House of Commons
Wednesday 28 February 2007
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Millennium Development Goals
Rapid population growth will affect the chances of achieving the millennium development goals in a number of countries, making it more difficult to provide the basic services that most people need. High fertility rates also have a negative impact on maternal and child health and on gender equality. About 200 million women who want to control their own fertility still do not have access to modern contraception.
I know that the Secretary of State has read the all-party report on this subject, which concluded that the millennium development goals were difficult or impossible to achieve with current levels of population growth in the least developed countries. For example, while there is a target aiming to halve those living on less than a dollar a day, the numbers living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa are actually rising. Does the Secretary of State accept that present policies are not working and that, in truth, he has to up the funding for international family planning programmes?
I pay tribute to the all-party group, the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members for the role that they play in keeping this issue alive and for the excellent report that they published. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The evidence is very clear, which is why I mentioned in my reply the lack of access to contraception. If couples, particularly women, are given the right and ability to take decisions over their own fertility, we see family size falling. Bangladesh provides a really good example. In the past 20 years, the prevalence of contraceptive use in Bangladesh has increased from 3 per cent. to 54 per cent. and average family size has fallen from an average of seven children 20 years ago to 3.4 children now. I think that that makes the point about the need to do more.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the new millennium development goal target for universal access to reproductive health by 2015? Does he agree that that would help to save the lives of the half a million women in Africa who die needlessly from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes every year, and that it would also help those families to choose the number and spacing of their children?
I certainly welcome that goal and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her contribution to this issue, which is widely recognised across the House. It is for precisely that reason that we are making some funding available to deal with this issue. We have programmes in Pakistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe; and we have large programmes on sexual and reproductive health and maternal health in India, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Those are all examples of the help that we are trying to provide in order to achieve the goal to which my hon. Friend referred.
While the Secretary of State is obviously right to place emphasis on the need to give women the right to choose and to gain access to birth control, does he not also acknowledge that there is a sort of Catch-22 situation here, in that the one thing that helps to reduce population growth is reduction in poverty? Effective poverty reduction strategies will also help to control the advance of population in many of the poorest countries.
The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, absolutely right. The other factor that history teaches us can bring down family size is people becoming better off. When they have an income, they are not so dependent on having a large number of children and very practical questions of social security are relevant. Who is going to look after people in their old age, and who is going to look after them when they are destitute? If they have no visible means of support, what do people traditionally do? They rely on having a large number of children in order to try to provide for that care and support. Giving women greater choice about their own fertility and continuing the fight against poverty are the two single most important things that we can do to help bring down the rate of population growth. As the report of the all-party group makes very clear, that rate of growth threatens to undermine progress in the fight against poverty in some countries.
It is accepted that the world’s population will grow by 50 per cent. by 2050 and that 99 per cent. of the growth will be in developing countries. Worryingly, there is no mention of specific population policy either in DFID’s White Paper or the latest departmental report, yet there is a clear correlation between high child mortality rates and rapid population growth, to counteract which requires investment in child health, girls’ education, access to water and sanitation, female employment and family planning and contraception. Will the Secretary of State ensure that explicit reference to population growth is mentioned in each country assistance plan so that it details the impact of population growth on expenditure and on the delivery of DFID’s poverty alleviation projects?
I am happy to reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. However, as my earlier answers suggested and as he will find in both the White Paper and the departmental report, DFID is already on the case and taking action on the issues that he listed in his question as necessary to be addressed in order to deal with the problem of population growth. We are doing so because, for the reasons that I set out, it is right and also because it will have the additional beneficial effect of moderating what would otherwise be an increase in population that some countries would find very difficult to deal with.
World Classroom Initiative
The world classroom booklet was produced in January to promote the value of school partnerships and give guidance for schools on how to go about setting up the partnerships. There are some 600 partnerships in existence already and we have put in place the funding to support up to 1,800 UK schools to build such links with developing countries over the next three years.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I take it that he would join me in encouraging other hon. Members to involve their local schools in this programme. More importantly, does he agree that there is a real need for the overseas partner schools to have equal access to the funding for the programme, so that the overseas children can get real benefits from it, as well as the children in the UK?
I join my hon. Friend in encouraging Members of all parties to consider what they can do to encourage schools in their constituencies to take an interest in forming such links. I also share his view that we must ensure that there is a benefit not only for UK schools but for the schools that they will be partnered with, if the maximum benefit is to be achieved for children in the developing countries as well as for children here in the UK. The scheme allows for guidance and support for schools here in the UK and for the schools that they are partnering.
I commend the Minister for this excellent scheme. Has he given any thought to having discussions about it with the Department for Education and Skills? Would it not encourage more UK schools to take up the scheme, for the benefit of their own pupils as well as those elsewhere in the world, if Ofsted were to place some emphasis on these links—and the quality of the links—in its assessment of a school’s overall performance? Would not that help to take the project forward?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about the potential role of Ofsted. We already work closely with the Department for Education and Skills, and we are discussing with it whether we need to give further joint guidance to schools on how they can best develop such links. The links are best developed and nurtured by individual teachers in individual schools. We have recently doubled the funding available to expand the number of links that can be supported. We need to allow the scheme to develop a little further, but I will reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.
I would also encourage as many Members as possible to get involved with the schools in their constituencies that are taking part in the scheme, to ensure that we build on its success. I know that we have such schools in my own constituency. Will my hon. Friend look into extending the remit of the programme to ensure that the whole of the local community can become involved? It is important for children to learn in the first place, but involving the wider community in more transnational interlinked projects between the countries would strengthen and build on those links. The children would not then simply leave school and leave all those links behind, because the entire community and the families involved could take the projects forward and make a meaningful difference.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He will be aware from his interest in twinning that there are all sorts of relationships between institutions such as NHS trusts, hospitals and local authorities here and their counterparts in developing countries. We have made it clear in the White Paper, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State published last year, that we want to extend the opportunities to develop such links, and we are thinking through what those twinning programmes might look like. We shall consult shortly on how we can take forward such work. My hon. Friend also makes the important point that, if the community is involved in the development of the school link, it will obviously help to spread the benefits of the link even further.
The humanitarian situation in Darfur is extremely fragile. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of United Nations and humanitarian agencies, the 4 million people dependent on aid in the region have been helped. However, worsening security and attacks on humanitarian workers have made this increasingly difficult to sustain. I am sure that the whole House will wish to condemn the continuing violence against civilians and humanitarian workers in Darfur, and to call on all sides to stop, to accept the African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force, and to restart negotiations.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he agree that the west collectively has not done enough to tackle the violence in Darfur, which has seen more than 200,000 people murdered and 2.5 million people displaced? Does he further agree that, if we had done more, the conflict would not have spread to Chad and the Central African Republic, and the UN would not now be warning that the violence in Chad could turn into a genocide similar to that in Rwanda?
It is difficult to say whether, if more had been done earlier, the upsurge in violence that we have seen in Chad and what is going on in the Central African Republic would not have come to pass. But I agree that, as the world reflects on the crisis in Darfur, it throws into sharp relief the difficulty that we have in finding effective means, through the United Nations, of protecting people who are subject to those crimes. I praise the African Union for the efforts that it has made with the 6,500 or so troops that it has there. I am proud of the fact that the first country in the world to provide financial support to that mission was the United Kingdom and that we are the second largest giver of humanitarian assistance to the people of Darfur. The point that the hon. Gentleman raises is precisely why we are now seeking to get a hybrid AU-UN mission in, with many more troops—17,000 troops and 3,000 police—to provide the security that people want. Finally, the only way in which the conflict will be brought to an end is by means of a political process, and we have to support that too.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all that he has done, but does he share my concern following yesterday’s announcement of the citing of two further people by the International Criminal Court? If we are serious about what we are going to do with regard to Darfur, those citations need to be followed up. However, we must look carefully at what is happening in terms of the humanitarian situation, because that is the very reason why those people have been cited.
I welcome what the International Criminal Court has done. Clearly, there is a process that has to be gone through. The judges have to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to issue a summons against the two individuals who were named yesterday. The ICC was able to do that only because the UN Security Council passed resolution 1593, which the United Kingdom Government and others supported very strongly. It is important that the ICC does that work, both to call to account people in Darfur for what they may have done and to send a message to other people around the world who might be thinking of doing the same in the future that they cannot escape international justice.
On the point about humanitarian assistance, the recent attacks, the carjackings and the appalling brutality inflicted on the aid workers in Nyala in January, about which I have had cause to write to the Sudanese Foreign Minister, demonstrate precisely why the aid agencies are finding it more difficult to operate. Those attacks, that harassment and those carjackings have to stop.
Given that no fewer than 14 United Nations agencies have warned that malnutrition rates are edging perilously close to the emergency threshold and that they attribute the severity of the situation quite specifically to the absence of security, will the Secretary of State tell the House whether he thinks that there is the slightest prospect of an adequately resourced United Nations or AU force being deployed before the genocide has been completed?
In relation to the AU-UN hybrid force, which we got agreement on at the meeting in Addis Ababa at the end of November and which President Bashir said, in a letter to the outgoing UN Secretary-General in December, that he was prepared to accept, 77 of the UN troops are currently in Darfur as part of the first phase of that deployment. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is simple: we, as the international community, have to test the Government of Sudan’s willingness to accede to those troops arriving at every single stage. However, that is insufficient. We need to do two other things. First, we need to extend the arms embargo that applies to Darfur to the whole of Sudan. We will be pressing both in the UN and with our European partners to get support for that. Secondly, we also have the resolution providing for sanctions against individuals, and notwithstanding the process relating to the International Criminal Court, we should press for further sanctions against individuals who are obstructing the humanitarian relief operation and thus giving rise to the concerns that he expressed.
Does the Secretary of State accept that despite his considerable efforts, there is huge concern and frustration as we reach the fourth anniversary of the crisis in Darfur that, despite the merry-go-round of endless summits, negotiations, meetings and assurances, there is still no effective force on the ground? Every leading non-governmental organisation that is involved in trying to help in these desperate circumstances says that humanitarian access in Darfur is the worst that it has ever been.
I do accept that and I share the frustration that the hon. Gentleman expresses. There cannot be a Member in the House who does not feel frustrated about what is happening, but the question is: what is the right thing to do to try to change the situation? That is, as I indicated a moment ago, to support the AU and the UN in getting the forces in. We need to support the political process, and I welcome what Jan Eliasson and Salim Salim, representing the UN and the AU, are doing. They were in Sudan last week talking to the non-signatories. We need to recognise that this is also about saying something to the rebels, because it takes two to have a fight. The rebels who did not sign the Darfur peace agreement in Abuja in May last year also bear a heavy responsibility for the continuing violence and humanitarian suffering that the hon. Gentleman highlights.
Since the Prime Minister told listeners to the “Today” programme last week that he was in favour of “tough action” on Sudan, and given the similar comments made by the former French Prime Minister yesterday, will the Secretary of State use the opportunity of the European Union General Affairs and External Relations Council next week to press for new determination in the EU, in close conjunction with the United States, to enforce the no-fly zone, to extend the travel ban, to impose an asset freeze, and to give the strongest possible support to the ICC in its pursuit of those suspected of crimes against humanity in Darfur? Would not those actions send a more compelling message to the regime in Khartoum?
We intend to use the occasion of next week’s meeting to press our partners for tougher action against the Government of Sudan. We have said—the Prime Minister has made this clear—that we continue to keep the no-fly zone under review, although actually bringing it into effect would be a major undertaking. We should be prepared to examine all measures that would have an impact on the Government of Sudan, because they must hear from all the international community—not just from the United Kingdom or the United States of America—that we are determined that they will be held to account to ensure that they do all the things that they have claimed that they are prepared to do. It would help enormously if Europe could speak with one voice on this.
I am not sure that I quite agree with that because, as I said a moment ago, I pay tribute to the efforts that the African Union has made by putting troops and police officers on the ground. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the fundamental problem is that there are not enough of them. That is why we are supporting the hybrid AU-UN mission, which, with the numbers that were calculated in the summer, would eventually result in 17,000 troops and 3,000 police being in Darfur, as opposed to the 6,500 people who are there at present. The British Government are continuing to provide financial support to the African Union mission. We announced further funding at the beginning of January, and we have helped to pay for air lifts and fuel and to provide vehicles. That is the practical way in which we are trying to help the AU.
We set out our priorities for trying to improve maternal health in our 2004 strategy on reducing maternal deaths. We made it clear that we would, for example, prioritise the strengthening of health systems to increase the number of health workers with midwifery skills and seek to deliver better access to family planning and contraception services.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. However, with one woman dying every minute of every day of every year in the developing world, what can he do to persuade the United States Government to lift the gag rule that was introduced by the Reagan Administration, which prevents family planning organisations in the developing world that receive funding from that country from advising termination in the case of high-risk pregnancies? It is estimated that that costs 150,000 lives—unnecessary deaths—every year.
I share my hon. Friend’s view on the impact of the global gag rule. We have a very different view from our American friends’ on this issue and we continue to encourage them to reconsider their position. In the meantime, we continue to support a variety of international organisations that provide access to safe abortion services, such as the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF. We were the first donor to support the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s global safe abortion action fund.
DFID rightly supports many programmes to prevent the transmission of HIV from an infected mother to an infant, through the use of retrovirals. On previous occasions I have raised the issue of the failure of those programmes to continue to provide treatment to the mother, so that she typically dies within two years, leaving the infant as an orphan. Has the hon. Gentleman pursued that issue and made an assessment of what could be done?
We continue to pursue the issue of improving access to antiretrovirals and support to people once they have started on a programme. The hon. Lady will know that there have been encouraging signs of increased access to antiretrovirals, but an awful lot more needs to be done by the international community and developing country Governments to increase access to health care, including these drugs, and to reduce the price of second-line and third-line antiretrovirals. We continue to look at what else we ourselves can do.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the numbers of women in the developing world who die because of unsafe abortions. The World Health Organisation estimates that some 70,000 women lose their lives every year because of them. We support a variety of international organisations that provide access to safe abortion services, such as the United Nations Population Fund, of which we are one of the largest funders. As I said in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), we were one of the first donors to the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s global safe abortion action fund.
Education (Fragile States)
The United Kingdom will provide £8.5 billion over the next 10 years for education and this will include more support for fragile states. In some countries, we will work through UN agencies—[Interruption.]
In some countries, we will work through UN agencies and civil society where they can make better progress than Governments, but we will also work to strengthen Governments’ capacity where there is a clear commitment to improve education but a lack of resources to do so.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, which is very encouraging. Save the Children has found that 38 million children in conflict-affected fragile states are still missing out on primary education. So much more needs to be done in those states to allow young people to have a future.
I praise Save the Children for its work to raise public awareness of the problem of education in fragile states. We recognise the importance of that, and it is for that reason that the UK’s bilateral spending on education in fragile states has trebled in the last few years and currently stands at about £33 million a year.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the conflict has had a catastrophic effect on the number and percentage of children enrolled in primary and secondary education, and there is a growing gender gap between the numbers of girls and boys who are literate. Will my right hon. Friend say what the early indications from the new Government of Joseph Kabila are, and what investment we are making in that country to ensure that every child has the access to education that they deserve?
We have a large and growing programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, precisely because this is the best chance that that country has had for more than two generations to make progress. The new Government have only just been formed, as my hon. Friend will be aware. Part of that support will be to help education in the Congo, so that children who have lost out on the chance to go to school finally get the chance to do so.
Despite the life-saving and life-giving benefits of education, in war, emergencies and protracted conflicts in fragile states children miss out, not only then but for the rest of their lives, because education is not part of the humanitarian response. Does the Secretary of State agree that education should be an automatic part of first-response humanitarian aid?
Yes, I do agree. It is for precisely that reason that a cluster that will take responsibility for education in humanitarian emergencies, to be led by UNICEF with the support of Save the Children, is to be set up. When disaster strikes, the first priority is clearly to give people food, water and shelter, but we must not forget that the children who have been affected by the disaster need to have the right to continue to go school. The cluster will work to make that possible.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Patient Services (Oxfordshire)
The financial pressures on Oxfordshire primary care trust are real. To its credit, the trust is sorting out those pressures and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the PCT will receive some £727 million in the next financial year, which is an increase of 19 per cent. in two years. Given that huge increase in resource, I am sure that the trust will continue to improve services to its patients in that period.
Does the Prime Minister’s briefing note make reference to the plans to restrict access to various operations in the county, for the strategic health authority to spend £2 million asking PricewaterhouseCoopers how to privatise commissioning services, or to cut nearly two thirds of the community hospital beds, including at Abingdon community hospital? If he provides the number of nurses for which his funding—which I voted for—has paid, will he explain whether the figure is net or gross of the hundreds of job cuts at the Oxford John Radcliffe hospital?
It is true that, for financial reasons, minimum waiting times were introduced, but they will disappear at the end of March. As a result of the changes that have been and are being made, the number of people who are waiting more than 26 weeks for in-patient treatment has fallen in the past 10 years from more than 21,000 to nothing.
It is true that there will be some 60 compulsory redundancies, I think, but there have been almost 20,000 more NHS staff in the area. An enormous amount of money is going into new hospital schemes in Oxfordshire, including—with direct reference to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—a £134 million private finance initiative scheme to relocate services from the Radcliffe infirmary to the John Radcliffe hospital site, a £129 million programme to open a new Oxford cancer centre, and a £26 million expansion of cardiac care. On every measure—waiting lists, heart disease, cancer treatment and accident and emergency—performance is up and the number of people waiting is down.
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to send our condolences to the family and friends of Royal Marine Jonathan Holland, from 45 Commando, who was killed in Afghanistan last week. I am sure that the House will also wish to send condolences to the family and friends of the serviceman from 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, who was killed in Iraq yesterday. As we have said many times in the past few days, those people are working heroically and with enormous courage doing service for their country and the wider world, and we should pay tribute to them.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later.
First, I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s expressions of condolence.
My right hon. Friend will know that the UK Borders Bill will give ports such as Swansea increased security and help in tackling illegal immigration and fighting organised crime. Will he assure my constituents and Public and Commercial Services Union representatives that increased customs and security measures at Wales’s second city will be introduced as a measure under the Bill?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the UK Borders Bill will improve security at our ports, and I pay tribute to the work that has been done by people in her constituency. The measure is in addition to a big investment in electronic borders, which will allow us to track the movements of people in and out of the country, but it is necessary to combine those measures for better border protection with the introduction of identity cards and a proper identity management system, because that is ultimately the only way of tracking illegal immigrants to this country and making sure that they can be deported.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Royal Marine Jonathan Holland and Marine Scott Summers, who have died in the past week through service to our country and Afghanistan. I also pay tribute, as the Prime Minister did, to the soldier who, it was announced this morning, was killed in Iraq.
The Government’s NHS plan says that England has too few hospital beds, but the Health Secretary says that fewer beds are a sign of success. Who is right?
It depends on whether the beds are there for the acute care that people need, and for emergency care. For example, the number of critical care beds has actually gone up under this Government, rather than down. As a result of the transfer of a huge number of cases to day-case surgery—we are now doing about a million more operations a year through day-case surgery—in some circumstances there will be a reduction in the requirement for beds. The most important thing is that people are getting better care, and that is precisely because of the investment that the right hon. Gentleman opposed and the changes that allow us to ensure that, for example, people who used to spend several days in hospital for their cataract operation can come in and get that done through day-case surgery.
Let me ask the Prime Minister specifically about hospital beds and the NHS plan. We should remember that the NHS plan was launched by the Prime Minister personally in the House in 2000. He promised 7,000 extra NHS beds. How many more beds are there today than in 2000?
It is exactly as I was saying: there are more acute hospital beds, but where there has been a reduction—for example, in the number of learning disability beds—it is because that is no longer the way that we treat people. There has been an increase in the number of critical care beds, but most important of all, there has been an increase in the numbers of people whom we are treating, and in the speed with which they are treated.
Let me just explain to the right hon. Gentleman that if people no longer have to spend days in hospital for their operation, and if the operation can be done in one day, that is of benefit to the patient. Let me just remind him that in 1997, hundreds of thousands of people used to wait—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] That was the problem in the national health service. For example, on heart disease, when I first came to power I used to get letters from people whose relatives had died waiting for cardiac care. Now, the average is down to below three months. That is what is important in the national health service, and that is why we say that it is improving.
The fact is that the Prime Minister cannot run away from his promises. He promised 7,000 more beds, but in fact he has delivered a cut of 9,000 beds from the NHS. Is not the truth about the NHS under Labour that 43 maternity units are under threat, 106 community hospitals face closure or cutbacks, and 17 accident and emergency departments face closure or cutbacks? Meanwhile, 13 members from his own Front Bench have appeared on picket lines, objecting to his own policy. Why did he promise more beds, and then cut them?
The promise was in relation to acute beds and critical care beds, and the right hon. Gentleman will find that we have increased both of those. In relation to the overall situation in the health service, he asks what has improved in the health service. Let me tell him what has improved. Waiting times have improved in the health service; the number of nurses and doctors has improved in the health service; and the waiting time for heart disease and cancer treatment has improved in the health service. When we came to power, more than half the NHS building stock was built before the NHS was created; that figure is now 20 per cent. Why did that happen? It was because of investment and change, and he opposes both of them.
I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the Airbus Power 8 announcement being made in Toulouse later today. What assurances can he give my constituents and others who work at Filton and Broughton that our Government are doing all that they can to ensure that high-value, high-tech engineering and manufacturing skills are retained in the United Kingdom?
First, I pay tribute to the work force in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can tell him that I understand that Filton is set to secure the manufacture of key wing components on the A350. That will represent valuable new capability for the UK, and will help to maintain the UK lead for future programmes. In addition, we expect the UK’s role as a continuing centre of excellence for wings to be confirmed. Of course, both at Filton and at Broughton, there is a tremendous amount of work done by a highly skilled work force. Airbus itself, which is a project of European collaboration, has been of enormous benefit, not merely in terms of jobs in this country, but jobs across Europe. The number of Airbus orders is now about 2,000 for the new plane. I have seen it myself, and it is quite superb. It is an extraordinary piece of design, engineering and skilled work, and I know that the work force in my hon. Friend’s constituency will continue to play a major part in its development in future.
May I join the Prime Minister in his expressions once again of condolence and sympathy for those who have lost their lives? When does he intend to tell the House of Commons the nature of his discussions with President Bush about the possible deployment of part of an anti-ballistic missile system for the United States in the United Kingdom?
We will tell the House as soon as there is something to say. At the moment, those discussions are at a very preliminary stage, but it is important that we have them with the United States to see what options are available for this country and whether ballistic missile defence would be good for us or not. It is entirely sensible that we have those discussions—obviously they are on a confidential basis, but as soon as we have something to report we will do so.
Does the Prime Minister accept that the system that has been proposed is largely untried? Indeed, it has been described as
“firing a bullet to hit a bullet”.
In the circumstances that he described, any deployment would undoubtedly have enormous strategic and political implications, not least for arms control. Is it not right that we should have those discussions in the House, and not behind closed doors?
I am sure that we will have the discussion in the House and, indeed, outside the House when we reach the point at a which a proposition can be put before people. Of course, the technology is untried and is under development in the United States which, as was indicated a short time ago, is in discussion with Poland and the Czech Republic about whether to site ballistic missile defence systems there. It is entirely sensible for us to work out the possible options and what the country’s possible interests are. When we have a proposition to put, we will come back and put it. No doubt, the right hon. and learned Gentleman can then tell us whether or not he is in favour of it.
I am sure that everyone would join my right hon. Friend in sending our congratulations to Dame Helen Mirren and to those who won an Oscar at the Oscars ceremony. He has put his finger on a very important point, as the support that has been given to the UK film industry in the past few years is an immense part of building its success. It is not simply the support for the Film Council—film tax relief is worth millions of pounds, and is very important indeed, and we fund the British Film Institute, too. As I heard for myself yesterday, across arts and culture in the past 10 years there has been, as one participant said, a golden age in the way in which we project this country through arts and culture. That is an important part of making this country, its economy and society successful for the future.
Can I for the first and possibly last time ask the Prime Minister a question about his engagements? Did he find time in his busy day to attend the meeting this morning organised by two former Cabinet colleagues to work out how to relaunch his Government?
No, I did not actually, but I am delighted that a full policy debate is taking place in the Labour party. The strength of our policy contrasts with the weakness of the right hon. Gentleman’s. He has made only one policy announcement in the past 12 days. He announced on the morning of 16 February that an absolute commitment had been made to introduce tax breaks for married couples, only for the shadow Chancellor’s spokesman, according to “Channel 4 News”, to denounce that furiously because it was merely being considered. When the right hon. Gentleman gets his own policy making in order he will be in a position to rebut ours.
As part of that hugely welcome great debate, could the Prime Minister solve one of the great mysteries of British politics? Why is it that so many people who have worked so closely with the Chancellor think he would make a terrible Prime Minister, but they do not seem prepared to stop him?
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should reflect on the Chancellor’s record. He has delivered us the strongest economy of any major country, the lowest interest rates that we have had for 30 years, the lowest unemployment for 30 years, the highest employment ever, record investment in health and education and, as I pointed out yesterday, for the first time in years the bottom 40 per cent. of the population have seen their incomes rise in percentage terms more than the top 20 per cent. That is the Chancellor’s economic record. What is the right hon. Gentleman’s?
In the end, as the right hon. Gentleman will find out, it is policy that will determine the future of this country. Every time it comes to policy, he does not know where he stands. If we want an example of that, a few months ago he was telling us that he wanted more engagement for the voluntary sector in the prisons and probation service. Today, he will lead his troops into the Lobby to vote against that voluntary sector engagement. It is policy that will determine the future of this country. We have it and he does not.
As private equity firms are going after healthy, well managed companies with a large cash flow, often extracting huge personal gains at the expense of enormous job losses and crippling a firm with large debt, will my right hon. Friend set up an inquiry into their operation, focusing particularly on the tax relief that they receive for leverage buy-outs and on the need for them to produce in each case a clear contractual statement of their impact on the public interest, including stakeholder and employee interests?
Should my right hon. Friend ever find himself answering questions at the Dispatch Box, he will find that the single most important thing for us as a Government is to keep our economy strong. I totally understand the concerns about private equity firms, but it is important to recognise that we live in a global market. One of the strengths of this country has been the pre-eminent position of the City, which has increased under us in the past 10 years, I am pleased to say. The combination of a strong economy and a commitment to social justice has allowed us to win three elections. It is therefore important that we continue with that strong new Labour position. Despite the obvious interest in and attraction of seeing my right hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box, I think that that will continue, but probably not under him.
Does my right hon. Friend share my enthusiasm for the introduction of 14-to-19 diplomas into our secondary schools next year? Does he agree that if they are to be truly successful, they must be delivered by all our secondary schools, not just some?
It is important that the diploma is widely used. Let me again congratulate the education authorities and schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency that have made such rapid improvements in the past few years. We introduced the system, which was based on a recommendation in the Tomlinson report, to allow those aged 14 for the first time to get a really good vocational stream of education whereby they will be able, for example, to go out and spend some time getting work experience with local employers. This is all part of trying to bring that vocational educational system closer to the world of work and to give youngsters who may decide that they do not want to go down the academic route a far better and preferred way of getting educated. On top of that, we are dramatically increasing the number of apprenticeships. That is also an important part of ensuring that this country gets a skilled work force for the future.
West Midlands/Staffordshire Ambulance Services
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced on 16 May, the intention is that Staffordshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust and the West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Trust should work together to prepare for a merger. A timetable has not been set for the merger, but a partnership board has been established to take forward work relating to it.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that answer. He might know that in fact a merger is now being proposed. The Health Secretary gave assurances to Staffordshire Members of Parliament that there would be no merger until the West Midlands trust had reached the same high standard as Staffordshire. However, if, God forbid, one was to have a cardiac arrest in Staffordshire, one would have a 60 per cent. chance of recovery, whereas in the west midlands one would have a 65 per cent. chance of dying. The standard has not yet been reached, yet a merger is still being proposed. What can the Prime Minister say to people in Staffordshire to assure them that our ambulance service will not be degraded through that merger?
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. Obviously, the terms of the merger are extremely important. Within the past few days, the partnership board chairman has said:
“the whole process is about levelling up performance. Staffordshire leads the country in certain areas”—
I think that he was talking about the idea of the return of spontaneous circulation—
and it is the task of the West Midlands Trust to bring its performance up to those levels.”
In other words, this is clearly about the West Midlands trust coming up to the very high standard that has been set by Staffordshire, not the other way round.
Is it not the case that even after any merger Staffordshire Ambulance Service will remain an autonomous locality, operating to the same methods and standards as at present, including using the LUCAS device, which aids resuscitation, and its pioneering system status management, which has put Staffordshire Ambulance Service at the top of the national ambulance tables for eight years? As my right hon. Friend says, this is about levelling performance up, not down.
I assure my hon. Friend that that is precisely what it is about. She is absolutely right in saying that the purpose is to get the synergy that is there from the merger, but at the same time to lift the standard of West Midlands up to that of Staffordshire. She is also right in saying that the location issue will be very important and has been properly dealt with. In addition, thanks to the investment that we are putting in, Staffordshire PCT has had an increase in funding of about 20 per cent., which will help the ambulance service to maintain its very high standards.
As a matter of fact, my understanding is that as a result of the strength of the economy nationally, the economy in Wellingborough is doing extremely well, and we have more jobs in Wellingborough.
As we are on the subject of Wellingborough, the hon. Gentleman may recall that last week in Prime Minister’s Question Time he asked me about Kettering general hospital’s new £18 million treatment centre and suggested that it was not going to open. Let me tell him that it opened this Monday. It is an £18 million investment and another example of our commitment to Wellingborough.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that amid the generally encouraging trends in crime, attacks on those who replenish cash machines are rising? That organised criminal activity, which often harms those who are carrying out their work delivering cash and puts customers at risk, needs to be substantially reduced. Will he join me in calling for measures to do that?
My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely right and valid, and I understand that police forces in different parts of the country are now focusing a strategy particularly on cash machines and how people can be robbed at them. Where that strategy—which often involves CCTV and community support officers—is put in place, the offence has been sharply reduced. We are therefore trying to collate that good practice and spread it across the country, as that specific form of robbery has risen over the past few years. The measures show, however, that it can be dealt with if the right system is put in place.
Obviously, it is important that the Olympic delivery authority will publish its budget in the next few weeks, and that we keep costs properly under control. The Olympics will do an immense amount for London and the whole country. It will be a huge investment in the future of this country and a wonderful showcase. People of whatever age, whether youngsters or pensioners, in whatever part of the country, should be extremely thankful that we have the Olympics. We should make the investment necessary and ensure that the Olympics in 2012 is—as we believe that it will be—the greatest sporting event on earth.
The Government have rightly prioritised tackling antisocial behaviour. Last year, in Greater Manchester alone, 26,000 complaints were made against so-called mini-motos. Nationally, they are responsible for 40 per cent. of complaints about nuisance. On Friday, the House will consider proposals to regulate those dangerous machines. Why are the Government not supporting those proposals?
I am not aware of the specific point that my hon. Friend raises about regulations, and I am happy to look into that. My understanding is that as a result of antisocial behaviour measures taken in different parts of the country where mini-motos have been a problem, those vehicles can be lifted away and, if necessary, destroyed. He is right that the new antisocial behaviour legislation has been used vigorously by the local council in Manchester, as elsewhere, to make a great difference to people’s lives. I would not want anything to impede our ability to deal properly with disturbance caused by mini-motos. I will look into the matter and get back to him.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. As well as tackling gun crime, we are introducing tougher sentences for the possession of knives as illegal weapons. It will be more interesting to see whether the Liberal Democrats support those proposals, as they usually oppose any tough measures on law and order.
I entirely agree that we need to deal with the causes of crime. That is the reason for Sure Start, the inner-city regeneration programmes, our great investment in schools, the introduction of extended school days and the use of school facilities for voluntary groups and others. We are doing an immense amount on that. In respect of both crime and its causes, we are being commensurately tough.
Later today, the House will debate the national Offender Management Bill. In the consultation leading up to its publication, 96 per cent. of respondents said that they were against the new service. That was said across the piece, by knowledgeable people and organisations including the National Association of Probation Officers and the prison officers. My question therefore is: what was the purpose of the consultation—and how much did that exercise cost the taxpayer?
The purpose is, obviously, to find out what people think about this, but let me just tell the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Before he shakes his head, the hon. Gentleman should listen to the answer. In the voluntary sector, for example, organisations such as the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, which has a long record of handling some of the most difficult offenders, the voluntary organisation authorities themselves, the chief executive of Crime Concern, Turning Point, the Rainer Foundation and the chief executive of the association of voluntary organisations are all saying something that we all probably know from our own constituencies: sometimes the voluntary sector can be better at rehabilitating, and dealing with, some of the worst offenders in society. All we are saying is that where that can be shown to be the case, why not use the voluntary sector and the independent sector to reduce reoffending?
We have put a large amount of additional money into probation and more probation officers, but we believe that we can get the best deal possible if we have a partnership between the public and the voluntary sector. That is why I say, with the greatest respect, that if people really want to tackle reoffending in our society they should support the Bill tonight.
Light Bulb (regulation)
John Barrett, supported by David Howarth, Chris Huhne, Mr. Mike Weir, Mr. Nigel Evans, John Bercow, Malcolm Bruce, Lynne Jones, Chris McCafferty and Mr. David Chaytor, presented a Bill to regulate the efficiency standards of light bulbs; to provide for the phased withdrawal of incandescent and other models of light bulb by 2012; to make provision for the encouragement of energy saving alternatives; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 April, and to be printed. [Bill 69].
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On this day next week, this House will vote on the reform of the House of Lords. That vote will take place on a day when there are Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, hence denying all the Northern Ireland MPs the opportunity to take part in that vote. Since it has been the practice in this House that when there are local elections in England, Scotland or Wales important business will not normally be taken, will you, Mr. Speaker, look into why on this occasion important business has been taken in this House so that Northern Ireland MPs will not have the opportunity to take part in that debate and the vote?
Dance Teachers (Qualifications and Regulation)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the regulation of the teaching of dance; and for connected purposes.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce this Bill, which aims to improve the teaching offered by teachers of dance throughout the country. Dance is one of the most popular forms of activity for spectators and dancers in Britain, and the second most popular activity in schools. Its popularity is rising faster than that of any other art form. Some 4.8 million people participate in community dance, and hundreds of thousands more dance in private dance schools, leisure centres and school clubs. Crucially, for girls it is one of the main focuses of physical activity, and a report, which is due to be published shortly, by Hampshire Dance and Laban provides the first ever statistical evidence showing that dance has a positive effect on both the physical fitness and the psychological health of children aged 11 to 14 years.
I want to highlight the benefits of dance to young people in particular before moving on to some of the reasons why this House should consider the need to require that dance teachers have a minimum standard of qualification. Dance reaches parts of the British public that other physical activities do not reach. Some 40 per cent of all girls have dropped out of all sports activity by the time that they are 18, but surveys in 2003 and 2004 of 50,000 year 9 pupils in more than 700 schools in the north-west of England showed that dance was the top recreational activity for girls outside school. Dance is classed as physical education in schools, so it is more difficult to measure its take-up in class time, but the number of pupils taking a GCSE in dance rose 125 per cent. between 2001 and 2005. So there is no question but that dance is popular, and this popularity and increase in participation can only be good news for the nation’s health.
However, the rise in popularity is not matched by an increase in the number of dance teachers; currently, demand outstrips supply. We need to make sure that we do not lose the chance to get people involved, that high-quality teachers are available who can safely inspire and engage young people, and that this growth in popularity continues. This Bill seeks to address the lack of a requirement for a single recognised teaching qualification for dance teachers. The absence of such a requirement raises important issues associated with the protection of children, in particular.
The Bill is not pressing for a requirement that all genres of dance should have a formal accreditation system, although I acknowledge the work done by the Imperial Society of Teachers Of Dancing, for example, which is based in my constituency, and by the other major dance accreditation bodies in supporting teachers in their efforts to enthuse young dancers as they progress through a properly evaluated dance awards system.
I recognise that much dance is taught less formally. In constituencies such as mine, we see a wide range of national and regional dance from around the world. Of the millions of people who participate in dance in the UK each year, many do so because it is part of their cultural heritage. At events in my constituency, including the many cultural festivals that take place most weekends, I see the range of dance styles being taught. Dance in Britain truly reflects the diversity of our society. One of the biggest growth areas in the UK is street dance, which is taught by peers. Interestingly, this dance form has increased the participation of young men, and must be welcomed. We should not try to stem the creativity of this more informal type of dance teaching.
However, there are serious issues associated with the capability of dance teachers. Whatever the genre, there are issues that all teachers need to be aware of: protection against the abuse and injury of children; the need for dance teachers to be insured; and, of course, a minimum standard of teaching skill. Many schools and youth agencies struggle to find teachers with the necessary skills and qualifications. Employers can be confused by the array of dance qualifications, which do not clearly highlight which teachers have the skills and qualifications necessary to teach safely, in line with current child protection standards.
It is fair to say that the dance sector recognises this issue and has taken significant steps in the past decade to self-regulate the quality of teaching. In the short time that I have today I cannot mention all the initiatives, but schemes such as the recognised school status introduced by the Council for Dance Education and Training at the end of last year, together with dance qualifications offered by the Imperial Society of Teachers Of Dancing, the Royal Academy of Dance, the British Ballet Organisation and the British Theatre Dance Association, all of which are accredited by recognised bodies, contribute to the safety of the growing number of young people taking up dance.
However, there is no national standard of qualification for dance teachers. Achieving a single qualification would be difficult, but a minimum required standard for teachers is essential. Despite the various accreditation schemes for different dance genres, there is no easy way for parents who take their children to a dance class to be sure that their child is in safe hands. As many dance teachers are self-employed, there is no one regulatory body that ensures that these individuals have a Criminal Records Bureau check or public liability insurance. I suspect that most parents are not aware of that. We need to make it easier for people to know what they are buying into, as well as ensuring that professional development is improved. I hope that teachers would welcome that, too.
Recently, work has been begun by the dance sector on generic standards. Laban has introduced a training and accreditation project, with the aim of developing a flexible qualification and the Foundation for Community Dance has launched a strategy for the development of a professional framework, including a code of conduct. That is the best hope to date of achieving a recognised common standard.
Dance UK is one of the umbrella groups for professional dancers and choreographers in the UK and it is very positive about the support that the Government have provided to boost dance as an art form. The Government have improved facilities through investment in projects such as the new Sadler’s Wells, which is close to my constituency, and through funding for organisations such as Youth Dance England and individual companies to expand their education work. Now is the time to ensure that the continuing growth in the popularity of dance is matched by, at the very least, consistency of quality at the grass roots.
Youth Dance England receives £100,000 a year compared to Youth Music’s £10 million a year. I applaud the money given, but if we are to see good quality teaching of dance, the inequity between the two arts needs to be tackled. The issue of basic standards for dance teachers is not difficult to resolve, and I urge the Government and the British dance movement to work together to ensure that there is wider understanding and recognition of the benefits of dance.
Consumers who take up dance, be they parents, children or adult learners, need to know what they are getting. The Government have made friends in the world of dance, but they now need to press for industry-wide core standards by highlighting best practice and demanding more. If the current self regulation still leaves some dance professionals without a basic set of core standards, stronger steps may be necessary. I ask that the Government recognise the steps that the dance movement is taking and work with it to bolster that progress, so that consumers are protected; dancers, particularly children, are safe; and we have a minimum standard of qualification for teachers of dance.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Meg Hillier, Mr. Frank Doran, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Lynne Jones, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, Harry Cohen, Mr. Andrew Slaughter, Joan Ruddock and Bob Russell.
Dance Teachers (Qualifications and Regulation)
Meg Hillier accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the regulation of the teaching of dance; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 67].
OFFENDER MANAGEMENT BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO. 2)
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Order of 11th December 2006 (Offender Management Bill (Programme))
be varied as follows—
1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order shall be omitted.
2. Proceedings on consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.
3. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
Proceedings Time for conclusion of proceedings New Clauses and amendments relating to polygraph conditions in licences; New Clauses relating to preparation of plans by probation trusts; amendments relating to consultation about the provision of probation services; amendments relating to the composition of probation trusts 1½ hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order New Clauses and amendments relating to restrictions on arrangements for provision of probation services 3½ hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order. Remaining proceedings on consideration 6.00 p.m.
Time for conclusion of proceedings
New Clauses and amendments relating to polygraph conditions in licences; New Clauses relating to preparation of plans by probation trusts; amendments relating to consultation about the provision of probation services; amendments relating to the composition of probation trusts
1½ hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order
New Clauses and amendments relating to restrictions on arrangements for provision of probation services
3½ hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
Remaining proceedings on consideration
4. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 7.00 p.m.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]
I note that the Government have sought to bring forward a further programme motion in relation to debate on this important issue. We know that the Government have been in difficulties with their own side, therefore it is hardly surprising that certain key aspects of the Bill and the debate thereon will be curtailed by the programme motion. That is a pity, as we need a full debate on those matters. However, in the interests of ensuring that that debate is prolonged, I will curtail my comments, save to note the Government’s attempt to limit debate by hon. Members of certain key aspects of this important Bill.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for keeping his remarks brief. The programme motion is designed to ensure that we give adequate time to all the issues. This is an important Bill, as recognised on both sides of the House, and I look forward to an interesting and exciting debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Offender Management Bill
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.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.