the background. The previous Administration introduced the initial legislation to privatise prisons, which allowed the private sector to take over new prisons and to run them. A clause was inserted in that Bill, which became section 85(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. It specifically safeguarded that responsibility for punishment within prisons should be performed by controllers who are Crown servants and not by the directors of the private company. The Crown servants or controllers were established to adjudicate on prisoners and, where appropriate, to award penalties for offences against prison discipline. Controllers are therefore the only people able to make decisions about punishment during sentence. They alone can decide on issues to do with segregation, cell confinement and the use of mechanical constraints.
Clause 14 would remove that restriction; it would pass to directors of private companies the role of undertaking disciplinary action against prisoners. That could lead to a conflict of interest in the role of directors of such companies. Their prime responsibility is to maximise profits for their company, whereas they would also have the semi-judicial role of determining whether any disciplinary action should be taken against individual prisoners. Let me give an example of the kind of conflict of interest that might arise.
One of the main means by which prisoners are disciplined is the imposition of fines—the withdrawal of their income earned as a result of the labour they undertake in prisons. That income is paid by the private sector company running the prison; therefore, that company will accrue a saving to itself if it fines prisoners. Although such judgments are currently made by the independent controller, they have an effect in the long-term review of prisoners’ cases in reports on their behaviour in prison that are prepared for decisions on their possible parole, home detention or release on licence. Therefore, those judgments have a significant impact on prisoners’ lives.
I am concerned that we are passing over those powers from controllers to private company directors in such a way that the faith of prisoners and others in the independence of judicial decision making with regard to the behaviour of prisoners in prisons will be undermined. Therefore, I ask the Minister to look again at this matter before the Bill passes to the House of Lords. Although it is accepted that controllers will still exist, their role will not be to make day-to-day adjudications and decisions about individual prisoners; it will simply be to have an overview of the overall practice of private companies.
The Prison Governors Association has expressed concern that the role played by private companies will be paid for by cuts in the controller service. The PGA believes that that will undermine the effectiveness of the service provided by the controllers. This might appear to be a minor matter, but it could cause problems in implementing the legislation. Therefore, I ask the Government to look again at it, and I hope that when the Bill passes to another place there might be an opportunity to amend it accordingly.
The hon. Gentleman has made his points clear. I have some reservations about the ability of non-Crown servants to act as judges in the punishment system, but I suspect that that can be dealt with in a fairly intelligent way, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to the points that I made about clause 14 in Committee on 18 January, when that clause was discussed in detail. Through it, we are seeking to transfer to directors of private prisons certain powers currently exercised by controllers—Crown servants—regarding the segregation, control and disciplining of prisoners.
It is important to keep it in mind that we are not seeking through the clause to create any new powers. The powers of segregation and adjudication are essential control tools for maintaining order, control and discipline in our prisons. Rather, the clause transfers the responsibility in private prisons for segregation and adjudication from a Crown servant—the controller—to a private sector employee, the director, who under contract acts on behalf of the Secretary of State. Although we accept that the current restrictions made sense when private prisons were first introduced, they appear to be increasingly unnecessary, especially as the private sector has been credited, as I said earlier, with helping significantly to improve conditions for prisoners and has had a central role in advancing the decency agenda across the prison estate.
Directors can already take decisions about the segregation of prisoners in an emergency; indeed, such decisions are more likely to be taken in those circumstances. In such cases, the director has to seek retrospective approval from the controller. There is no evidence that that system has been abused since the opening of the first private prison, Wolds, in 1992.
Adjudication powers can also be transferred safely to directors, who will operate within the same constraints of prison rules as public sector governors and will use exactly the same procedures as those laid out in the prison discipline manual. Hearings that may result in the award of additional days will have to be passed to an independent adjudicator, in line with operations in the public sector.
The benefits of the change are that directors will be able directly to influence order and discipline in the prisons for which they are responsible, and controllers will be freed from a time-consuming task to spend time monitoring the delivery of the contract and the quality of service provided. The discipline system in private prisons will mirror that in the public sector for the first time.
There seems to be some contradiction in what the Minister is saying. The National Offender Management Service has issued to controllers a statement saying that there will be a reduction in controllers’ overall budget, which will now be used to pay private companies to undertake the provision. So there will be no additional capacity among controllers to undertake the work that the Minister describes.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, and I undertake to look at it. My understanding is that the intention is to ensure that controllers are not subject to under-capacity. However, given the time scale—
If the Minister could offer an assurance that there will be no reduction in controllers’ capacity or in the number of staff, that would reassure them that they can fulfil the overview role properly.
My hon. Friend is asking me to come to a conclusion without the investigation having taken place. I ask him to let me do the investigation first; I will then get in touch with him about the conclusion. However, the situation that he describes is not the intention.
We believe that adequate and appropriate safeguards to all these powers will be provided by existing secondary legislation—prison rules—by a contractual requirement from the public sector to follow current detailed operating systems, by monitoring by the controller and the independent monitoring board, and by an avenue of complaint to the independent prisons and probation ombudsman. Given those undertakings and in the light of the investigation to which I referred, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendment. As I said, I will get back to him about the issues that he raised.
These are key issues and they have caused concern among prison governors and controllers. I would welcome the opportunity to meet the Minister, along with representatives of the Prison Governors Association, to discuss them before the Bill goes to the other place.
I am happy to do that—and to discuss why the Prison Governors Association will not allow private sector directors to become members of it. I hope that my hon. Friend will therefore withdraw his amendment.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Minor and consequential amendments
I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 32, line 9, after ‘2000)’, insert ‘in which’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 17.
These are purely technical amendments which are necessary to correct drafting errors. The bodies concerned are being consulted.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 17, in page 35, line 34, column 2, after ‘paragraph 4,’, insert
‘the word “and” at the end of the definition of “escort arrangements” and’.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
Order for Third Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We have had a productive and useful debate this afternoon on Report. Despite my inability to attend all of the debate, I can assure the House that I was listening to it intently during discussions with many deeply interested Members from both sides of the House. I thank everyone who has contributed in the Chamber today and on previous occasions, and those who have contributed outside the Chamber in discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), and me.
The contributors and the contributions have significantly improved the Bill in several areas, some of which I will deal with tonight. However, there are also several issues to which we will wish to return in the other place.
Over the past few weeks, my hon. Friend the Minister and I have met a range of parliamentary colleagues, prison and probation staff and those who assist the service, in addition to representatives of the voluntary, private and charitable sectors and the Local Government Association. Considerable consultation has occurred even as the Bill has gone through the House and I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have had personal experience of that. We have listened carefully, as we are duty bound to listen on any occasion, but especially when we are dealing with such serious issues with such potentially serious consequences. In addition, we have studied the many helpful amendments that have been tabled. I wish to summarise how we have responded to those concerns and how we will continue to work to improve the Bill as it continues its passage. Before I do so, I wish to make a few general remarks about the underlying principles behind the legislation for the benefit of colleagues and for the avoidance of doubt.
For the avoidance of all doubt, I wish to make it clear that this Bill is about supplementing the probation service, to reduce reoffending and to protect the public. Its primary purpose in practical terms is to protect those who send us to this House by reducing, through rehabilitation, supervision and better management, the reoffending that so often afflicts our society with individual and, sometimes, collective tragedy. It is not about privatising the probation service.
The public sector already has, and will continue to have, a key role to play in the management and rehabilitation of offenders. To illustrate our commitment to that, I merely point not to our words, but to our practice over the past few years. The Government have invested massively in the public sector probation services. Since 1997, overall staff numbers in the probation service, which some hon. Members mentioned earlier, have not reduced: they have gone up by no less than 50 per cent. or 7,000 more staff. Public probation service funding has also increased by 40 per cent. in the past five years alone. We have shown a sustained commitment to the public sector and we will maintain that sustained commitment to our probation services.
Moreover, the increased inputs that I have described—in resources, staffing and new methodology—have been converted into improvements in the treatment of offenders. This year, the number of offenders being taught basic skills is four times what it was only four years ago, while the number of offenders subject to accredited offending programmes is five times what it was five years ago. That shows that there has been a vast improvement in the numbers of people receiving assistance.
For instance, funding for prison drug treatment has risen since 1997 by 973 per cent.—that is, a rise of almost 1,000 per cent. in the money available for treatment for drugs-related offenders. Yet, even so, the reoffending rate has remained stubbornly high, and that is one of the reasons why we are discussing these matters this evening.
We can argue about the exact details of reoffending rates for different categories of offenders, but we all know that the rate has remained high in spite of all our efforts. I want to try to build on the investment that has been made already by enabling specialist providers in the voluntary, charitable and private sectors to supplement—not supplant—the public sector, where appropriate. I want to harness all the available energies in the reduction of reoffending, and that is the first point that I want to make.
My second point follows on from that, and has to do with my overriding concern to provide public protection and offender rehabilitation. Both those priorities are at the heart of the Bill—and as a result much of the Bill is not contentious—but they involve huge challenges that are too intractable for any one sector to handle alone.
We need to open up the reservoir of potential assistance for offenders so that all providers—be they public, voluntary, charitable or in the private sector—can play to their strengths. We will not make a real impact in reducing offending if we cannot harness the specialist skills and resources of organisations familiar to, and respected by, Members of this House. They include organisations such as the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, Turning Point, Rainer, Crime Concern, and the St. Giles Trust. The latter organisation, which I visited last Saturday, helps offenders by providing employment opportunities: only people who have been down a hole can help others get out.
We want to use all the specialist skills that are available to complement the work done by the public sector. If they are given the chance, organisations such as the ones to which I have referred have a huge amount to contribute, and all of them back the Bill. They might not agree with its every aspect, but they welcome the core approach on which it is based, and the advances that its formulation will make possible. They do not merely acquiesce in our proposals; rather, they have expressed their support both publicly and in private.
I turn now to the question of targets—a matter that has been raised constantly both with me and with my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South. People are very concerned, but we already have targets determining how much work must be contracted out of the public sector. In other words, they determine the outcome for services that must be put into the non-public sector by the probation board. In future, we shall abolish the existing targets and replace them with an entirely different type of aspiration. In future, the aspirations—the targets—will not be based on the a priori assumption that there is a level of non-public sector work that must be carried out, whether or not it gives best value or is from the best provider. That would be a dogmatic approach that could unjustifiably force work out of the public sector. No a priori assumptions will be made under our approach.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
Certainly, when I have finished this section of my speech.
Let me make it clear: if a public sector provider is good enough, even outwith time scale or theme, or the assurances about ring-fenced areas that I shall give, it will have as much chance as anyone else to win the work—some would say a better chance, given the history of some providers’ involvement and experience. Our aim is simply to ensure that the best provider delivers best value for the taxpayer. That is our purpose.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I have raised this issue with him so I am heartened by his comments. He seems to be saying that probation trusts will be required, for a certain percentage of their non-core work, to seek the provider who is most suitable and can deliver best value, and that provider could be in the public, private or voluntary sector. The process would be akin to the best value procedure familiar to many of us in local government and which is generally supported.
That is precisely what I am saying. Indeed, I would go a little further. Although we have not yet worked out the exact detail as to how that aim might be attained we would obviously look at where best value is already pursued and is a central objective of the process—for instance, in local government. We will study those schemes, to find out whether we can learn from them and incorporate those lessons.
I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), whom I discourteously forgot, and then to my hon. Friend.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is difficult effectively to educate or train people who cannot communicate? If he agrees with that proposition how does he intend to address the problem?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s proposition. May I tell him a little anecdote in response? I mentioned earlier that last Saturday morning I visited a voluntary group in London made up of previous offenders who help offenders. They paid me the compliment of telling me that I was not as starchy as they had anticipated—I think it was a compliment. As I was talking to them I noticed pictures on the walls of faces that I recognised, but I could not see the writing underneath. When I looked more closely, I saw that one of the pictures was of Einstein and another was of Churchill and that the word I could not read was “dyslexia”. That group had realised that central to many of the difficulties in rehabilitating offenders was not just lack of education but problems in acquiring it.
One of the reasons why I want more prison places is based not on the assumption that we can build our way out of difficulties by constantly building more places but on the need to create time and physical space to increase further the education carried out in prisons. If rehabilitation is not carried out, the reoffending will not drop, and if the reoffending will not drop, the public will be no safer than they were in the first place. I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says.
I would like to say how much I welcome—and how much many others inside and outside the House will welcome—the clarity that the Secretary of State has brought to the issue of competitions for service provision, particularly making it clear that they will include the public sector. The outcome could mean the public sector winning some of these contracts. My right hon. Friend has also stressed at least the principle of best value—rather than the lowest or the cheapest—as the underlying methodology by which tenders will be judged. I would be interested to know when he will be able to elaborate on the best value system that may be adopted.
I trust that we will be able to provide more detail about how we would apply those principles in practice during the course of proceedings, perhaps in the other place. It is certainly our intention that any target, aspiration, aim or formulation of a figure will relate to the amount of service that might be scrutinised in order to get best value; the figure is not a determination of how much must end up in the private, charitable, voluntary—or, for that matter, public— sector. I make that plain. That is in addition to some guarantees that I will provide later on about some of the more serious elements of offender management. That will mean that, for a prolonged period, that area will not even go through that scrutiny, because I want to proceed cautiously.
Which elements of the contract will be regarded as commercially confidential? As my friend knows, in the health service, where the private sector is being brought in, many contracts are commercially confidential.
I think that the Under-Secretary has already responded to my hon. Friend on that matter. In so far as it is possible, we make these things as public and as transparent as possible. When we have to choose between A and B rather than simply allocate to A, it is important to have a degree of scrutiny and transparency that did not exist hitherto. On the specific detail of particular contracts and services, I cannot dictate from the Dispatch Box today, but I will undertake to write to my hon. Friend on this matter, if he will allow me.
I would like to make some progress. As I was saying, we will look at the principles and how to apply them in attaining best value. As to improvements to the Bill, I would like to mention one or two key undertakings—resulting directly from discussions with my right hon. and hon. Friends—that we have given since Second Reading. I hope that my hon. Friends will feel that they address their very real concerns—I do not doubt for a moment that those concerns are real.
The first undertaking relates to local accountability. We have listened carefully to views expressed on both sides of the House and put forward by organisations such as the Local Government Association. I want to emphasise that we are as keen—and, personally, I am as keen—as everyone else to ensure that local probation trusts are accountable to local people and that whatever happens in the locality, we do not have the imposition of an external group of professionals who happen to come along. I want truly to get some form of local representation built into the probation trust and I firmly believe that the Bill will, together with related reforms, increase not reduce that accountability. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has offered some important new commitments.
The House knows that I am a Teesside MP, and I am concerned about the impact of the measures on that area. Is my right hon. Friend saying that a degree of autonomy will be afforded to the Teesside probation service to look after aspects of its own behaviour?
I certainly hope so. Although there is a regional commissioner, I hope that we can lock in the guarantee of accountability below the regional level—not just in Teesside, but further down the geographic scale. Let me tell my hon. Friend about one or two of the things that we have agreed to do since our previous deliberations on the Bill.
First, there will be a duty on probation boards to co-operate and share data with local authorities, so local accountability representation will be locked into the data sharing. Secondly, there will be statutory provision for probation trust boards to include councillor representatives. I understand that, given those and other assurances, the Local Government Association is now happy that the Bill addresses its concerns about local accountability.
I have also written to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) to say that we will look sympathetically at some of his proposals, including the amendments that would require probation trusts to publish annual plans and that would require the Secretary of State to consult local trusts about national and regional offender management plans.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
If my hon. Friend will let me go a little further, I will certainly give way to her in a moment.
After discussing that matter and similar subjects with colleagues, I should like to say something about the importance of local representation and identity, not just accountability, on trust boards. That issue was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) and for Bedford (Patrick Hall). I agree with them; I would expect board chairs to be drawn largely from local areas, and we would be happy to make that clear in the guidance that will follow on from the legislation.
A number of colleagues have also raised the importance of local area agreements, which have already been discussed in the context of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. They are important because they place obligations on a range of partners, including probation boards, to co-operate with local authorities in the preparation of local area agreements beneath regional level. I can confirm that this duty will also apply to probation trusts. Going one final step, I also want to consider how regional commissioners should be involved in local area agreements. At the moment, local probation boards participate in the local area agreement, but I want to ensure that the regional commissioner is also involved.
Following directly from my right hon. Friend’s last point, does he accept the concerns of a number of us about the accountability of regional commissioners to local areas? What guarantee can he give that regional commissioners will not be able to ride roughshod over local area agreements, and that the decisions taken locally between local agencies, the probation board and all others involved will be regarded as the main source for determining what is needed in each area?
I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I hope that what I have said tonight illustrates not only that but my attempt to address some of them. I have said that we are going to go further than just ensuring that the local probation trust inherits the obligations of the present probation boards as part of the local area agreement. We will consider how the regional commissioner is to be involved in the local area agreements, precisely because that is such an important factor. At the end, there will be a double lock of accountability because the commissioner will be involved in the local area agreement, and, through the Secretary of State, any actions arising from that may be subject to the scrutiny of the House as well. It is precisely because those matters were raised by my hon. Friends that I have tried to address them in the points that I have made.
May I pursue the question of the local area agreements and the trusts? In the structure that is being proposed in the Bill, the Secretary of State or perhaps, in practice, the regional offender manager, will take on the role of the commissioner, whereas the trusts will become the contractors and the providers of the service. I have never come across a commissioner-contractor arrangement before where discussions go on with the contractor about what the levels of service will be. The structure that he is trying to describe to us is getting very confusing.
No, I think that it is my hon. Friend who is becoming confused. I am not suggesting that the regional commissioner would sit on the probation trust; I am suggesting that the regional commissioner should have an involvement in the local area agreement in some way. The local area agreement involves a whole host of partners who come together. At the moment, one of those partners is the present probation board, which is both a commissioner and a provider. That will change and the commissioner element of that will go to the regional commissioner. I am saying that at present there is no requirement for him or her to relate to the local area agreement. I am going to consider how to make that some form of relationship. There is no confusion or contradiction. That follows on from the commissioning role of the previous probation board.
Before I conclude, I turn to the second great issue.
Will the Home Secretary give way?
I have to make some progress, if my hon. Friend will allow me. If time permits, I will come back to him.
An important issue that Members raised continually and on which I am prepared to offer assurances relates to the role of the public sector in relation to offender management itself—that is, the overseeing and supervision of serious offenders. I understand the concerns of some colleagues about the pace of the reforms and I want to assure hon. Members that we will not rush this process. An important move such as this ought to be undertaken with care and caution and I have previously made it plain that it will be undertaken carefully and cautiously. I can therefore give an assurance today, building on what I said the last time I spoke on the matter at the Dispatch Box, that the core offender management tasks of the probation service—for example, offender report writing, offender supervision and breach proceedings—will remain in the public sector for the next three years. That is for at least the lifetime of this Parliament. I alluded to that the last time I was here and I make it plain again today. For the next three years, the core tasks of offender management will remain in the public sector.
Will my right hon. Friend take on board the issue that I raised this afternoon about the need to set up a mechanism whereby we are able to monitor and then report on what happens on the ground over the next three years so that the evidence from that can inform any future developments?
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said this afternoon. It is a logical follow-on from what I said earlier about the motivation being best value and best providers, not any dogmatic insistence that services should be provided in this or that sector, that decisions must be based on the evidence. What I took him to be asking in the course of the afternoon was whether we could use the period during which the management of offenders would be retained in the public sector to compile monitoring and reports that illustrate the efficacy or otherwise of the process.
That is a perfectly legitimate and intelligent thing to ask and I therefore give the undertaking that we will do that, so that, before we get to any future stage—I will mention another lock on that point—people can see the evidence about how things have been working. In short, I know that this is an area of particular concern for some colleagues and therefore I am extending the time during which this aspect will be retained in the public sector to the lifetime of this Parliament. That is what I said last time I was at the Dispatch Box and I repeat it now.
I know that there is particular concern among hon. Members about the support that the public probation service gives to courts, especially regarding the writing of reports, which is at the heart of offender management. That is an especially important and sensitive area of work that can be key to the success, or otherwise, of what follows to reduce reoffending and to protect the public. For that reason, we tabled an amendment requiring the Secretary of State to contract only with the public sector for the work that the probation service does in relation to courts. That provision could be repealed only by an order subject to the affirmative procedure that was agreed by both Houses of Parliament.
If, at some future point, any Government were to decide that the time was right to open up that area of work to non-public sector providers, they would have to make the case to Parliament, and Parliament would have the final say. In short, there is a three-year guarantee for the retention of offender management in the public sector and a double lock meaning that any movement after that will require a vote of both Houses of Parliament. I believe that those assurances are hugely significant and I hope that they will go a considerable way towards meeting the major concerns that hon. Members have expressed to me. I assure hon. Members that we have listened to their concerns and that we will continue to listen.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
In fairness, I should give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who tried to intervene earlier.
May I bring my right hon. Friend back to his comments about regional offender managers? He said that they would be involved in some way with local opinion. Does he agree that that phrase lacks his usual precision and does little to comfort those of us who fear that an awful lot of power is being placed in the hands of nine or 10 regional offender managers who will be ultimately accountable not to local opinion and local people, as is the case under the existing system, but to him?
My hon. Friend is not being entirely fair. First, I have said that we will have elected local councillors on the probation trusts. Secondly, I have said that the trusts will be required to publish their plans. Thirdly, I have said that the regional commissioner will be required to consult the trusts. Fourthly, I am now saying that I will consider ways of ensuring that the regional commissioner relates to the local area agreement. I have done that in a framework through which I am guaranteeing that offender management will stay in the public sector for three years. Even after that, a vote of both Houses of Parliament will be needed to change the situation. If that does not bring my hon. Friend comfort, I am not quite sure what will. I have listened and moved a considerable way, as many hon. Members will recognise. I am as determined as anyone else in the House to get this right, otherwise the public will not be protected and the people who will carry the can for that will be Ministers.
I have tried to consider the views of Labour Members, and in some cases I have compromised significantly. I have done so because, in the vast majority of cases, their concerns are shaped by a commitment to this public service and public protection and underpinned by sincerity.
I now turn to the Conservative party and, especially, to the Leader of the Opposition. In November 2005, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said:
“If the Labour Party puts forward proposals which we agree with, then we should support them and not just oppose for opposition’s sake. That is the sort of Punch and Judy politics that people in Britain are tired of and which we must end.”
Of course, we have been told continually about the commitment of the new Conservatives to work in partnership with the voluntary sector. They make general statements about that, but we have the benefit of a special statement from the Leader of the Opposition:
“I don’t think that the voluntary sector has an important role to play. I believe that the voluntary sector has the crucial role to play.”
He was talking about penal policy and offenders.
I understand that despite all these avowed intentions and promises, the Opposition are considering voting against the Bill tonight. That is a choice for them alone to make, but I caution them against opposition for opportunism’s sake. To vote against the Government tonight, in contradiction to everything that they have publicly declared in the past, even if they were to win, would be at best a hollow victory, since in capturing the minutes of opportunism they will have thrown away the hours of integrity, and it will be noticed by the public. It is the sustaining of principles and policy over the hours that is the true mark of leadership and potential Governments, not the opportunistic minutes. Even worse, and I say this to my hon. Friends as well, if they vote against the Bill tonight, abandoning all consistency and principle, grasping nothing but hollow air and opportunism, and they lose, they will then have lost twice. They will have lost their political credibility entirely; they will have lost their integrity; and they will have done it in pursuit of a cheap, opportunistic hit.
I say to my hon. Friends that the Conservatives’ predicament is always our opportunity. Members on the Labour Benches should remember that when we are voting we can not only improve offender management and the protection of our people in this country but expose the Conservative party for what it truly is—a bunch of policy-less, principle-less opportunists. I commend the Bill to the House.
I start by agreeing with the Home Secretary on one thing. Like him, I listened to much of the debate and thought that nearly all of it was serious, principled and important, even those parts I disagreed with. The only part that I would except from that is the last two minutes of his speech. I am fascinated to be lectured by this Home Secretary on credibility.
The Government said that the aim of the Bill is to reduce reoffending. Everyone in the House, indeed everyone in the country excepting perhaps the criminal fraternity, would applaud that aim, and we certainly do. As the Home Secretary said, we specifically support the idea of more diversity of provision. The support that we gave on Second Reading was not unconditional, and we said that clearly at the time. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said that
“we see a Government addicted to control and centrally devised models”.
He went on to say:
“Our support for the Bill is not open-ended but conditional on the Government’s responding to us… 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…defeat this Bill on Third Reading and in another place.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 601-2.]
That was very clear and very consistent. If the Home Secretary was not listening, that is his problem.
The picture that the Home Secretary paints of the progress of the Bill is hard to recognise, with the possible exception of the last 48 hours. The Opposition—both Opposition parties, it is fair to say—made every effort to secure a cross-party approach in Committee to try to achieve the best Bill possible. For example, right at the beginning we called for an evidence-taking session to get the best expert evidence on what change would really deliver practical benefits. That was under the new rules brought in by the Leader of the House. That was refused point blank by the Home Secretary. So much for consultation. But we held the session anyway.
In January the Committee heard from independent experts in the field, and the few quotes that I shall now read to the House are from the House of Commons Library note on that hearing, which I take as an impartial summary record. The former chief inspector of prisons, a very principled man who has stood up for his cause over time,
“identified the principal problem facing the Probation Service as one of overload, and was sceptical that trusts, by contracting out the supervision of offenders to the private or voluntary sector, could solve the problem.”
The former head of the Prison Service and the probation service, Martin Narey, who was prayed in aid by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), earlier,
“argued in favour of both offender management and competition, but said that neither counted for much unless the right balance could be struck between sentencing and the prison population, because of the damage overcrowding does to work on rehabilitation.”
The head of the respected home affairs think-tank Civitas
“suggested that the Government’s proposals on contestability were being too dominated by central Government to allow sufficient innovation.”
Even the Home Secretary acknowledged our collaborative approach, only this week thanking my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for our “constructive” engagement through the Committee stage. Those were his words—a little different from the words he used tonight. However, as the Library note makes clear, the Bill was not substantively amended at all in Committee. So much for constructive engagement with the Opposition.
Although one amendment has belatedly been accepted by the Government today, that does not change the central flaw of the Bill. The Home Secretary—amazingly, in a Third Reading debate after a Committee stage and a Report stage, still proposing to amend the Bill—promised some minor changes that would not fundamentally alter the fact that the trusts, as the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) pointed out, are, in the final analysis, appointed by and accountable to the Home Secretary, not to their communities. So much for localism.
On that basis, the Home Secretary is correct: we cannot support yet another Home Office Bill. There are three principal grounds on which we shall vote against Third Reading. First, despite the Home Secretary’s claims, the Bill is about more centralised Government control over offender management. Let us be clear: over-centralisation is bad in its own right, but over-centralisation in a Department that is already in difficulty, that is struggling to cope and that may simultaneously have to cope with a massive reorganisation as the Home Office is cut in two, is a recipe for disaster—something that the present Home Secretary might recognise.
In his letter of 26 February to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Home Secretary claimed to be championing a “more devolved approach” to the system, one that would be sensitive “to local needs”. Again, those are his words. But the head of the Probation Boards Association, whom I regard as a more credible witness, described the Bill on the “Today” programme this morning—
The outgoing head.
No doubt he is outgoing, now. He said:
“It centralises everything on the Home Office and removes responsibility from local people who govern the probation service.”
The Government claim that the Bill is all about contestability, opening up the provision of offender management services to the private and voluntary sectors. The Home Secretary wrote in The Daily Telegraph on Monday that
“the voluntary sector is queuing up to help.”
Let me be clear. We welcome wider involvement and greater competition in the delivery of those public services. We welcome the involvement of the private and voluntary sectors and the innovation that they can bring to probation services. But the Government have offered no compelling reason why we need yet another piece of legislation to increase their own self-imposed level of 3 per cent. of expenditure that is currently outsourced.
That the Bill is not necessary to achieve that was made clear by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber during this afternoon’s debate. In addition, we were told by the Probation Boards Association that the level of private and voluntary sector provision
“was at least twice as much before the Home Office, under the current Government, decided that was not money well spent”,
so they halved it. It is clearly possible to double, if not treble or quadruple, the quantity of service provision from the private and voluntary sectors without any new legislation. In December, the Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee that the Home Office should spend
“a little more time delivering”,
and a little less time “passing laws”. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to heed his own advice.
The second ground for opposition is that the proposals focus on yet another organisational restructuring—the third probation service reorganisation in six years. It is impossible to improve service delivery in that way. The constant bureaucratic reshuffling is—again, I quote the head of the Probation Boards Association this morning—“ridiculously expensive”. He is right. It is estimated that the provisions of the Bill will require a further 1,600 civil servants to operate—I heard the Under-Secretary set his face against that—and the Government are spending nearly £900 million on NOMS headquarters, which is £60 million more than they are spending on the front-line delivery of probation services.
The final reason why the Opposition will vote against the Bill is that, as it stands, it is a real distraction from the problems at hand. There have been 60 Home Office Bills in 10 years, during which time reoffending rates rose by 10 per cent., which is an historic increase, but the Government still have not learned one self-evident truth: they cannot legislate their law and order failings away. The reason for the soaring prison reoffending rate is the failure to retrain and rehabilitate in prison, and the reason for that is the chaos and disruption caused by the Government’s failure to provide enough prison places. The Bill will do nothing to solve that.
The reason for many of the serious crimes and even murders committed by those on parole and probation is the fact that the Government cut the number of face-to-face interviews before release by 90 per cent. The Bill will not solve that, and it will do nothing to stem the danger to the public that is the direct result of chronic prison overcrowding—a problem that the Government predicted, but a responsibility that they abdicated. The benefits claimed for the Bill do not, in fact, require legislation, but its harmful aspects are a direct result of it. That is why we will vote against the Bill on Third Reading, and why, when the Bill goes to the other place, we will seek to amend it drastically to remove the massive over-centralisation that it entails.
I start by thanking the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), for the competent and well-humoured way in which he conducted himself on Report; that was appreciated by the whole House. Moving on to the Home Secretary’s extensive speech, which took up the majority of the time allocated for Third Reading, he painted a warm, fuzzy picture of what he believed some of his hon. Friends would like the Bill to be, and of what he believed he might persuade them that it meant. That picture bears little relation to the words in the Bill, or to its consequences if it is passed tonight.
The Home Secretary employed the common ground shared by all parties. We all want a seamless transition between prison, the probation service and, beyond that, proper rehabilitation in the community. We all want those services to be improved; that is common ground, and we do not need the Bill to achieve it. He said that he wants to supplement, rather than supplant, the probation service, but if he intends to supplement it, why did he not accept the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard)? Why did he not accept that some core areas are the proper province of the probation service, but that in other areas, it would be possible to supplement what the probation service does with proper involvement of the voluntary and charity, or indeed private, sectors?
We have to take into account what we heard before today’s speech. We must hear the mood music—the famous speech at Wormwood Scrubs, and the rubbishing of much of the probation service’s work, which took place before this debate and before the introduction of the Bill. During the stages of the Bill, there has been no indication of how it will address the failings that the Home Secretary perceives in the performance of the probation service. The repeated refrain was that the Bill will engage the services of the charity and not-for-profit sectors in ways that are not possible at the moment, but it was never said what the barriers were to engaging those services under current legislation. Many of us believe that those barriers are not there. The only answer that the Minister gave, in the Bill’s earlier stages, was that the Bill would change the culture of the probation service—a proposition that I find laughable.
We should consider the reality of the Bill before us, including what are purported to be Government concessions. I repeat that giving a concession with one hand while including, in the same group of amendments, a new clause that provides for repeal of that concession, seems an extraordinary way of doing business.
Basically, this is a centralising Bill that concentrates power directly in the hands of the Secretary of State and his appointees. What clearer illustration of that could there be than the fact that the Home Secretary presented as a major concession the provision for probation trust chairmen to be drawn from the areas in which the trusts work. That is not a concession but local accountability—the chair should have a relationship to the area with which the trust is involved.
The Bill will result in a great failing in accountability. At the moment, if a mistake is made in the probation service, the service is publicly accountable, both locally and nationally. The Home Secretary can order an inquiry and the probation inspectorate can conduct an inquiry on its own initiative. We can raise such matters in the House, and remedy or improvement can be made. Under the contracted-out arrangements, if there are errors the best that can happen is a breach of contract, which is remediable under civil law. That is not the way in which such a desperately important service should operate. We face the prospect of newly appointed commissioners with no direct experience commissioning services from newly appointed operatives with no direct experience of providing such services. We opposed the Bill on Second Reading, and we have been entirely consistent in our view. We hoped that the Secretary of State would redesign the Bill to achieve the objectives that he set out today, but he has not done so. He has not taken the advice proffered in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and for that reason, we stand resolute, and we will oppose the Bill again this evening.
I well remember a story about how Winston Churchill sat in the gardens of No. 10, dictating to his secretary the words, “I had not intended to intervene in this debate”. I certainly did not intend to intervene, but it is an important debate on an important subject. It is a matter for the Government, and it has been subject to consultation and amendment. It has been severely trawled by the media and it has attracted a great deal of attention in the country.
Like me, my hon. Friend will have listened with great interest to the contribution of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), in which he discussed local accountability. Will my hon. Friend tell us, on the basis of his considerable experience in local and national government, what knowledge he has of the marvellous world of local accountability which apparently exists in the probation service at the present time?
I have worked for 23 years and more with the probation service in Middlesbrough. It is an excellent service, and it works extremely well with those with whom it must deal. As a Member of Parliament, I have the closest relationship with it. I listened with great interest to the speech by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), as I know that he had not mugged up on the subject before yesterday. He had to work extremely hard to gain the knowledge that he put before the House of Commons on a great parliamentary occasion.
As the hon. Gentleman referred to the subject, may I state that I have represented my party on home affairs for quite a few years? Before doing so, I was chairman of a police authority, and before that I was leader of Somerset county council, which had responsibility for the probation service, so I think I know one or two things about the subject.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I can reveal a secret. I was in the Tea Room yesterday when he stated that he was mugging up on the subject at the last moment. That may be one of the secrets of the Tea Room, which I overheard from him. I am sure that his knowledge of the subject is deep. I would not wish to stand in the House of Commons and say that a Liberal Member of Parliament making a speech on the Floor of the House did not speak with the utmost sincerity, based on the greatest possible knowledge of the subject.
Over 23 years in the House—24 years now—one of the things that I learned early on was sincerity. Are the speakers on both sides of the House speaking with the utmost sincerity? I have found, much to my regret, that on many occasions that has not been the case. I am sure that if there is a feeling that the Bill may give the Government some difficulty—
Nobody could doubt the utter sincerity of my hon. Friend. Is he implying by his comments that, heaven forfend, there may be an element of opportunism in some of the opposition to the Bill?
I would not wish, after 24 years of never having been called to account—
It was 23 a minute ago.
Time passes quickly, even in the House. It passes even more quickly when one is enjoying oneself, and more quickly still when one is able to make an impromptu speech. The best speeches come from the heart, as this one does.
My hon. Friend will have noticed that the Back Benches of the official Opposition were empty throughout the major part of this afternoon’s debate, and that that party had no view on the key amendments and clauses that the House was discussing. Does that not suggest that, having not been present for most of the debate, opposing the Bill on Third Reading is indeed opportunist?
I am not entirely sure whether the word “opportunism” is unparliamentary or otherwise, but opportunism in a debate such as this on a matter such as this would indicate a great deal of opportunism.
I am told that many of my own hon. Friends intend to vote against the Government on Third Reading. I have to tell them with the utmost sincerity that they were never sent to the House to vote against a Labour Government. They will get no thanks from their supporters in their constituency. I surmise that at the end of the day they will get no support from the probation services. They will certainly get no support from their right hon. and hon. Friends who have supported the Government and who continue to support the Government.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that a number of us who voted against Second Reading and for an amendment this afternoon work closely with our probation services and are genuinely concerned about how the knee-jerk privatisation of part of the service will follow through to improving reoffending rates? We have not heard that argument made.
What is proposed is not a privatisation. The essence of Parliament and of debate is for all those points to be made, as my hon. Friend made them, but at the end of the day the Government must make a decision and must expect that, as they have a majority, the House will support that decision. If my hon. Friend intends to vote against Third Reading, he ought to reconsider. He should ask himself whether he has made the points sincerely on behalf of those who have approached him—
Will my hon. Friend make clear an important point that the Home Secretary made earlier, which all our colleagues may not have heard? He made it clear that services will not be required to be put out to the private or voluntary sector. What will be required is a test of which would be the most suitable provider, whether that be in the voluntary, private or public sector, according to the same principles of best value as most of us supported in respect of local government.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.
Is the hon. Gentleman really advocating party before conscience?
I am sorry—I did not hear the hon. Gentleman’s point. Would he like to repeat it?
I am delighted to repeat it. Was the hon. Gentleman, in his reply to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), advocating party before conscience?
If the hon. Gentleman, who has sat in this place for longer than I have, wishes this Parliament to become an Italian Parliament where anyone votes in any way they like on any issue—
It being Seven o’clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].
28 February 2007
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Bill read the Third time, and passed.
Order. I remind the House that there is other business to be done, so if hon. Members are not staying for the petition and the debate on maggots, please leave immediately.